Life’s Plan

By Scott London — January 11, 2018

SchopenhauerSchopenhauer, in a wonderful essay titled “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” observed that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your life, it can appear as if it had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that seemed random, accidental, or of no more than fleeting significance turn out to be indispensable factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggested that just as our dreams are composed by an aspect of ourselves of which we’re unconscious, or only dimly aware, so too our entire lives our composed by the will within us. And just as chance encounters can turn into lucky breaks and change the course of our lives, so too do we serve as unwitting agents of change in the lives of others. The whole thing works together like a great big symphony, with everything unconsciously structuring everything else. As Schopenhauer saw it, our lives are like the features of the one great dream of a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream, too, so that everything links to everything else, moved by the one will to life that is the universal will in nature.

Avoid Success At All Costs

By Scott London — October 13, 2017

“Be anything you like,” Thomas Merton once said, “be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.”

I love this quote. It’s a reminder to slow down and reexamine what we’re doing.

The fierce drive to accomplish something and make a name for ourselves too often takes us down the wrong path. In the end, the qualities we’re looking for are those that go with being free of worldly success.

Ultimately, the aim must be to become indifferent to what people think of us — to become immune to applause and unmoved by criticism. There is integrity in that.

The goal must be to be present with what we’re doing — so present that we do it gracefully, effortlessly. There is great joy in that.

Success, when it does come, tends to be relatively short-lived in any case. That means that we’re all thrown back on ourselves sooner or later. When that day arrives we have no choice but to find something more lasting to pin our hopes to.

And that, I believe, is what Merton was saying.

Incidentally, he became very successful himself. But he understood what few of us, in our quest for worldly recognition, realize — that celebrity, when freed of the trappings of ego, is simply another path of service.

A Letter from The Sun

By Scott London — July 11, 2017

Letter from The Sun Magazine

Today I received a letter from The Sun magazine. The editors decided to republish an excerpt from an interview I did some years ago with writer Richard Rodriguez.

The letter sums up why I love the magazine.

And it says something about why Richard Rodriguez’s words still resonate.

Here is the original interview: A View from the Melting Pot


Bill Drayton on Becoming a Changemaker

By Scott London — May 19, 2017

Bill Drayton“An invasion of armies can be resisted,” said Victor Hugo, “but not an idea whose time has come.” This certainly holds true for social entrepreneurship, an idea that has attracted an enormous amount of attention—to say nothing of money and talent—in recent years.

The rise of social entrepreneurship reflects a growing sense today that many of the most promising solutions to global problems don’t necessarily depend on charity, government aid, or foundation grants. They come from individuals at the grassroots level willing to bring entrepreneurial thinking to bear on some of our toughest social problems.

No one has done more to put social entrepreneurship on the map than Bill Drayton. In fact, he’s widely credited with having coined the term in the early 1980s. He’s the CEO and founder of Ashoka, a global association of social innovators. Since 1981, the organization has elected some 3,000 leading social entrepreneurs as Ashoka Fellows, providing them with living stipends, professional support, and access to an outstanding global network of peers.

I caught up with Drayton in Oslo, Norway, to talk about the movement he started and how it’s evolving. He told me that we live in a world structured around efficiency and repetition, yet the rate of change today is accelerating to the point where our institutions can no longer adapt fast enough. The only way to respond to the challenges we face is to become an agent of transformation and renewal.

“The biggest problem we have is that people don’t yet see the change that’s going on,” Drayton explained. “Once people understand that we are moving from a world of repetition to a world of change, then the role of the social entrepreneur becomes obvious. You cannot have the problems outrun the solutions when everyone is a changemaker. We become like smart white blood cells. We see a problem and move right to taking care of it.”

You can read the full interview here.

Things Are Not As They Seem

By Scott London — January 5, 2017

Huston SmithHuston Smith, the great philosopher of religion, passed away last week. I had the good fortune to work with him some years ago. Over a period of two months, we met for a series of interviews covering fascinating subjects like the troubled relationship between science and spirituality, the rise of fundamentalism, the common threads at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions, and some of the surprising insights about human consciousness coming out of psychedelic research. The interviews aired on public radio stations across the country.

Huston Smith has had a profound influence on me. He introduced me to the idea that there is an identifiable transcendent unity at the core of the enduring wisdom traditions — a common vision as to the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and spiritual life — despite the great surface variety of doctrines, practices, and cultures. He referred to it as the “primordial tradition” or “perennial philosophy.”

