chief Peter Smith ’68 aims to help countries build teacher-training
colleges and reduce illiteracy.
the masses Peter Smith ’68 focuses on a world stage
One day, a history professor stopped a young, distracted Peter
Smith ’68, then a Princeton sophomore, after class.
“He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said, ‘If
you get serious you could amount to something,’” Smith
Smith, slowly developing an interest in education policy, saw
in the encounter — and the rest of his classes at Princeton
— the power of personal relationships in learning. And he
saw how it was missing for the talented but underperforming students
in Trenton he tutored on the weekends.
“Many students fail in school not because they lack the
capacity to learn, but because the schools lack the capacity to
educate them effectively,” says Smith, who has served as president
of two U.S. colleges. “It’s like being a diabetic and
having someone tell you to forget about the insulin — [just]
Today, Smith is taking his lessons from Princeton about promoting
personal relationships and improving education systems to a global
lectern. In July, he became the assistant director-general for education
at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,
The first American to serve in the position, Smith, based in Paris,
works to improve school systems in more than 50 developing countries,
from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Close to a billion people worldwide
cannot read at a third-grade level, and with a dire shortage of
qualified teachers, children in many of the poorest countries are
lucky if they make it through overcrowded primary schools, much
less develop the skills needed for higher education. Under Smith’s
watch, UNESCO will help countries build teacher-training colleges,
develop curricula to help combat AIDS, and, he hopes, drastically
reduce the ranks of the illiterate poor.
He already has made his mark in America. At 24, fresh from Harvard’s
master’s program in education, Smith founded the Community
College of Vermont. After eight years as its president, Smith spent
the next two decades bouncing between education and politics, interspersing
terms as a Vermont state senator, lieutenant governor, and U.S.
congressman with high-level administrative jobs at universities,
picking up a doctorate in education from Harvard along the way.
In 1995, he became founding president of California State University
at Monterey Bay — a school, Smith says, where individualized
instruction is a necessity because of the diverse backgrounds of
its students, many of whom are from immigrant families.
At UNESCO, the challenge is to make such personal inroads millions
of times over, Smith says. And this time, he says, the stakes are
higher: “If people are hungry and angry and illiterate, the
world is a more dangerous place for everybody. This is a life-and-death
issue in my perspective.”
By Justin Nyberg ’01
Justin Nyberg ’01 is a writer for Outside Magazine in
Santa Fe, N.M.