For Harriet Fulbright, education's end goal is peace

Harriet Fulbright, president of the J. William & Harriet Fulbright Center, an organization set up in 2006 to foster peace and justice through collaboration. Photo by: Jemila Abdulai

As a child, Harriet Mayor Fulbright was always interested in the world and how it works. But she never imagined that she would be at the forefront of education and peace advocacy.

“It’s something that actually just happened,” she remarked.

Today, Fulbright heads the J. William & Harriet Fulbright Center, an organization that advocates for peace and justice through cooperation and mutual respect.

Among many other positions she has held, Fulbright served as the executive director of the Fulbright Association from 1987 to 1991, where she met her late husband, William Fulbright, a former senator. She also directed the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanity under President Bill Clinton between 1997 and 2000.

Fulbright has been committed to promoting the values and ideas of her late husband, and is the “unofficial ambassador” of the Fulbright scholarship program. She has also worked closely with top world leaders and received numerous honorary degrees from renowned educational institutions across the globe.

Most recently, she co-organized the Global Symposium of Peaceful Nations. This forum - the first of its kind - recognizes and honors the world’s most peaceful nations.

The symposium, which took place Nov. 1-3 in Washington, involved delegates from 18 countries - the two most peaceful nations in nine major regions of the world, according to the Global Peace Index, compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit. Among these countries are Canada, Malawi, Oman, and Vietnam.

With civil unrest still prevalent in many regions of the world, the question about what peace really is hangs in the balance. Devex caught up with Fulbright to discuss how she got involved in peace and education advocacy, where the idea for the Fulbright scholarship originated, and what needs to be done in order to achieve world peace.

How did you get involved in peace and education advocacy?

In college, I studied political theory and comparative governance. From there, I taught in Korea, and taught also in an Anglo-American school in the Soviet Union, in Moscow. I love teaching because I learn as much if not more than my students. One always has to do that if you’re really going to teach. Each group is new, especially if you move across borders and teach in different cultures. I have three children of my own, which certainly kept me hopping for a decade or so. And after they grew up, I married Sen. [James William] Fulbright in my 50s.

He was an incredible man. I ran the Fulbright Association, which is how I met him. His ideas, his thoughts on both peace and international education were just amazing to me. They were wonderful. The idea that you can send a young person who is impressionable across a border and put them in an educational setting in a different culture for long enough to force them to confront that culture and to realize that that way of being and that way of forming community is equally valid as the one they grew up with, that is a mind-expanding kind of idea. And the mind can never shrink back to what it was before; that stays. That’s what helps to prevent war. That’s what really encourages peace.

Could you elaborate on your educational and career paths? How did you first get your foot in the door?

I had a wonderful family who believed in an international experience. I was a good student when I went to school. But when I was 15 - in the winter of my 15th year - I idly said to my parents, “Gee, I’d like to learn Spanish.” And it so happened that they had very good friends in Bogota, Colombia. So, as soon as I finished school that year, they sent me down for the whole summer, and I entered into a girls’ school there, which was a normal school. Because their winter is our summer, school was in session. So, I got thrown into a completely Spanish community and worked like mad to learn this new language, which was truly wonderful. Especially back then, the culture was completely different than mine, and I learned a great deal from it. From then on, I found ways of entering into different communities, different cultures, often through teaching.

Are there any particular teaching programs that you participated in or was it just mainly with schools?

It was mainly with schools. In Korea, for instance, I taught English and creative writing at Ehwa Womans University. And this was in the late ’50s, when the country had not yet begun to recover from not only the second world war and the Korean War, but 40 years of Japanese occupation. So, they were still under the influence of the Japanese then. The Japanese way of teaching - which is that the teacher is God - you do not question the teacher. You learn exactly what he has to say and read. And here I was trying to teach them creative writing? This was insane. So, I did teach them grammar. But when it came to creative writing, I finally told them to put their pencils down and just talk, tell me their experiences as they were growing up. And they finally began to open up, especially since only six years before, they were in the middle of a war and their experiences were extreme. And when that slowly came to the surface, then they could write creatively. I got some extraordinary pieces of writing out of that.

How did you get involved with peace? You just mentioned that you encouraged your students to write about the war. Was that a segue into peace advocacy?

Well, when you experience war yourself, it is a horrible thing. You talk to any soldier coming back from any battle - whether it is Iraq, or Afghanistan, or wherever - they will tell you it is horrible, if they speak about it at all. The horrors of war really convinced me that peace was a necessity. I have heard, in the past, people say that war is part of our nature. I don’t think so. Certainly, disagreement is part of our nature, but it does not necessarily have to lead to war. The end of that conversation can easily be we will agree to disagree. There’s nothing wrong with that.

For young professionals who are interested in doing the kind of work you’re involved in, what would you say are the key opportunities and necessary skills?

Opportunities like our Peace Corps, which is aptly named because members of the Peace Corps go to different developing countries and find a position in the villages or countryside in those countries, and they help with whatever skill they have. This is a wonderful, peaceful way not only to help other people, but also to learn about them. I‘ve never known anybody who’s done that who doesn’t admit that they’ve learned as much, if not more, as they’ve taught. I’m just mentioning one opportunity, but there are many opportunities for peaceful activity in a different country.

