Nobel Peace Prize -- for Education?

September 28, 2010

No one has ever won a Nobel Peace Prize for education. Click here and look for yourself. I can’t be alone in finding this embarrassing for all of us in education. Here in the nation with the self-proclaimed “finest higher education system in the world,” why hasn’t the Big Ten won the Nobel Peace Prize? Or the Ivy League? Or even the Little Three. The opposite of peace would be war and conflict. Isn’t war the ultimate failure to solve a problem by other means? Isn’t our job in education to teach people to solve problems of all sizes?

I wonder because today, again, begins the dark time of year for the world-changing, approval-seeking wannabes with whom I cast my lot. Today’s the day the MacArthur Fellows are announced. As of press time, I have to conclude that no phone call or photo request so far means I missed again. I’ve been here before. I am resilient. What keeps me going in this season is the knowledge that the Nobels are on the way in October, starting Monday.

These past 12 months have been perplexing. Since President Obama won his Nobel Peace Prize last year, though, I haven’t made any progress on my annual post-MacArthur questions: What would a Nobel Peace Prize for education look like? What would a Norman Borlaug-ian accomplishment by an educator be? I don’t have an answer, and the Nobels will pass by again. Someone out there must have an idea for education.

As a sometime English teacher, I like analogies and metaphors. Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Prize winner, put more grains of wheat on shorter stalks. That was a big step to reducing hunger and starvation in Mexico and Pakistan. Yes, Borlaug’s Green Revolution, which no one disputes fed millions, has critics. So does whole milk. Before my own critics howl, I do not mean that stuffing more students into smaller classrooms is the Nobel idea to consider. Borlaug’s idea, though, is the kind of global game-changer that perhaps we educators and columnists need to ponder.

I can’t see that any winners are better necessarily better thinkers than educators. In 2007, droning Al Gore won for just describing a problem – global warming. Winners from medicine, though, keep thinking beyond their laboratories and hospitals. The 1985 winner was International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. In 1999, the winner was Medicins sans Frontieres, "in recognition of the organization's pioneering humanitarian work on several continents." The 2005 winners were Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way." Why not a similar focused effort for education?

In 1947, the Quakers won. In 1917, the International Red Cross. What’s to stop a U.S. college or university from doing the same? Or at least a teacher with an education peace plan.

A pox on us all is the recurring Nobel Peace Prize theme of nuclear weapons. As if invention of the weapons in the first place weren’t already evidence that we teachers have room for improvement. In 1995, the winner was the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs -- "for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms." I keep thinking that we educators ought to have an answer by now, how to solve problems without even the threat of nuclear war.

My Nobel Peace Prize education contender is Nicholas Negroponte, for the scope and success of his project One Laptop Per Child. The mission statement has a peaceful ring: “To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning.”

I’m not hoping. The world declared Negroponte crazy for saying he could build a laptop for $100. That same world has now discredited him for having missed by 100% and coming in with a price of $200. I’ve tried one. They are great. I’ll do what I can to move Negroponte out of the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Hall of Fame. One Laptop Per Child, in my book (or hard drive) anyway, beats Al Gore any day. Negroponte is working on real solutions.

Thinking about all this last year in my office at Bunker Hill Community College, I looked up one day to find that 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum was arriving on campus that afternoon. After her talk, I asked what she made of the absence of any Nobel Peace Prizes for education. Through a translator, here’s what she said: “Everything in this world depends on education. All the people who have graduated, with formal educations, they are the ones who are the leaders. But with all the people who are harming the world, we need to take another look at how education focuses on the positive social mission. Part of the learning takes place in the classroom, but I’d move part of the learning out into the street, resolving conflicts, resolving conflicts, solving problems. If we have leaders who think only about war, well?”

I imagine the Nobel committee is wrapping up for this year. What can education have on the table for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize? Suggestions welcome below.

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