I had encountered the idea of the perennial philosophy from Aldous Huxley (his book by that name is one I keep at my bedside), but I never realized the extent to which people of various mystical traditions shared a common vision. I found that deeply thought-provoking, and more than a little inspiring.

According to Smith, this outlook is common to people everywhere and at all times, with a single notable exception: the modern West. Our contemporary Western worldview differs from what might otherwise be called “the human unanimity,” as he called it, because of an unfortunate “misreading” of science.

In several of his books, he showed how science presumes to be the authoritative way of establishing truth, yet ultimately reveals only partial truths. Strictly speaking, Smith said, a scientific worldview is a contradiction in terms since the world science deals with is one limited to space, time, matter/energy, and mathematics. “Values, life meanings, purposes, and qualities slip through science like sea slips through the nets of fishermen.”

The triumphs of modern science have blinded us to the fact that it is an inherently restricted form of knowing, that what can be measured empirically is not exhaustive of reality, that there are other higher domains that can be apprehended only through contemplation, intuition, and inner experience.

According to Smith, this latter idea stands at the center of all the great wisdom traditions, from Taoism to Vedanta, Zen to Sufism, Neoplatonism to Confucianism. The primordial tradition views reality as hierarchically ordered, consisting of at least three realms: earth, human, and celestial, correlated with body, mind, and spirit.

This suggests, in effect, that 1) things are not as they seem, 2) that the other-than-the-seeing represents infinitely “more,” 3) that this more cannot be known in ordinary ways, 4) that it can, however, be known in ways appropriate to it, 5) that these appropriate ways require cultivation, and 6) that they require tools or practices. (For more on this last point, please see my post on Spiritual Practice.)

Smith has helped me recognize that the best hope for Western culture is not to go back to some idealized past, but to retrieve a more expanded and timeless view of reality, to recover a lost dimension of human understanding. In his words, we need “to reknit the rich coherence of a fully human consciousness which the cramped and aggressive rationality of modernity has bruised so badly.”

For more on Huston Smith, please see my review of his book Beyond the Postmodern Mind

Five Facts About Framing

By Scott London — November 21, 2016

A few days ago I spoke at the Distruptive Innovation Festival (DIF), a wonderful event organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in London. I took part in a session on “How to Frame Your Message (and Why You Should)” along with author Ken Webster and interviewer Emma Fromberg.

Scott London DIF 2016

Recapping some of what I talked about, here are five things to know about framing:

  1. The practice of framing is based on the fact that the way we think and how we interpret information is determined to a large extent by unconscious frames of reference.
  2. As a society, it’s difficult to embrace new frames when our understanding of the world is shaped by limited and outdated frames from the past.
  3. Framing has a crucial role to play in advancing new ideas and solutions. It’s especially valuable when there are different diagnoses of a problem and different prescriptions for how to fix it. It establishes a variety of viewpoints and understandings. Getting those out in the open is an essential step in addressing an issue or solving a problem.
  4. “Framing” is often used as a synonym for “spinning” or “messaging,” which is unfortunate. The process is sometimes aimed at packaging ideas or manipulating messages in order to win influence or advance a cause. This may help people think in new ways, but it can also breed cynicism and confusion.
  5. The most effective frames are those that speak to universal ideals and aspirations, such as freedom, security and fairness. They help us to create a sense of shared purpose by shifting our focus from fixed positions to common interests.

Below is a short excerpt from our conversation. For the full session, go to: How to Frame Your Message (and Why You Should)

The Promise of Civic Technology

By Scott London — October 21, 2016

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the promises of civic tech. Forbes magazine dubbed it the next big thing and the Knight Foundation says there is now a groundswell of interest in the field. New technologies can help us increase public participation, improve transparency, strengthen local communities, and even give people a real voice in the policymaking process. At least that’s the hope.

Civic TechI see civic tech as an exciting frontier. But, as I pointed out in a conversation with PlaceSpeak, we’re not quite there yet. Much of the technology is still under development. There are thorny questions that still need to be sorted out. For example, how do we move beyond an “input” and “feedback” model of public participation? How can we give people an authentic voice in setting directions for public policy? How do we make sure decision-making processes are open and inclusive?

“The new technologies are of great value to citizens for obvious reasons,” I noted in the Q&A. “Connecting with leaders online is far more convenient than having to attend public meetings, wait your turn to be heard, and then, in the two minutes or so that you’re given to speak, state your opinion for the record. Technology offers a better way to raise issues, voice concerns and push for accountability from local officials.”