Necessary skills: language. Obviously the English language is as close as we can come to a worldwide language, and I know thousands of Americans go all over the world to teach English in foreign countries. There are huge programs in every continent for teaching English. But education, in general, is a wonderful way to work peacefully in a different country.

Could you give us some tips on networking?

The wonderful part about living in this age as opposed to 50 years ago is that the Internet makes that [networking], in one sense, so easy. The only difficulty is which path within the Internet to take, because there are so many different opportunities. I think that what you have to do is to sit and think about what your particular interests are, what your particular skills are. Start with that which you know - your skills and your interests - when you’re reaching out. On the Internet, if you’re interested in literature, or agriculture, or a science, you can start along that pathway, and the world opens for you. But I think one of the problems about people who ask you, “Wow, how can I do that?” is that they’re not sure about themselves, or they don’t realize that they have to start with themselves, with what they’re good at and what attracts them.

Once someone does have a good sense of what they’re interested in, how would you say they can go making the initial connections in peace mitigation and conflict resolution, for instance?

Well, it also depends on what age they are. If they’re, for instance, college age or even younger, it’d be good to look up those particular areas in an educational setting and set themselves up as a student for that. Then they meet professors, they meet fellow students who are equally interested in the same subject, and they learn about businesses and organizations that are involved in what they’re interested in.

What’s the Fulbright Program, and how are you associated with it?

The Fulbright Program began because my husband, Sen. Fulbright, realized how much his Rhodes scholarship years in England totally changed his life. And so, he started the program with the idea that if he could get potential future leaders to go and study in a different country for long enough to have to confront that very different culture, to have to understand it, and therefore realize that this different way of life is equally valid as the one they grew up in, then, when they became real leaders, they would use dialogue and conversation instead of an exchange of bullets.

What would you consider the main successes of the program?

The main success, I think, is that it grew far beyond his wildest hopes and dreams. I think the reason that it grew that way is that it’s time had come; the world had developed enough so that transportation and communication became easier. The radio and television are international things. We turn on the television, every day there’s something from another country; same with the radio. And so, the world around us convinces us that going overseas isn’t going to lead to disaster. It’s actually a wonderful thing to do.

Are there any particular challenges in the program?

The challenges of the program are simply that the world’s governments still haven’t fully understood the core importance of this international education. The Fulbright Program could double the number of students that it accepts and still maintain the same very high level of competence. We did a wonderful graphic of describing the relative budgets. We had a picture giving the number of the whole budget. Then we had a picture of the military budget, and it was pretty big, too. And then we had a picture of the whole what we call the 150 Account, which is the State Department plus the Fulbright Program, and it was literally a dot by comparison. You know, you hear people all the time saying, “Oh, that is so important.” And there have been a number of surveys asking people how much money you think we spend on foreign affairs, what we call the 150 Account and that includes the Fulbright Program. And people say, “Oh, we probably spend 15 percent of our budget.” That is so completely wrong, it just takes my breath away.

What does the Fulbright Center do, and what are your most recent activities?

This center is very new. I started this center in 2006, and the reason I did so is that I felt that there was no one in a position of prominence who were saying and doing the things that my husband, Sen. Fulbright, did and said. And so, I wanted to heighten the visibility of his legacy and implement programs which furthered his ideas. The Global Symposium of Peaceful Nations is certainly a very big element. He would thoroughly approve of it.

Concerning the Global Symposium of Peaceful Nations, how did you go about determining the first two peaceful nations per region?

That’s a good question, and it was straight from the Global Peace Index. Steve Killelea, who’s an Australian, realized that war, violence and terror had all kinds of statistics and data, but peace had literally nothing. So, he hired a group of researchers from the Economist Intelligence Unit, and they took almost a year to define very clearly and numerically 23 indicators of peace that each peaceful country had to have, and some drivers of peace. And then they put those indicators against 144 countries around the world, which actually make up more than 99 percent of our population - just a few islands short. They then listed the measurables and recalibrated the index.

You’ve had the opportunity to interact with numerous people across the globe. Any words of wisdom you would like to share?

Listen, really listen, not simply staying quiet to pick up where you left off. Really listen and ask questions. We’ve got to be open-minded, too. Every person is a product of their own country and family. Attitudes and habits are formed by these small knots of people unless we listen, move around and have a willingness to learn.

You’ve witnessed some major changes in global affairs. What would you say are some of the big ones that you consider especially important to our future?

The most important change is creating international organizations which bring different cultures together. It started with the League of Nations and the world war. Sen. Fulbright studied why the League of Nations failed, and he found out that after the first world war, people turned inward. My husband realized that we needed to tackle the issue of an international organization during war, because that’s when people would pay attention. And so, in 1943, at the height of the second world war, he passed a resolution - which passed by a landslide - which essentially established the United Nations. Furthermore, once the United Nations took form, one of the things that they passed was an international law forbidding a country to fight unless they were actually attacked. So, people couldn’t just start wars because they wanted to take over territories any longer. That was very important.

In the area of development, what do you anticipate for the future?

I’m very much hoping that the slow and sometimes jerky road towards peace will continue. We certainly have not come to the point where we have abandoned smaller wars. It would be wonderful if those would become fewer and fewer down to nothing - that we could settle all arguments in a peaceful way.

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