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STANFORD—the United States is failing the “Bonhoeffer test,” which measures the morality of a society by the way it treats its children, Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, told a Stanford audience.


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 Nov. 30 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. “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 touched on 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.”


Harry Rathbun was a beloved business law professor on the Stanford Graduate School of Business faculty 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.

- Kathleen Sullivan

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Also on Stanford Knowledgebase:

  1. George Shultz reflects on a meaningful life, whether he wants to or not
  2. Steven Chu Urges Clean Energy Initiatives
  3. What Kids Should Know About Science

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