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What do we want for all the children?

Albert Camus’ cri di couer on behalf of children is famous, in part because it was so often repeated by the late Sen. Robert Kennedy. Camus said: “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured, but we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you do not help us, who else in the world can help us to do this?”

Relatively few people recall, however, to whom the “you” in the quote refers. Camus was addressing a group of French Dominicans in 1948 on the subject of “The Unbeliever and Christians.” He had been asked to explain what unbelievers expect of Christians, and his answer was simple: to join the fight for suffering humanity.

“What I know -- which sometimes creates a deep longing in me -- is that if Christians made up their minds to it, millions of voices -- millions, I say -- throughout the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly.”

This week, NCR is blessed to hear from two of those “isolated individuals,” two crusaders, whose ceaseless interventions on behalf of children issue a similar challenge to the Christian conscience.

Arthur Jones offers a profile of Marian Wright Edelman, whose leadership of the Children’s Defense Fund has made her a moral hero to millions of Americans. Edelman told Jones she is fed up with seeking solutions from within the political system.

“It is time for the mothers and the grandmothers to say to the men in power: ‘Get out of the way. We will no longer permit the public killing of our children. We will no longer talk of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on Star Wars anti-missile systems when kids are dying like flies. We will no longer see our children treated unfairly -- whether it’s health care or child care,’ ” she said.

Edelman talks about launching a national movement, and she seems willing to pay the political price. She said she is ready to challenge her traditional allies, friends in education and health care more concerned with maintaining their own employment than with shaking up institutions that are obviously not educating children, not feeding them or making them well, not lifting them out of poverty.

Like Edelman, author Jonathan Kozol has spent a lifetime demanding that America repent its systemic neglect of children. The special education issue on page 29 opens with a lengthy excerpt from Kozol’s new book, Ordinary Resurrections.

In earlier works such as Death at an Early Age and Savage Inequalities, Kozol exposed public education as the last form of de jure discrimination in this country. As others talk about walking across a bridge to the 21st century, Kozol has refused to forget that educational policy in America is stuck in the 19th century -- our schools have yet to catch up to the 1892 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision and its doctrine of “separate but equal.” American public education, as it stands, is both separate and unequal.

In his new work, Kozol strikes a gentler note, talking with children about their religious beliefs. Yet without even trying, Kozol’s book is, in its own way, an indictment. Knowing the beauty within these children, the imagination and the verve and the passion that pulses in them, how can we abandon them as we do? How can we allow them to attend urban schools that are little more than warehouses, to go without medical care, to be gunned down in a culture awash in weapons?

The American philosopher and educator John Dewey once said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.” It is a noble ideal, and if Edelman and Kozol are heard on a wide scale -- especially if we Christians add our voices -- such an ideal could yet redeem our culture.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2000