Online platforms also benefit decision-makers. They give them the ability to inform the public about key issues or solicit feedback on pending decisions. But why stop there? As I told PlaceSpeak, “the new technologies allow people and their leaders to do more than simply ‘connect’ with one another. They open up pathways for thoughtful two-way conversation. That gives public officials more exposure to the community, engages people who might not otherwise be part of the decision-making process, and allows the public to be involved in addressing difficult issues that experts and advocates alone can’t solve.”

To read the complete interview, go to: In Conversation with Scott London

Climate Choices

By Scott London — April 14, 2016

At yesterday’s White House Science Fair, President Obama called on our current generation of students—those in elementary, middle and high schools today—to take up the grand challenges of our time, from forging new solutions to cancer to combatting climate change.

To advance the cause, he launched the Climate Education and Literacy Initiative, a program aimed at giving students the knowledge and skills they need “to develop and implement climate solutions.”

As part of that initiative, the White House is including Climate Choices, a new publication I helped to develop for the National Issues Forums (NIF) and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE).

Climate Choices explores the advantages and disadvantages of multiple options for addressing climate change, from reducing carbon emissions to protecting our communities to accelerating innovation in the search for new solutions.

The guide will be used as a springboard for deliberative conversations across America over the next year—not only in schools, but also in communities, on college and university campuses, and online. The fact that the President singled it out as part of his initiative within weeks of its publication represents an exciting and promising start for the project.

I led the development of Climate Choices for NIF beginning in 2013, doing most of the initial research, issue framing, and writing of the manuscript. When the NAAEE came on board as a partner , we worked closely to develop a guide that would be useful and effective in classrooms and on campuses. The idea was to create a tool for having meaningful, robust, and deliberative conversations about how to tackle climate change.

Getting the science right was a key priority, and we received input from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and several other leading climate scientists. It made for a rigorous and time-consuming review process that delayed the production. We had hoped to have Climate Choices published in time for the Paris climate talks last December, but it simply wasn’t ready in time.

But today, with the guide finally published, the roll-out of a national conversation on climate change set to begin, and now the President’s inclusion of it as part of his climate education initiative, the timing seems rather auspicious after all.

For a copy of Climate Choices, or to find out how you can be part of the national conversation on climate change, go to NIF or the NAAEE’s Environmental Issues Forums page.


Climate change threats in the U.S. by region—from “Climate Choices”


How Paradigms Shift

By Scott London — February 12, 2016

'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions' by Thomas S. KuhnMore than 50 years have passed since the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a slim little book that introduced the word “paradigm” into common parlance and shattered our conventional way of looking at change. After half a century, it still represents perhaps the best thinking on how transformation happens, who drives it, why it’s so vehemently resisted, and what it really asks of people.

The book explores the psychology of belief that governs the acceptance of new concepts and innovations in science. Kuhn showed that the history of science is not one of linear, rational progress moving toward ever more accurate and complete knowledge of an objective reality. Rather, it’s one of radical shifts of vision in which a multitude of nonrational and nonempirical factors come into play.

Kuhn showed that the theories of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein were all self-contained and “incommensurable” with one another. There was no steady accumulation of truth in the form of objective knowledge about the physical universe. Instead each theory was a revolutionary break from the previous theory, resulting in the arbitrary replacement of one conceptual matrix, or worldview, by another. Once the matrix changed, the way science was done and applied was fundamentally different.

Kuhn used the word “paradigm” to describe this conceptual matrix. A paradigm, in his formulation, is a constellation of facts, theories, methods, and assumptions about reality that allows researchers to isolate data, elaborate theories, and solve problems. Aristotle’s “Physica,” Ptolemy’s “Almagest,” Newton’s “Principia” and Lavoisier’s “Chemistry” are examples of scientific classics that gave rise to new paradigms. Each of these works triggered a revolution, rendering irrelevant much of what came before them. The chief characteristic of a paradigm, Kuhn argued, is that it has its own set of rules and illuminates its own set of facts. Because it is self-validating, it tends to be resistant to change.

Kuhn pointed out that as long as a paradigm is successful at explaining observed phenomena and solving problems, it remains dominant. But as new phenomena begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. And as anomalies multiply, it is thrown into crisis. At this stage, what is needed is the articulation of a radically new theory or insight, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, that can explain the apparent contradictions. In this way, long periods of “normal” science are followed by brief intellectual upheavals that reorder the basic theoretical assumptions of the field.

