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Joseph E. Robert, Jr.

February 13, 2008The Sulgrave Club, Washington, D.C.

Chairman and CEO
J.E. Robert Companies

Dean Gillis would never have believed this. As you may know, Mount Saint Mary’s threw me out as a freshman and that was the end of college for me. But let me thank you for this degree, which is meaningful to me for a couple of reasons. I genuinely appreciate and want to recognize the University’s generosity in giving me this degree.

So, let me begin by telling you a little of my story, and in the process I hope to tell you a larger story about education. For a long time, I was angry at Mount Saint Mary’s. I was also angry at St. Johns, the all-male military school where I barely graduated from high school. St. John’s tried to throw me out, but my mother somehow talked them into keeping me. If I had gone to public school, I know I wouldn’t be standing here today.  I was a troubled, angry young man.

At Mount St. Mary’s, I remained troubled and angry. The school, understandably, didn’t want to deal with my attitude, so it got rid of me in my freshman year ... seemingly with no regret as far as I could tell. This is not to say it wasn’t my fault—it clearly was, but I carried that dismissal inside me, and so initially I didn’t want an honorary degree from here.

Should the school have cared back then that I was struggling? Should it have done more? Many or maybe most people would say no. That’s not the role of education. Some people would say, “Joe, you got your act together. You’ve got millions. You’re standing up there getting an honorary degree. What’s the problem?&rdquo

And it’s true—if you trace the chain of subsequent events—getting thrown out of here was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. But at the time my life fell apart.

I was thrown out of college, which at least was someplace to be. I’d also been thrown out of my parents’ house. I wasn’t welcome there anymore, either. I had no job and was homeless for over a month until I upgraded to sleeping on a rotted mattress in a guy’s basement. I spent my time riding around with my buddies, drinking and doing things I shouldn’t have been doing.

One night, after partying, I fell asleep in the backseat of the car. When I woke up at 2 a.m., we were still driving around. And it’s as clear to me as if it were yesterday. I remember lying in the back seat and looking at my two friends in the front and thinking, “What am I doing with my life?” I said, “Carlos, drop me off.” The next morning I got up from my rotted mattress, hopped on my motorcycle and with $10 or $20 to my name left the basement life.

Now ... how did I know enough to ask myself that question—“What am I doing with my life?”

The one good thing I had going for me during this period was that I had continued to box. It was boxing, not education, that saved me. Boxing did three things for me. It gave me a sense of self-confidence that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. It taught me how to get knocked down and get back in the fight. And more than anything else, it taught me that success in life was not necessarily based on scoring the most punches but staying in the game. The educational system didn’t help me with any of that. I learned more about preparing for the future in the ring than in the classroom.

I was soon working for UPS in the morning and selling condos during the day—and I had a new car, new for me anyway, a ’63 Ford Falcon. The kids at the boxing gym and their mothers considered me enormously successful and the font of all wisdom. They would come up to me for advice—even things as simple as how to get a car loan. The kids were usually in some kind of trouble.

I was only 20 myself, but I started getting personally involved in the kids’ lives, which was a sad experience for me. I came to grips with how hard it is for kids to get out of the legal system once they’re in ... and how hard it is for them to right their lives.I came to grips with how the educational system was failing them. The author John Updike wrote, “So they provided jails called schools, equipped with tortures called an education.”[i] That is how all of us saw education.

Over the years, to help these kids overcome the traps of the educational and legal systems, I got involved in mentoring. The first boy I mentored went to jail for armed robbery. The second was murdered. I watched the kid I was closest to go from a troubled 12-year-old boy with a kindness in his soul to a hardened tough.

So, as an adult, looking back on my own struggle and, more importantly, looking at the struggle of the young men I saw our society losing, I became angry all over again. If someone had sat down with that kid who was me to find out what was troubling him ... if someone had been interested enough to find out where his anger was coming from ... if someone had cared enough to encourage him ... if someone had shown him there could be another way for him to go—perhaps it would have lessened some of the pain, which would have lessened some of the anger. Now, the question is whether it’s the role of education to address all this? Here’s a radical idea.  I believe it is.

If a child is too angry to learn, too defeated to learn, too distracted by life’s turmoil to learn, then it must become the role of education to change its approach and mentality so that it can address this pain. Not everyone needs to go to college, but everyone does need to be able to read and write and function in society.

Right now, the educational system may be making it worse. Constant failure is not a motivator. An inner city school in shambles reinforces in the child that she is not worthy. A school that doesn’t have books until the end of the semester reinforces in the child that her learning is not important.   

