Lowell Milken: Speeches


For Ourselves and Our Posterity

June 26, 1997

Lowell Milken
Milken Family Foundation

I would like to speak with you about our relationship with children—not only as educators or parents; not only as individuals. But as a society. Many, many of our children are neither well-protected from harm nor well-prepared for opportunity. For all the United States' achievements, we still lack the effective system of early childhood care and education and K-12 education that would allow us to close the gap between what children need and what they're getting. Since caring for all children is an important part of the life of every person who has come here today, I want to put this matter before us and—together—suggest ways to help solve it.

By way of a preface, I'd like to tell you about something that has helped shape the Milken Educator Awards program that brings us together. It has to do with my father. And I believe it has to do with many of you.

While my father's profession was accounting and the concept of credit central to his work, the idea of crediting himself didn't cross his mind. His example of discipline and concern, diligence and love, added more than he ever knew to the lives of the people around him. But for him, this was all bestowed freely. There was no give and take. There was only give and give.

I believe this way of going about one's life and work characterizes all great educators. And it is a precious endowment not only for the children they teach but for all of us. This contribution to society and to posterity must be recognized.

I created the Milken Educator Awards program to provide that recognition: To honor outstanding professionals and to extend that honor—and credit—to the profession itself. Because when we celebrate excellence in education publicly and significantly, the profession gains respect; practitioners gain models of excellence; and students gain faith in the idea that learning in school is important. This strengthens education.

Commitment to excellence and to the good of children are qualities shared by everyone who has received this Award. So is the uniqueness of their commitments. For each recipient is a living lesson; each a lesson we should know. Together, these educators are providing a wide panorama of what's happening in American education today.

In 1987, we presented the first Milken Educator Awards—something we can all be proud of. For this program has evolved in ways that are making an important difference to how thousands of teachers, principals, state chiefs and other leaders are able to teach and guide, and to work with each other as they do so.

In 1982, my brother Michael and I created the Foundation. In essence, these two benchmarks are about human growth. They're also about what we've learned from our work in education and medicine, and especially about effective ways of preparing and protecting young people. For example, about the role of education technology; or the routes to a cure for epilepsy or cancer; the impact of a mentor; or the safe refuge of a youth center.

This past year [1997], for example, saw the opening of the City of Los Angeles-Tom Bradley-Milken Family Youth and Families Service Center in Watts—a famously distressed L.A. neighborhood. With an unemployment rate of 20 percent and half of its residents living below the poverty line,1 you can imagine what it's like for kids growing up there. We created the Center to provide a safe, welcoming place for young people and families to get together, learn, compete and have fun.

And, as of 1997, our Milken Festival for Youth program has served more than 850,000 children. With the participation of many Milken Educators and their students, Festival is helping thousands of children throughout the U.S. who have special needs, or who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to understand that everyone has something to contribute to help make a meaningful difference in the lives of others.

Each of these efforts—like the many other Foundation initiatives they represent—is about preparation, prevention or both, something essential for all young people and something essential for the adults in their lives to provide. Responding to these needs has always been a central concern of the Foundation and a deep concern of my own. Experience has taught me that to really understand the diverse needs of young people, you have to be in touch with them. Literally. You have to spend time with them, work with them, talk to them.

The healthy development of young children is a subject I think about a lot and continue to work on and research—not least through being with the youngest of our four sons who is two-and-a-half. While from the start, I welcomed the opportunity a baby gives his parents to "get it right," what two-and-a-half years with this boy has made clearer than ever is that a baby himself will get it right if he's given a chance. The innate desire of a child to know is so intense that it will blaze his way through a period of development second to none in its impact on how he'll proceed through life. And when that power is directed by a loving adult (or two or more), what takes shape is a child who is curious, eager, trusting and loving.

The brain power of the child deprived of care is no less. But directed by the force of neglect, it closes door after door of opportunity and leaves behind a child who is angry, fearful and disengaged. I hardly need describe the condition this creates before he or she ever arrives at school.

This condition is not confined to the nearly 15 million young people in this country who live in poverty. It extends to millions of others living under many conditions, for neglect, as we know, takes many forms.

It is not only wrong, but needless, that so many young people in the United States continue to live in peril. How has this happened? Extensive research and reflection point to a systemic cause: As a society, we neglect children.