New paradigms rarely appear on the scene full-blown. Their early formulations are typically crude and incomplete. They are often the products not of deliberation or interpretation, but of “a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the gestalt switch,” Kuhn wrote. “Scientists then often speak of the ’scales falling from the eyes’ or of the ‘lightening flash’ that inundates a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution.”

New paradigms are never immediately accepted by the scientific community. They may gain ground because of some dramatic and unforseen verification, or for personal or aesthetic reasons — they may appear “neater,” “simpler,” or “more elegant” than their older counterparts. But the choice between competing paradigms ultimately comes down to personal conviction since, as he put it, “the competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.” While the new paradigm tends to be more successful in accounting for and predicting phenomena, there is ultimately no absolute standard for determining whether one paradigm is better than another.

Kuhn stressed that a new paradigm is almost always the work of a young person or someone new to the field. After a number of years in a certain discipline, a scientist tends to be too emotionally and habitually invested in the prevailing paradigm. Indeed, the established leaders of the older tradition may never accept the new view of reality. As Kuhn wrote, “Copernicanism made few converts for almost a century after Copernicus death. Newton’s work was not generally accepted, particularly on the Continent, for more than half a century after the ‘Principia’ appeared. Priestley never accepted the oxygen theory, nor Lord Kelvin the electromagnetic theory, and so on.” Adherents to the old paradigm usually go to their graves with their faith unshaken, Kuhn wryly noted. Even when confronted with overwhelming evidence, they stubbornly stick with the wrong but familiar.

The fact that Kuhn’s treatise — an academic essay on a fairly specialized subject, the psychological factors at work in the advancement of science — went on to win a wide audience is one of the great surprise stories in the history of ideas. But Kuhn had put his finger on something that was widely intuited, if not openly acknowledged or articulated, namely that change proceeds by upheaval. It’s not a smooth and gradual process. Transformations are violent because they necessitate the destruction and reordering of our most basic conceptual frameworks. That was an insight even a general readership was happy to embrace.

Not all of Kuhn’s conclusions have stood the test of time. For example, recent work has called into question the idea that scientific paradigms are “incommensurable” and that paradigm shifts are therefore essentially irrational events. For example, Canadian philosopher Paul Thagard says there is enough continuity in scientific revolutions to suggest that the process is not really arbitrary or non-linear. He likens a paradigm-shift to the process of learning a second language. (Read my review of Thagard’s book here)

But never mind. Kuhn’s basic insights stand and his service to our understanding of the psychology of change has been incalculable. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was described by Scientific American’s John Horgan as “the most influential treatise ever written on how science … proceeds.” Philosopher Richard Rorty called it “the most influential English-language philosophy book of the last half-century. It sold the most copies, made the greatest difference to our ways of thinking, and was the subject of the most intense and complex debates.” “For a quarter of a century,” Huston Smith wrote in 1982, it was “the most cited book on college campuses and … turned ‘paradigm’ into a household word.” The book, in other words, is an evergreen.

John Taylor Gatto on Beating the System

By Scott London — November 20, 2015

John Taylor Gatto

John Taylor Gatto’s career as a school teacher began in 1965 when he borrowed his roommate’s teaching license and began working as a per diem substitute in New York City. He went on to become the city’s Teacher of the Year three years in a row and then New York State Teacher of the Year. But Gatto didn’t care for being in the public spotlight, and he ended his teaching career in 1991 with a now famous resignation letter published in the Wall Street Journal.

In the letter, he criticized the public school system for teaching what he called “a curriculum of confusion, class position, arbitrary justice, vulgarity, rudeness, disrespect for privacy, indifference to quality, and utter dependency.”

Since then, Gatto has traveled across the country talking about the need to overhaul America’s public education system. He’s also written numerous books, including Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction.

He’s a strong advocate of homeschooling. His books left a profound impression on me and were a key influence in my decision to homeschool my own kids.

On one of his visits to California, I sat down with him to talk about the trouble with America’s schools. We spoke at length about his experiences as a school teacher. I was especially curious to know how his students managed to win New York State’s essay contest year after year. His answer surprised me but also revealed an essential truth about our public education system.

