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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks at BYU Thursday.

PROVO — The greatest challenge to the United States may not lurk in Middle Eastern caves, but in Midwest classrooms and the country's failing education system, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday at BYU.

"I would go so far to say that with all the other challenges we face — defending the country, advocating for democracy — our greatest national security threat just might be the disastrous state of our K-12 education system," Rice said to tremendous applause from the nearly 18,000 students, faculty and community members filling the Marriott Center.

Rice, who served for eight years under President George W. Bush, first as national security adviser and then as secretary of state, explained that the world is much more dangerous when the United States is not active in a leading role, which is what will happen if today's children are not educated and empowered.

Yet, that doesn't mean a renewal of the "self-esteem movement," which Rice dismissed as "not my cup of tea."

"Children need to recognize that self-esteem comes from doing something well," she said. "We need to reaffirm the importance of excellence for students and for teachers, for school leadership. There are a lot of great teachers; there's no tougher profession than being a good teacher. But if you're not a good teacher, get someone to help you or get out of the profession. Our children can't afford bad teaching."

And good teaching must be broad enough to include the arts, Rice said, adding that things like music and drama provide life-long skills and create well-rounded students.

Rice has been dedicated to education for many years, even founding a nonprofit educational program in California, "Center for a New Generation," aimed at boosting high school graduation rates for lower-income students and preparing them for college.

Education becomes important on a global scale as well because it is key to creating democracies, where empowered citizens can make important, civil decisions about their leaders.

"When you don't have democratic institutions in which people can resolve their differences peacefully, then you only have the option of violence," Rice said. "The great thing about democracy is that if we're too fed up with those who are governing us, we can throw the bums out. In an authoritarian system, you don’t have that safety valve. Authoritarians are … always more and more oppressive, because they're fearful of their own people."

Such is the case in countries like Afghanistan, where education, creativity and innovation are stifled by ruthless leadership.

"Despite the hard work there, and the dangers to our forces who are doing really tough work in helping the Afghan people secure themselves … we've got to complete that job," Rice said. "And we can't just complete it in any old way, we have to have a vision for the Afghan people.

That vision is democracy and a chance for education — just like that obtained by Rice's grandfather John W. Rice Sr., a young sharecropper who went to school on cotton payments then a scholarship to become a Presbyterian minister.

Ever since, the Rices have been Presbyterian and college-educated, Rice said with a smile.

"Can I say to the John Rices of today that it doesn't matter where you're coming from, it matters where you're going?" Rice asked. "That's a great challenge to us."

And that challenge is a call to students at BYU, and other great universities around the world, she said.

"With the transformative power of education, you have a responsibility," she told the students, then expanded on that during a Q&A session following her speech. She explained that such responsibility might mean getting involved with Teach for America, volunteering in schools as a mentor, or in simply being optimistic, an attitude that helps to curb the "entitlement" mentality.

"As educated people you have a responsibility to be optimistic," she said. "If you can't be optimistic given all the opportunities you have, then who can be?"

Rice spoke to a packed Marriott Center, some students arriving as early as 9:20 a.m. for the 11:05 a.m. lecture.

"She's just very articulate about explaining what's going on," said Britt Chapman, a graduate student in the MBA program whose early arrival earned him a front-row seat. "You feel like someone who is really intelligent (was) leading."

Rice's visit was met with about 15 protesters, who said they were demonstrating against her policies, which they said led to an immoral and illegal war with Iraq.

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"Iraq posed no threat to us, and so we feel like her war was criminal," said the group's leader, William Van Wagenen. "I saw the misery and the suffering that resulted from this war and experienced some of that misery myself.  I've had friends who have been killed and a lot of Americans don't know the misery and destruction this war has caused."

But overall, those who heard the speech said they were impressed with Rice.

On Friday, Rice, a classically-trained pianist, is scheduled to perform with the Muir Quartet at Stein Eriksen Lodge in Park City to benefit the Deer Valley Music Festival.

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com