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Thomas Jefferson and a 16 year old vs. Islamists

(Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a series on the importance of a proper education.)

If only every 16 year old had the courage and grit of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for advocating girls’ and women’s education.

Last Friday, she spoke to the United Nations and told them that education could change the world, Reuters reported.

I would add it is also an absolutely essential ingredient to establish or maintain any free people and society.

Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Pakistan is not alone in dealing with extremists’ assault on education. Tragically, on July 6, Islamists shot and killed 42 people – including 29 students and one teacher – at a boarding school in northeast Nigeria. It was one of three such school killing sprees since May, when the military began its crackdown on the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, whose nickname translates as “Western education is sinful” in the northern Hausa language.

Malala explained to the U.N., “They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed, and out of that silence came thousands of voices.”

She added, “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

Aren’t those some riveting truths and, even more, a rallying cry to continue to fight tyranny over the human mind and spirit? When courageous souls are willing to confront strongholds, they can overcome any adversity and change any culture.

And here’s where Malala’s mission and mercy ramps up: “I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Taliban who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him.”

Let’s remember that she’s not fighting a war on terror from without. Her mission is for education, freedom and reform from within. And that’s the most potent type of warfare and transformation for individuals and society.

Reuters noted that Pakistan has 5 million kids who don’t attend school. Only Nigeria outnumbers it with nearly double that number not attending school, according to the U.N.’s own cultural agency, UNESCO.

In 2010, the Guardian reported, “Girls are far less likely to attend school than boys in many of the world’s poorest countries, the authors have found. In Malawi, of those that enroll, 22.3 percent of boys complete primary compared to 13.8 percent of girls. In rural Burkina Faso, 61 percent of girls are married by the age of 18 and over 85 percent never get to see the inside of a secondary school.”

Last week, Malala presented U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with a petition signed by some 4 million people. It’s an appeal for leaders everywhere to ensure that the 57 million children around the world who do not attend schools are provided a safe and clear path to be educated by funding new teachers, schools and books as well as ending child labor, marriage and trafficking.

Malala is a warrior wiser than any extremist leader. She knows the Taliban members are afraid of educated women because they know that women’s freedom means their loss of control and demise. They fear women will know the truth and the truth will set them free.

In her own words, she said, “The extremists were and they are afraid of books and pens, the power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. … We realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”

Thomas Jefferson would have concurred with Malala about the power of education. In his 1818 report for the University of Virginia, which he founded, he asked, “What but education has advanced us beyond the condition of our indigenous neighbors? And what chains them to their present state of barbarism and wretchedness but a bigoted veneration for the supposed superlative wisdom of their fathers and the preposterous idea that they are to look backward for better things and not forward, longing, as it should seem, to return to the days of eating acorns and roots rather than indulge in the degeneracies of civilization?”

He wrote the same year, “If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated [or improved], as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.”

As the 16-year-old Pakastani warrior told the U.N.: “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

At very least, maybe it’s time for global powers – especially the U.S. – to relearn the wisdom of Malala and Thomas Jefferson: that freedom and democracy is spread and embedded more by the weapons of books and pens than the weapons of warfare.

(In Part 2, I will answer: Is today’s U.S. public education system what Jefferson envisioned?  And when does education slide down the slippery slope to indoctrination and even bully education?)

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