Governor Buddy Roemer addressed the Louisiana Literacy Forum Saturday, April 21, 1990. The following is the text of his remarks.
It is a pleasure to be here with you at the Louisiana Literacy Forum 1990, and I did want to come, for a couple of reasons. First of all to say thank you for what you are attempting to do. As I see it, it’s several things simultaneously.
First of all to focus public attention. To make us more aware of what the potential is for knowledge. I can remember as a youngster—I’m not that old, I can still remember as a youngster—in school, being posed the classic question of, in a forest when a tree falls, is a sound made if no one is there to hear it? And the truth is, there isn’t. The same is true with life. If you are not able to share who you are, what your dreams are, what you stand for. If you are not able to share where the lines are beyond which you will not cross. If you are not able to cause in others a feeling of team work and movement and unity, life’s pretty lonely and progress is pretty slim.
That’s what literacy is about; it’s about sharing. It’s about developing skills in communication and the fundamentals of reading and writing, through which as our individual knowledge grows, we can share. It can be a businesswoman sharing in the workplace with her employees as the nature of her business changes.
There is an alternative. Fire the employees you have and go hire some new ones that are already trained for the new skill. Now that’s dysfunctional. That’s not in anyone’s long-term best interest. Sharing and literacy are the same word, and they relate to the workplace. They relate to community efforts. They relate to the environment. They relate to the quality of our elected leadership. The principles relate to the humanities, to our past, and to our future.
I came today to say thank you for bringing public attention, yet again, to what we need to do in our state. Every state needs it, but we’re responsible only for our own state. For those of you from Mississippi and surrounding states, I’ll add one or two other states. It begins at home and I thank you for pointing out the need.
Second, I thank you for being positive in your approach. Too many conferences which I have attended in the past point out all the problems and have no plan, no blueprint, no call for action. I get a different feeling here. I read the paper this morning. What two positive articles in the paper! I started early this morning and I started with the Morning Advocate, which is sometimes a dangerous thing to do. But I did it. I turned to the Metro section and there was a positive article on your conference of yesterday. I turned to the Business section and there was a very positive article, featuring the AFL/ClO and business leadership, about the need for workforce and workplace literacy. Positive things, and second of all I wanted to thank you for that.
I find, and I come to this conclusion the hard way, I find that the most powerful, the most energetic, the most long-lasting things, always come to town on a positive vehicle. Usually I don’t see progress on the bed of an empty, noisy wagon. Squeaking and whining. I usually see it mounted in a pretty firm way on a vehicle that will move positively across the landscape. It’s important to this community. It’s important to the communities across our state.
Now I would like to stop here and say we will continue your progress. That’s my commitment. I didn’t say I would continue it, we will. The skills learned here, the ideas exchanged here, I expect to from hear you. About positive, specific things that we might accomplish. We’ll keep it alive, starting with a workplace/workforce literacy conference. We’ve asked four business leaders to come to the Office of Literacy’s Workplace Conference to talk about what they’re doing in the workplace to prepare their workers for the changes that are coming faster and faster. Because the pace of change is accelerating. That will be Jim Wilhite from ARKLA Gas, and Robert Howard from Shell Offshore, both of which are planning major expansion offshore and need workers. What’s Shell doing about it? We’re going to hear what we might do to help. Also coming is Jim Dezell, vice president of IBM. IBM and Xerox are two of the finest companies in the country in terms of workforce literacy. He’ll talk about what they do. Finally we’ll have Jim Bob Moffett from Freeport-McMoRan, a company that profits a great deal in this state from our natural resources. I’d like to find out what they do in terms of giving back to their workers in terms of work place literacy. It’ll be an exciting conference.
Finally, in this upcoming session of the legislature and beyond, we’re going to work with you, as individuals and as a team, to try to promote some specific projects that are in the interest of our children and our workers. Now it’s been said by men and women smarter than I, more experienced, that the battle for the next century begins right now, and it doesn’t begin on a political rostrum or in a military camp. A professor from Columbia told me some six years ago when I was a member of Congress; I was part of and helped form an organization called the Clearinghouse of the Future. We would bring speakers in from all over the world to speak to, unfortunately, what was a handful of congressmen, although the entire Congress was invited. One day we had a professor from Columbia, his name is Robert Jastrow: John Kennedy had picked him to start the Goddard Space Center in 1961.
Professor Jastrow talked about the 21st century. He thought it would be a competition between Japan and America for, in effect, domination of the world. We asked him where would the battle field be. Would it be in nuclear weapons? Would it be in balanced budgets? Would it be in tax rates? Would it be in who was president or who was premier or prime minister? He said no, he said the battle would be in the classroom and in the work place, because Japan and America would both discover that there would always be somewhere that they could make it cheaper. So Japan and the United States have to make it better, faster, and with more flexibility. That means that our work force must be more literate.
Jastrow added to that the fact that in the course of a worker’s life, he or she could expect to change job definition—maybe not change the company for which they work—but change job definition at least seven times. Seven times in their lifetimes. So, he said, it’s not vo-tech schools, although they’re important; it’s not PhD. programs, although they’re important. He said it’s not training to the ultimate. It’s preparation in the broad foundation that will determine our ability to change with the world. Could you have imagined two years ago, that the Soviet Union and the United States would declare peace, or that the Berlin Wall would come down?
I was in France last November when that happened. I mean, you should have seen the people in the streets and heard them. Unbelievable!! That kind of change is accelerating and Professor Jastrow’s comments are as alive today as they were six years ago. That’s what literacy is about. It’s about the broad foundation. It’s not about training doctors, it’s about having doctors who can read and write and communicate. It’s not about nuclear scientists, it’s about us. So that we can choose to be a nuclear scientist if we so desire.
So finally I came today to say that our challenge is clear and it’s everybody’s business, the humanities, the English department, the arts, the librarians, the businessmen, the businesswomen, the politicians, the taxpayers. It’s all of our business this time. You could not pick a subject, you could not, that relates to everyone’s health, mental and physical, and everyone’s future like this one does.
I’m excited by the challenge. I asked Dr. Jastrow at the end of our two-hour session with about twenty members of Congress, I said, who will win? Will the 21st century be American or Japanese? He thought for a second, because it’s not clear. He said it will be American. I said why. He said because of the diversity in our culture. The tension that comes from our differences. We are not a homogenous society. That’s an advantage. What does literacy teach us more than anything else? To value the differences. It’s a winner.
Buddy Roemer served as the 52nd governor of Louisiana from 1988–1992.