In his powerful and eloquent Nobel Prize lecture, President Obama, exploring the chasm between our hopes for peace and the reality of war, exhorted his audience to continue striving for a just and peaceful world.
“. . . We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. . .
“Let us reach for the world that ought to be. . .”, the president said.
Obama’s speech was inspiring but short on details for those of us who don’t control the levers of state. How do we “reach for the world that ought to be” in an era of airplane bombers with explosives in their underwear or shoes? What can the average citizen do to help bring about peace on earth and goodwill to all men (and women)?
Dr. Helene Gayle, who heads CARE, believes her Atlanta-based agency has one answer: build schools in the world’s troubled regions, including Afghanistan. Educating children, including girls, helps to lift people from poverty, which, in turn, contributes to stability and peace.
Education is no peacemaking panacea, of course. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian suspected of attempting to blow up an American passenger jet on Christmas Day, is well-educated, having grown up in a prosperous family. Similarly, Osama bin Laden grew up affluent and was given an education. Still, many experts on the developing world believe that only an educated citizenry can build the civil institutions that contribute to stability and respect for the rule of law.
In a country like Afghanistan, where tradition has long denied opportunity to women, educating girls is especially important. “In the end, having a more balanced society in Afghanistan is important to peace and security,” Dr. Gayle told me.
“One of our niche areas is setting up schools where girls can make up for times they’ve lost” during periods when the Taliban denied them education” she said. “We have classes that allow girls to catch up with their age cohort. We also make sure that things like toilet facilities for girls are provided.”
The most encouraging news about the schools that CARE supports in Afghanistan — nearly 300, so far — is that none of them have been attacked by the benighted forces that oppose girls’ education or by insurgents who have gone after schools built by the Afghan government. A report released last month by aid organizations and the Afghan government — “Knowledge on Fire: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan” — documented an “alarming trend” of violence against schools. As a result, hundreds of schools were closed and parents in some regions hesitated to send their children to schools that remained open.
Because of CARE’s community-based approach, Dr. Gayle said, “We’ve been able to keep our schools up and running. (Communities) feel that this is their school, not a government school.”
While Dr. Gayle worries that a return of the Taliban could once again eradicate girls’ schooling, she hopes that communities will push against that antediluvian view. “Hopefully, there’s been a long enough period of time when girls have been educated that families have seen the value,” she said.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Obama paid tribute to the power of education.
“Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, scrapes together what few coins she has to send that child to school — because she believes that a cruel world still has a place for that child’s dreams,” he said.
I don’t expect malevolent men to beat their swords into plowshares any time soon, but I haven’t given up my hopes for a less violent world. Supporting the modest ambitions of a mother who wants to educate her child — by supporting agencies like CARE (www.care.org) — is one of the ways that average citizens like me can keep alive the dream of peace on earth and goodwill to all.