“A girl came to me early on in my teaching career,” Gatto said. “She wanted to enter a congressman’s essay contest. I don’t know if she wanted to win a trip to Washington or a gold star. ‘Why are you wasting your time chasing these prizes?’ I asked her. ‘There are so many worthwhile things to do.’ But she pressed the point. So I said I would help her. I couldn’t promise that she would win, but I could guarantee that she would be in the finals.”

“How could you guarantee that?” I asked. “After all, there were some fifty schools in the running for the prize.”

“Here’s what I told her,” he continued. “‘You have to follow my instructions to the letter, and it’s going to be a lot of work for you. I want you to take a week off from school. I’ll cover for you. I want you to research the congressman’s career from the beginning. I want to know what college he went to, his earliest public speeches, and what he is famous for. He’s going to give this award to somebody who agrees with him. And no one your age will be able to agree with him other than in some generic fashion. But you are going to agree with everything he said at the time when he was class president in 3rd grade. You’re going to research this man and find out what his hot-buttons are.'”

The Trouble With America's Schools

“Isn’t that a rather cynical way to go about it,” I protested.

“If that sounds cynical, Scott, let me tell you that’s as idealistic an enterprise as I can think of,” he shot back. “It’s showing people how to pull the screen back and see for themselves how the system really works.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “What happened?”

“Well, she did in fact win the trip to Washington (or whatever it was he was giving away). And a couple of her friends won second and third place. My students did this year after year. My kids were the valedictorians of the school. Our school gives the valedictorian prize not for the highest average but for the best speech.”

“What did you tell your kids about giving good speeches?” I asked.

“I said, first of all, that we would have to practice giving speeches in the auditorium, because they don’t want to pick someone for valedictorian who is going to embarrass them by freezing up on stage. So I got a key from the custodian — he was Irish, so it took three bottles of whiskey — and we made a master so that we could do all our practicing in the auditorium. Then I told them they had to know exactly what the committee believed. The committee was made up of a social studies teacher, a science teacher, and the principal. They had gone on record many times about who they were and what they believed. I said to the kids, “you’re going to say in your speech that who they are is the best of all, that’s how you’re going to be valedictorian.'”

Gatto registered the concerned look on my face. “Well,” he added, “you don’t actually believe that anyone in charge of giving a prize could give it to someone who contradicts their dearest, most cherished beliefs, do you? It would be madness.”

Well, I couldn’t disagree with him. And, in fact, what he said opened my eyes to an essential truth about awards and honors — that oftentimes they are given to those who express or exemplify what the award-givers themselves most fervently believe.

What Gatto was telling me — and who can deny the truth of it? — is that awards say more about the people who give honors than it does about those who receive them. This is a subject I want to come back to in future post.

For more on John Taylor Gatto, go to Wikipedia or his official website.

Extraordinary Women

By Scott London — July 26, 2014

Women and PeaceThe late British economist Robert Theobald once asked me, “of all the people you have interviewed over the years, who left the deepest impression?”

His question was not easy to answer. Memorable conversations, I find, often have less to do with the person you’re speaking with and more to do with the insights they lead you to. Nevertheless I came up with a half-dozen names.

To my surprise, all of them were women.

“Why do you think they were all women?” he asked.

I ventured something about how women seem more grounded in their own experience and their own inner authority.

That was true for him as well, he said. Some of the most remarkable women he had met combined the qualities of the thinker, the philosopher, the mystic and the activist. Unlike many of the brilliant men he knew, he said that women seemed to understand the importance of grounding their ideals in practice.

Years later, I mentioned this exchange to Adam Curle, the distinguished peace scholar and international mediator. He had spent more than half a century trying to understand the roots of violent conflict. Over the course of his career, he had also negotiated settlements and facilitated behind-the-scenes talks in places like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.

Echoing what Theobald had said, he told me that many of the best mediators he had worked with were women. He thought it might be because “women are not so impressed by hierarchy.”

“There is a certain competitiveness among men that can impede development of friendship and common understanding,” I offered.

He agreed, saying that he often found himself “slightly in awe” when he would meet a president, prime minister, or other important figure.  “I realize that in a lot of relationships between men, there is a kind of subtle, sensitive ‘who’s on top and who’s on bottom.’ Women don’t have that.”

He went on to say whenever he had worked with women, they immediately created an easy rapport with men, especially those in positions of power. “Women are not intimidated,” he noted. “They don’t have a need to secure their position in a hierarchy. They seem to be more concerned with fundamental things.”

