As an undergraduate at Caltech in 1968, at the urging of our then student body president, Joe Rhodes, I became involved in a project bringing Caltech students and faculty to underprivileged Pasadena schools as science consultants. For me, and for most of the other Caltech students and faculty who participated, this was the first step into an elementary school since we were sixth-graders. I was struck by the eager enthusiasm of the third-graders I taught, and by the absolute importance of public schools, especially in contrast to the importance given them by society.
I found working with the elementary school students to be eye-opening and wrote about my experience in an E&S article (“OK, Teacher, What Does Living Mean?” October 1969). “To let the students lead, and switch from facts to creative thinking and learning to learn,” I wrote, “a teacher must be confident enough to follow and experienced in both creative thinking and self-education. He, then, can set up the conditions for the students to experience problem solving, experiment with new approaches, and learn to learn.”
Surviving Caltech as an undergraduate gave me the idea that anything is possible with enough gutting it out. After I graduated, I went on to medical school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, but I didn’t lose the seed of interest in education that had been planted during my work in a Pasadena grade school. With the blessing of the dean at CWRU, I took a year off between my sophomore and junior years in medical school to get a master’s in elementary education at the University of Massachusetts. After returning and finishing medical school, completing a pediatric residency and then a fellowship in school health and child development, I began my first career on the school health faculty at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. There, as part of the pediatric faculty, I taught pediatric residents to interact with schools, an increasingly important skill for any community pediatrician facing the complexities of special education and school health. I watched many of these residents experience the same eye-opening visit to an elementary school that I had experienced at Caltech.
Later, I had an opportunity to broaden my interest in community health by returning to my home state of Nebraska as the director of the State Department of Health. I was working at the health department when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, killing a crew that included Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire high school teacher chosen to be the first “teacher in space.” Because of my work in public schools, I was particularly touched by the death of that courageous teacher. In what I count as the best impulse of my life, I donated some money to begin a Nebraska Christa McAuliffe Prize for Courage and Excellence in Education—a way to honor the many courageous teachers I had worked with from Pasadena to Galveston. With the help of many other donors, we have now awarded 29 excellent Nebraska teachers each a $1,000 prize—one each year since the Challenger disaster. These teachers have each demonstrated an important form of courage in their professional lives.
For example, some of our winners stood up for what was right even when others refused to do so. This includes a teacher who publicly championed the cause of “dream generation” students when nearby communities were trying to expel them, and another who jumped into a highly controversial, local low-level nuclear waste issue to help his students learn the physics of radiation—despite his principal’s urging against engaging the controversy. Other winners did what was right even when it was hard. This group includes an art teacher at the state juvenile detention facility, several junior high reading teachers, and many dedicated special education teachers. Over the past 29 years, in other words, we on the McAuliffe Prize Committee have learned much about what courage looks like in Nebraska schools, and it has been inspiring.
But courage is an elusive concept. Before our experience rewarding excellent teachers for their courage, we did not have a clear idea of what makes a teacher courageous. We knew that Christa McAuliffe was courageous, boarding the Challenger in order to take America’s students on the ultimate field trip. But we couldn’t have known about the many forms of courage our winners have demonstrated.
In honor of what will be the 30th McAuliffe Prize award next spring, I am working to start two new prizes in Nebraska: one for early childhood professionals, and one for higher-education professionals. In addition, I want to organize a symposium to explore courage in many other fields. I believe that we need to honor courageous educators at all levels, because I believe that courage is needed in every corner of society.
All of this has left me wondering what courage looks like at Caltech. I think about Max Delbrück, who taught my first biology course at Caltech. Delbrück left Nazi Germany in 1937 as a 31-year-old physicist. He accepted a fellowship in Caltech’s biology department that year, but returned to teaching physics at Vanderbilt. Then, in 1947—the year I was born—he came back to Caltech to pursue biology; in 1969—the year I graduated—he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It must have taken courage to leave physics for biology in 1947. Perhaps it also took courage to keep teaching my class of undergraduates in 1966 when his research career was at its peak.
I think about Richard Feynman holding up the O-ring at the investigation of the Challenger explosion after learning that the engineers at Morton Thiokol had realized that the launch was too cold for the solid rocket booster design—even though they hadn’t been able to get the attention of NASA officials to postpone the launch. That took courage. I realize that every engineer needs the courage to speak up when financial or political pressures conflict with engineering design.
In a 2006 publication marking the 20th Nebraska McAuliffe Prize, Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator from Nebraska, said, “Courage is not taught by a curriculum; it is caught from the example of others.” Many students of Nebraska’s McAuliffe Prize winners have undoubtedly “caught” their teachers’ courage.
Caltech is a leader in producing scientists and engineers for increasingly complex careers all over the world. At Caltech, these future scientists and engineers come into contact with models of courage that shape their later careers. When and where does that happen? Who are the people at Caltech who are standing up for what is right even when others refuse? Who is doing what is right even when it is hard? We need to think about—and talk about—courage more often than we do. And we need to reward it when we see it. Perhaps we need a Caltech McAuliffe Prize for Courage and Excellence in Education.
–Written by Gregg Wright (BS ’69)
Header image credit: Keith Meyers of the New York Times