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September 14, 2005:

Peter Smith ’68

U.N. education chief Peter Smith ’68 aims to help countries build teacher-training colleges and reduce illiteracy.

Educating 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 recalls.

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] try harder.”

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, or UNESCO.

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.