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Dr. Burton Blatt, Syracuse University
March 1984 Speech at Holiday Inn Airport, Pittsburgh, PA

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six

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The meanness isn't only in the government. I see it everywhere.

I chair a committee at our university on the Honorary Degrees Committee, we give honorary degrees. I want to tell you an incident about a year ago.

The Nobel Laureate Mother Teresa was proposed for an honorary degree by a professor. And the proposal came to the committee and discussion ensued. And one professor, a very distinguished professor, so he is wont to tell anyone who would listen, objected vehemently to Mother Teresa receiving an honorary degree from Syracuse University.

So I, being a curious sort, wanted him to explain what his objection was. And in my preparation for his answer I thought, well, it might be that he didn't like the way she went into Lebanon a year or so ago and was critical of certain groups. But that wasn't the objection. I don't think there would anybody in this room who could figure out why this fellow objected to Mother Teresa receiving an honorary degree. It wasn't because he's anti-Catholic or anti-nun, or anti-feminist. No, Mother Teresa doesn't publish.

So you see, there's… there's lunacy everywhere. Even in our field, even in the field of developmental disabilities. But as my old economics teacher Mr. O'Toole used to say, "Too bad about prohibition, but it's better than no drinking at all." And I say, too bad about the way our field is, but I guess it's better than not having any field at all. Used to be called mental retardation, now they say developmental disabilities, for whatever reason.

By the way, if at the end of my harangue with you now and later, if there's anyone in this room I haven't insulted, I apologize, and if you see me after the talk, I'll be glad to try to make amends.

I read a few days ago in the Times, the New York Times, there was a… one of these retrospective articles on this Kitty Genovese. Do you remember that case in New York? A woman 20 years ago, just 20 years ago, was coming home from work in a well-traveled part of Long Island. She was attacked and repeatedly knifed and she screamed out for help and windows opened and closed and lights opened and closed and nobody came to help her. Do you remember that?

And the article was an analysis of the society then and the society today, would we today close the light, pull the shade if we heard people in need, if we heard a voice scream out for help, and the jury's out. What do you think? I don't know. I don't know if we're any more sensitive to other people and their needs today than 20 years ago or 50 years ago or 500 years ago. I ask you why.

Well, as I went into Hancock Field this morning, that's our airport in Syracuse, I saw a great big sign. I've seen that sign for I don't know how many weeks, and you've seen this sign too. You've either seen it in the airport or you've seen an advertisement in the newspaper. But this morning, that sign hit me.

And I was trying to think about something other than my ear, so my mind was trying very hard to work this morning. Sometimes it does it, and sometimes I just sort let the mind alone, relax, when my ear doesn't hurt. When your ear hurts, you try to do other things so your ear doesn't hurt, and so I had to think, which is almost as painful as an ear.

What was the sign? It was an advertisement by the United Negro College Fund and it said something like… I scribbled it down. "A mind not used is a terrible waste." You ever see that sign? "A mind not used is a terrible waste." Well, there's something very ennobling about that statement and it's supposed to engender dollars, checks, contribution to the United Negro College Fund.

But there's another side to that. And the other side to that is also why we're killing Baby Doe. Listen to what it says, "A mind not used is a terrible waste." What about somebody who doesn't have much of a mind? I mean, you know, there's some of those Baby Does who the long and the short of it is they don't have much of a mind and they're not as smart as you are, right? I mean isn't that the long and the short of it?

We see those signs everywhere we go. Not just the United Negro College Fund, but everywhere we go, everything we do, we're told, "A mind not used is a terrible waste." A weak mind, you deserve to die, your life could be snuffed out. A damaged mind, we could put you in the institution.

But you have a strong mind, you go to a university. You're gonna serve society, you're gonna make your momma and your daddy proud of you. You're gonna make America proud of you. We're gonna finally beat the Japanese and have a better automobile.

What are we saying? Why are Americans buying Japanese cars? Read the papers. Because American children in the third grade are reading second grade work. That's why Americans are buying Japanese cars.

Now you gotta figure that out. It isn't because Japanese make a better car, that's not the reason. It's because kids don't read well in the elementary school. And you read, you read those reports, the crisis in American education. The nation at risk. Read the reasons why America isn't competing in the common market with Japanese industry. Because our kids can't read.

Read why young people aren't working, why there are hundreds of thousands of young people out of work in America today. It isn't because the steel mills are closed in Pittsburgh. Has nothing to do with it. It's 'cause they didn't learn to read and write in the schools. That's why, that's why they're not working. If American children knew how to read and write, they'd be working.

And we'd make better cars. The reason the Japanese make better cars is 'cause their children know how to read and write more than the American children know how to read and write. That's what they're saying.

So what's the analysis? You don't read and write, you're a lousy kid and you're unpatriotic and your mother and father stink too. It's a terrible waste. It's a terrible waste.

Everywhere you go. Everywhere you go, you hear the same story. Gotta be smart, gotta get ahead, you gotta be better, gotta be rich. You gotta accumulate, and if you're weak, you're no good. And you have a patriotic duty to go against the wall so we can shoot you.

The Governor of Colorado said. The Governor of Colorado said. And I'm asking you, is this what you want? Is this what you want America to be? Because this is what's you're getting.

Audio: 1984 Speech National AAMD
Listen (with Transcript)

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Burton Blatt Bio

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