November 20, 2009
What would inspire the retired NATO supreme commander and retired top brass of the US military to form Mission: Readiness, an organization devoted to promoting early childhood education? At present, seventy-five percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are unable to enlist in the military because they fail to graduate high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit. These military leaders recognize that the trajectory of young people is set very, very early and are lobbying hard for high quality early education programs – particularly for the most at-risk children in order that there might be at least a few ready, willing and able to serve in the armed forces.
Why do economists care about early education?
In the world of economics, James Heckman has earned a Nobel Prize for demonstrating the economic sense of investment in early education. He has shown with remarkably clarity how early childhood predicts future education, health, and social outcomes (including incarceration, welfare dependency and single pregnancy) of children. Furthermore, he has shown just how much more effective early intervention is than later remediation. One study showed a ten-fold return on investment spent on 0 to 3 year olds.
Three Nobel Prizes
There is something to be learned from Heckman’s Nobel prize, and that of two other recent Nobel laureates. Muhammad Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in global microfinance. Yunus’ bold vision was to alleviate poverty not by giving to the poor, but by lending to them – providing essential start-up capital for small business ventures, and the support structure to enable repayment. Yunus’ approach treated the poor not merely as objects of pity, but as responsible persons who could participate in a reciprocal relationship of borrowing and repayment. They were not just the recipients of hand-outs; they were people with real human dignity who could, with very modest loans, provide for themselves and their families.
Muhammad Yunus and the three R's
Three R’s characterize Yunus’ work: responsibility, respect, and reciprocity. He assumed that the poor could take on the responsibility for a small loan. He offered them the respect and dignity of treating them as meaningful agents of change rather than helpless recipients of aid. And, of course, in the form of a loan, there was built-in reciprocity. It was loan and repayment, not grant and request for another grant. Yunus’ innovation and courage is richly deserving of the Nobel Prize he received.
Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize not for a creative approach to poverty alleviation, but for his insistent announcement of An Inconvenient Truth. Refusing to be silenced by the political and scientific establishment, Gore raised the profile of global climate change to make it a top-tier issue for virtually every nation on the planet. Like Yunus, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of his innovation and courage. He simply wouldn’t stop preaching his “inconvenient truth.”
What courageous innovation is needed now?
The combined work of these three Nobel laureates forms a vortex inviting someone to announce the inconvenient truth about the educational crisis: that parents bear the primary responsibility for the education of their children – and therefore are the primary stakeholders in addressing the education crisis. Like Gore’s climate change thesis, it is not one that is easily accepted because it challenges the establishment and undermines prevailing assumptions. Like Yunus, it suggests that the way to meaningful change is to respect the dignity of human beings in crisis by treating them as responsible, and entering into a truly reciprocal relationship. It takes the groundbreaking research of James Heckman in economics and applies his maxim that “early advantages accumulate; so do early disadvantages” to the formation of human virtue.
These are the claims which I am venturing; they are contentious and, Seth Godin would (I hope) charge, heretical. My aim is not a Nobel Prize for pioneering fundamental change in addressing the educational crisis any more than Mohammed Yunus was motivated by a Nobel Prize in his work on microfinance. Rather, like Yunus, my motivation is to address a seemingly intractable problem by suggesting that our assumptions are flawed and that a courageous commitment to respectful, reciprocal responsible relationship is not only innovative but essential to catalyzing real and meaningful educational change. Although this is an inconvenient truth, it is the only way to restore the dignity of parents.