Finding inspiration in a 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate

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Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

Over the last week or so, I’ve been thinking about why I went into the field of education. This is the type of reflection that typically happens around my birthday. The whole, “Why am I here and what the heck am I really doing?”

My answer was swift and to the point, “Education is a human right. It has the power to transform lives, lift people out of current circumstances, and propel human progress. Education is the life-blood of humanity.” To be clear, that is the power of education, not me. I’m just a guy that does some things from time to time.

However, the true power of life and of education came into even greater focus when Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and a teenager, became the youngest ever to win a Nobel Prize at age 17. I had known about her story, certainly, but given my life ponderings it was a powerful reminder of the transformative nature of education.

For those that are not familiar with her story, Malala is known for human rights and education advocacy in her home region of Pakistan where the local Taliban had, at times, banned girls from attending school. Malala’s advocacy has since grown into an inspirational, international movement. In early 2009, when she was 11 or 12, she wrote a blog, using a pseudonym, for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban rule, their attempts to take control, and her views on educating girls. This advocacy led to a New York Times documentary about her life, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu, and was awarded the National Youth Peace Prize. However, in October 2012, Malala boarded her school bus in the northwest Pakistani district of Swat. A gunman asked for her by name, then pointed a pistol at her and fired three shots. Malala, ever the fighter, survived as did her message of the power of education. She was quoted as saying, “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”

With that poignant reminder of education as a basic right, United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of England, launched a UN petition in Malala’s honor demanding the following:

  • We call on Pakistan to agree to a plan to deliver education for every child.
  • We call on all countries to outlaw discrimination against girls.
  • We call on international organizations to ensure the world’s 61 million out-of-school children are in education by the end of 2015.

This petition helped shape the ratification of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill. Malala’s message not only changed opportunities for her home region but all of Pakistan and potentially the world.

We have universal, public education in the United States. However, we take it for granted and we struggle mightily to reach all children. We are still leaving children behind each and every day. We see bright eyes dim just as we see lives transformed. We see students fall deeper into the grips of poverty just as we see students graduate to become the first in their family to walk across a stage to earn a degree. We have an uneven dream in our country. Augustine once wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are and the courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” We need to collectively have the anger, courage and hope to insure that all of our children have access to an education that helps them fulfill their potential and their dreams.