When I was younger, I would’ve probably laughed out loud at anyone who quoted Henry David Thoreau ... but he wrote something back in 1850 that I believe captures the problem with education today. He wrote, “What does education often do? It makes a straight-ditch of a free, meandering brook.”[ii]

Our public education system forces every child into a straight-ditch, when it is clear we have children who need to follow a more meandering brook.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need to accept that our nation’s urban school systems are broken, and we must be seriously committed to fixing them. They are pumping into society millions of kids who are functionally illiterate and unable to stand on their own two feet.

The District of Columbia has one of the worst public school systems in the country. 50% of the kids don’t graduate. Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the District of Columbia’s schools, is a great leader—determined, fearless, smart, passionate. But the problem is bigger than one remarkable leader.

Nationwide, it’s estimated that about half of African American and Hispanic students don’t graduate from high school. Overall, more than 1.2 million students failed to graduate last year. Over one in ten high schools are considered to be “drop-out factories.” I could fill up page after page giving you statistics on the economic and cultural consequences of this.

Our education system is not getting these kids to the starting line. Period. Underline. Exclamation point.

One of the problems is that we have a public school monopoly. If you read history or economics, you know monopolies do not work. And you can see the education monopoly crumbling under the weight of its own failures.

Someone once said, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.” Many years ago, the education monopoly ceased to learn, ceased to embrace change. We have an educational system in this country that provides choice to the middle class and the upper class—either through private schools or mobility. By mobility, I mean this. The single most important decision determining where people buy a house is what the school system is like.

Poor families have no choice. They are in educational lockdown.

For those of you with children, do you remember your 6-year-old’s first day of school? Remember all of your hopes and aspirations for that little boy or girl? You just knew they were ultimately going to graduate from a top university, win an Olympic gold medal and become President of the United States. Of course, eventually we realize our children are much like us—human!

Now imagine you are a black women with a son and you are barely making ends meet. You have the same hopes and aspirations for your son as those nice rich folks in the suburbs. But you cannot move, and your public school is a dismal failure. You take your son to his first day of school and as the principal greets you, you learn the tragic statistics of the children entering that day: your son has a less that 50% chance of graduating from high school. If he does graduate, he is likely not to be grade proficient in reading and math. And finally, you are told your son has a 75% probability of going to prison during his lifetime.  

And we permit this to go on.

I believe poor families should have the opportunity to send their children to a school that best fits each child’s needs ... rather than being forced to send the child to a one-size-fits-all-take-it-or-leave-it, failing public school.  

This choice can be achieved through charter schools, parochial schools or other private schools. It can be achieved through vouchers or tax credit scholarships. I don’t want to give a speech on the policy options.

So why are we wedded to a system of failure? Why are we wedded to the status quo? It has to do with power and vested interests. Let me tell you a story. The District of Columbia is the only place in the country where federal legislation has provided money for charter schools and scholarships to enable choice. This is the only federal program in the nation funding choice in K-12 education. It passed by a single vote in the House.

A number of congressmen pledged to me that they would vote for the bill. They caved in the face of pressure. One Democratic congressman left me a long voice message. He went on and on about how terrible he felt about it. He said, “I know I gave you my word but I want to keep my job.” On the voicemail he told me, “I will make an unprincipled vote.

What is unprincipled is not just that he was weak and went back on his word. What is unprincipled is that he put his career above children who needed someone with an ounce of courage. It was pathetic. So, you ask, where is the good news in all of this that I’ve been talking about? The good news about education is this. The problem is solvable. We know what to do. It is not a mystery.

In the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C., within two blocks of each other are two schools. One school is in chaos; it is barely performing. In fact, it is not performing. Two blocks away is another school, a Catholic school, where the children are polite. They are learning. Life is orderly. Same children, same neighborhood, different results.

All over this country there are schools in the worst neighborhoods surrounded by the drug culture, and yet these schools ARE educating our children. There are examples out there to give us hope and direction. I have also found good news in the children themselves. To throw up our hands and say they are from dysfunctional homes is an excuse. To say they are from bad neighborhoods is an excuse. Children want to do well. They just need help in realizing it. They need help in understanding how they can do well.

When I look back, I’m kind of surprised. Who would’ve thought a tough guy like me—who lived on a rotted mattress and loved to punch people in the face—would get so taken with children’s needs? And the reason I’m so proud to accept this honorary degree today is that I believe part of the reason Mount St. Mary’s is awarding it is because of my work on behalf of children. And that is fulfilling to me.

In a way, what I’ve been trying to do is to help change education, so that Mount St. Mary’s will be flush with qualified students who can take advantage of the education offered here in a way that I couldn’t. Given my history at the school, it is meaningful to me to gain your recognition. So thank you for this honor. Thank you for the work you are doing. You have my warmest appreciation and best wishes.

[i] The Centaur, John Updike, 1963
[ii] Journal, Henry David Thoreau, 1850

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