Lowell Milken: Speeches


Education Is The Answer

May 2, 1996

Lowell Milken
Milken Family Foundation

I believe I speak for everyone when I say that there is nothing—nothing—more important in this life than providing a secure future for our children. Yet, somehow, our power to fulfill this essential promise seems increasingly to elude us, and a crisis of many facets and great proportions looms. Is this a crisis of will? Of caring? I think not. Rather, it is a crisis of understanding, a matter of comprehending human needs and potentials clearly and in their entirety. It is a matter, too, of applying that understanding to the needs of our youth. And that is a matter every person here can affect. I believe, then, that we have great cause for optimism. But we must act swiftly, surely and together.

It was Emerson who observed that, "Our chief want in life is somebody who can make us do what we can." Many can respond to this "want," but the only ones who develop human potential and character as a calling are educators. This puts you, the men and women whose professional excellence this Conference honors—in a position of unique power for helping to secure the future. For I believe that what sets you apart among educators is the breadth and detail of your understanding of the character of which young people are made.

Our young people are our greatest natural resource. This is no euphemism. They are pure energy—rich in the way that a mineral is rich: giving off heat and light. Youngsters of middle and high school age generate a particular kind of energy—as this audience well knows. This energy flows from their eagerness, their creativity, their intellectual capability. It comes from the friction of behavior that moves from one extreme to the other. You see it every day, between being bold and shy, stubborn or cooperative, tough or tender. Among the many things that this energy flows into is the adolescent's capacity to test whatever's around that suggests a boundary: a curfew, say, or an adult. Forget about cramming for this test.

But, young people do light our way. Nurturing this resource is an immense responsibility requiring a huge investment from parents, society, and, yes, from educators. For if undeveloped for the better by people who care, this resource will be seized upon and developed for the worse by people who don't. This development occurs very quickly. It demands our full attention.

The core elements of security for our youth are well known to us all: A loving and supportive family, thriving communities and good health head the list; sound education, virtues of character, and gainful work are also essential. Before focusing on these essentials, there's another requisite of any discussion of a secure future, and that's a society that values and tells the truth.

This requirement does not, unfortunately, go without saying. Telling the truth and telling it in context is imperative not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because it determines how we think about and act on the other essentials. There are many explanations for the broad currency of hoaxes today, and most issue from the great unease about the political, social and economic future of our country.

And so the responsibility is ours to acknowledge and do something about these untruths and misperceptions. A society, for example, that allows students to think that a high school diploma or even a college degree guarantees meaningful work isn't telling the truth. There is no denying it. And a nation with the greatest resources in the world that says it hasn't got the funds to repair crumbling schools, establish firm standards or integrate technology into the teaching and learning process, can talk all it wants about valuing education, but it doesn't. There's no denying that either.

Denial makes every problem worse. It also makes us more susceptible to the hoax and its close relative, the false dichotomy, which is also distorting key debates. It is not true, for instance, that equity and excellence can't co-exist. And it is not true that reasoned opposition to bilingual education necessarily stands for insensitivity to the needs of other cultures. These formulations are flawed, and their wide appeal points to an unwillingness to grapple with tough issues and to think independently. And they are scarcely confined to the field of education. Those who say, for example, that to favor crime prevention programs over prison-building is to be "soft" on crime are perpetrating a hoax that is savaging our resources.

Educators in general, and you, in particular, are uniquely situated to impart the skills students need to discern the truth, make responsible sense of it, and engage in tolerant civil debate—analyzing and understanding the points of view of those we oppose. Because we are well aware that this task cannot be accomplished by any one group or interest, this call to action is directed to every person who has come here today to strengthen the nexus of education, community, economic security and physical and spiritual well-being.

We've seen how the messages once delivered by parents and teachers and reinforced by the community have been intercepted and scrambled, leaving youngsters to figure out for themselves what the messages really are. We've seen, too, how the fear and loneliness of the melted-down family have made their way into the community and surfaced as indifference, resentment and fear. We've seen, in short, a run on the store of social capital that connects people and upholds communities.

We have also seen how every disease and disability is a family concern, and that for all the programs, medical research needs immense support if we are serious about not leaving our children a legacy of disease.