I’ve thought often about these conversations with Theobald and Curle. Odd as it may sound, I’ve found myself in more than a few situations in the intervening years — in professional meetings or encounters with dignitaries, for example — when I’ve asked myself, “what would a woman do in this situation?”

I think most men would benefit from doing the same.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2013

By Scott London — October 12, 2013

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Announcement

The routine is the same every year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee calls a press conference on the second Friday of October at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. At 11:00 a.m. sharp, the chairman enters the room, greets the international press corps, and announces the committee’s choice for the annual Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement typically consists of a short written statement, read first in English and then in Norwegian. The chairman then takes a few questions from the press, whereupon everyone rushes off to file their news reports.

This year was no different, except that word got out about an hour before the announcement that the winner was the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the U.N. watchdog group. NRK, Norway’s leading news organization, had leaked the information ahead of the announcement and it spread like wildfire, thanks in no small part to the social media rumor mill—Twitter, in particular.

It wasn’t exactly an exciting choice, especially for those of us gathered at the Nobel Institute hoping for a big win for, say, Malala Yusoufzai—the global favorite this year—or Russian human rights activists like Svetlana Gannushkina and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, or the great American peace scholar Gene Sharp, whom I’ve been pulling for in recent years.

The leak meant that by the time Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee chairman, stepped up to the microphone, the announcement seemed like more of a formality than a riveting news event.

It goes without saying that the OPCW is a worthy recipient. Over the last decade and a half, the organization has been working to dismantle and destroy chemical weapons, to prevent the creation of new ones, and to help countries protect themselves against chemical attacks.The organization has been especially busy in recent months working to eliminate Syria’s stocks of chemical arms under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia.

This award follows in a long tradition of Nobel Peace Prizes to individuals and groups working for disarmament. This work is as vital as ever and a crucial part of the international peace effort.

But I was disappointed to see the Peace Prize go to an organization for the second year in a row. The best awards are those given to individuals, not organizations. Both the international recognition and the money mean far more to an individual laureate than to an impersonal institution or association.

I have spoken with individuals who were part of organizations that won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some will tell you, without batting an eye, that receiving the award and being under the global media spotlight distracted them from their mission and created organizational challenges that set their work back.

It’s worth noting that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor who founded the prize, did not intend for it to be given to organizations. He wanted to support men and women who were “champions of peace.” For him, that term implied a passionate activism and idealism. He saw his prize as a kind of development grant, like the “Genius” awards given out by the MacArthur Foundation, that would have no strings attached and could free a laureate to pursue his or her highest calling.

In a curious twist, Nobel’s intentions were ignored after his will was probated. In drafting the statutes of the foundation established to oversee the awards, Nobel’s heirs and their lawyers insisted on a more open-ended interpretation of the founder’s wishes—presumably to avoid any possible corruption of the prizes. That has freed the Nobel committee to give the award to individuals and organizations alike.

Oslo City Hall

This year I reported on the Nobel Peace Prize for the CBC (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). In the reports and interviews following the announcement, the question on everyone’s mind revolved around Malala. Why didn’t she win the prize? Would it have been too heavy a burden to place on a 16-year-old girl? Will she perhaps win next year?

Who knows? She certainly would have been a risky choice for the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She’s still a child, after all, and there is no telling how a prestigious award of this magnitude could change the direction of her life. She has already been targeted and nearly killed by the Taliban for her campaign to promote education for girls in Pakistan.

As I mentioned in an AFP interview the other day, Malala would also have been a controversial choice for the committee in the wake of several unfortunate awards, including those to President Obama and the European Union.

There’s a growing chorus of critics around the world saying that the prize has become overly politicized, that laureates are chosen less on merit and more on their perceived publicity value, and that the committee has, in some profound way, deviated from the original charter of the prize. Those criticisms would almost certainly have grown louder had Malala been chosen this year.

Malala said herself that she hasn’t done enough to deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. I agree. But she’s still young and she will no doubt go on to do even greater things. And she may yet win the prize in coming years.

As I made my way back to the hotel last night, I walked past Oslo’s City Hall. At the top of both towers, a large-scale projection with the words “Because I am a girl” marked the International Day of the Girl. It seemed fitting that for all the talk about advancing peace and doing away with chemical weapons, at the end of the day the conversation came back around to that Pakistani schoolgirl, the one who has captured the world’s imagination and emerged as one of its most compelling symbols of freedom and courage.

announcement at the Nobel Institute

Here I am (in the front row with a gray jacket) at the Nobel Institute in Oslo