Longtime advocate for children urges Stanford audience to stand up for kids

As the 2011 Rathbun Visiting Fellow at Stanford, Marian Wright Edelman spent three days on campus this week meeting with small groups of students and delivered the fourth annual Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life.

Andrew Stiles / The Stanford Daily Marian Wright Edelman sitting in chair

Marian Wright Edelman delivered the lecture at the end of her three-day visit to campus as the 2011 Rathburn Visiting Fellow.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, told a Stanford audience Wednesday that the United States is failing the "Bonhoeffer test," which measures the morality of a society by the way it treats its children.

Edelman said she mentions Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Protestant theologian who died opposing the Holocaust, in almost every speech she gives.

She continued that tradition Wednesday when she delivered the fourth annual Harry's Last Lecture on a Meaningful Life, a yearly address that honors the late Stanford law Professor Harry Rathbun. The lecture was the culmination of her three-day visit to campus as the 2011 Rathbun Visiting Fellow.

"Bonhoeffer believed, and I share that belief, that the test of morality of a society is how it treats its children," Edelman said at the beginning of a 50-minute lecture in Memorial Auditorium that ended with a 15-minute question-and-answer period.

"The United States is failing Bonhoeffer's test every day, by permitting a child to drop out of school every 9 seconds a school day; to be abused and neglected every 42 seconds; to be born into poverty in our still very rich nation every 34 seconds; to be born without health insurance every 42 seconds; and to be killed by guns every three hours," Edelman continued.

"We have lost – since we began to document gun violence and children in 1979 – over 110,000 children to gunfire in America, more than all the U.S. battle casualties since World War II."

Edelman also cited grim statistics on the below-grade reading, writing and computing skills of black and Latino children in the United States, and on the high risk of imprisonment of black and Latino boys.

"Now these facts are not acts of God," she said. "They are our choices as human beings and American citizens. We can and we must change that."

She said it was time to break the cradle-to-prison pipeline, which she called the "new American apartheid," and transform it into a pipeline to college, "so that our children can have hope, and our next generations, rather than moving backward as they are, will be able to move forward and build a strong America of the future."

Edelman covered a wide range of topics in her address, including the income gap between rich and poor; nuclear disarmament; defense spending; the ongoing struggle for civil rights; the Occupy Wall Street movement; her childhood in South Carolina; the value of laughter and the solace of silence; and "lessons for life" from her 1993 book, The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours.

She asked many questions.

"What kind of people do Americans seek to be in the 21st century?" Edelman said. "What kind of people do we want our children to be? What kind of choices and sacrifices are we prepared to make to realize a more just, compassionate and less violent society and world – one safe and fit for every child?"

Edelman drew inspiration from the words and work of many, including Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery, but escaped and became an abolitionist and women's rights activist, and Martin Luther King Jr., the African American civil rights leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated in 1968.

She urged the audience – students, faculty, staff, alumni and invited guests – not to let anybody else define their lives.

"Struggle to figure out who you are," Edelman said. "You each have your own very distinctive DNA. I hope that you won't let anybody rain on your dreams."

She quoted the late Shel Silverstein, children's book author and illustrator, from his 1974 poetry book, Where the Sidewalk Ends: "Listen to the mustn'ts, child. Listen to the don'ts. Listen to the shouldn'ts, the impossibles, the won'ts. Listen to the never haves. Then listen close to me – Anything can happen, child, anything can be."

A visiting fellow visits students all over campus

Edelman, who arrived at Stanford on Monday morning, met with small groups of students each of the three days she spent on campus.

At the Center for Education Research at Stanford, the theme for a Monday morning discussion was "How do you choose a lifetime calling?" On Monday afternoon, Edelman sat in the Jackson Lounge in Branner Hall, a public service theme dorm, talking about what it means to live a good life. She dined that evening with Provost John Etchemendy and invited faculty, alumni, staff and students.

On Tuesday morning, Edelman, who traveled abroad as a student and advocates international travel for students, met with students who have traveled overseas – or are planning to – at the Bing Overseas Studies Program.

At the Black Community Services Center on Tuesday afternoon, Edelman, who is married to a Jewish man and is a mother and grandmother, discussed embracing multiple identities with students from the six campus community centers.

At the new Arrillaga Dining Commons on Wednesday, two dozen students – undergraduates, graduate students and professional students – with tickets to Harry's Last Lecture were chosen by lottery to join her for lunch in an event titled "One Course with Marian Wright Edelman." In groups of eight, they gathered around Edelman for one course – soup, main course or dessert – and conversation.

Harry's Last Lecture

Harry Rathbun was a beloved law professor who became known university-wide for setting aside his final course lecture to talk about the kinds of values and commitments that would lead students to a meaningful life.

It was a lecture he delivered each spring from 1929 through 1959, when he retired.

The Office for Religious Life at Stanford revived the "last lecture" tradition in 2008, establishing the Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life, named in honor of the late professor and his late wife. The fund was endowed with a $4.5 million gift from the Foundation for Global Community, which is headed by the Rathbuns' son, Richard Rathbun.

The purpose of the fund is to help Stanford students engage in self-reflection, moral inquiry and exploration of life's purpose, especially in commitment to the common good. Its centerpiece is a visiting fellow program that brings notable, wise and experienced people to campus each year.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gave the inaugural Harry's Last Lecture in 2008; followed by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz in 2009; and by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, in 2010.