Giraffe Heroes Database

Lempert, David


Lempert’s on the left, shown with his students presenting a petition to a government official

What does education mean to you? Does it mean reading books, seeing videos, listening to lectures, memorizing facts, and taking tests? Education means something different to David Lempert, and he’s tried to get others to grasp that meaning as well. But others are not always so receptive.

In 1983, at the age of 24, Lempert was on his way to becoming an attorney or an investment banker. Instead, he went to the Philippines for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He didn’t like what he saw in the Philippines; the Marcos government didn’t seem to represent the values of the agency he was working for. He made his views known, and the USAID made its views known: Lempert was no longer welcome there. Lempert went on to other public service jobs and realized that these “institutions seemed so out of touch with the people they were designed either to serve or to represent.”

Fast-forward to 1985. Lempert is a law and business student at Stanford University. Encouraged by a history professor, Lempert designs a new course: “The Unseen America.” The goal of the course is to “introduce students to the ‘unseen’ communities and aspects of American life and to return social science to its roots—based on empirical work and models coming from reality, rather than from abstraction and books.” That spring, he took students to an Indian reservation, a federal prison, a migrant worker camp, a military base, a factory, a soup kitchen, and a mental institution: not exactly your father’s history class.

“The Unseen America” was both a success and a failure. It was a success in that it was so popular that versions of the course were taught in succeeding years at not only Stanford but also at UC Berkeley. Lempert went on to design similar courses at Harvard and Brown. However, it was a failure in that Stanford’s provost didn’t like it at all; neither did the University president. Lempert wrote editorials in the student paper, criticizing existing Stanford courses, and fellow students denounced him. Despite being threatened with expulsion, Lempert did graduate from Stanford and then joined the Ph.D. program at Berkeley. In the interim, he pioneered an offshoot of “The Unseen America” for students in Ecuador—neither university would fund it—and wrote a book about his experiences. The book includes proposals for social, economic, and political reforms in Ecuador.

After the Ecuador trip, Lempert still had difficulty getting funding for his programs, but he was determined to forge ahead. As he said, “If Berkeley wants it, it’s a Berkeley program. If Stanford wants it, it’s a Stanford program. If no university wants it, I’ll form a nonprofit organization.”

In the end, he did form that nonprofit organization—Unseen America Projects, Inc., which promotes experiential learning. He wanted a way to help students face educational issues head-on—out in the real world. And his setbacks with universities have fueled his ambition: “Educational programs don’t get funded and books don’t get published because I’m not a large organization or a household name (yet!).”

Why does Lempert continue to fight the system? “There are lots of reasons,” he says. “The real answer is I’m motivated by this country’s current condition. I see my classmates graduating and proceeding into professions where they are just following orders . . . It’s also a lot of fun when it works . . . to see people grow and take on challenges and make a positive difference in the world.”

Update:

David Lempert now holds a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the UC Berkeley, and law and business degrees from Stanford. He has worked all over the world, pioneering new mechanisms in rights, law, education, development work, and social science. He was written more than 20 books and is fluent in several languages.


Age when commended: adult (20-64)
Year commended: 1989
Occupation: Educator
  
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