(Photo from Indiana University)
Lost in the hubub over President Obama’s achievement of the Nobel Peace Prize was another extraordinary — and, for some, controversial — Nobel Prize winner. Dr. Elinor Ostrom of Arizona State University and Indiana University became the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. She was one of five women to win Nobel Prizes this year, the most ever. The other four included Herta Mueller for literature, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Grider for medicine, and Ada Yonath for chemistry. Reflecting on Dr. Ostrom’s Nobel, Washington Post Columnist Ruth Marcus writes about her frustration that we still keep having “first woman” moments when society should be well beyond gender barriers by now. But in fact, the glass ceiling remains intact in many arenas of human endeavor, and so each woman’s achievement hammers another shard loose from that vast barrier to full equality.
Dr. Ostrom’s recognition is both notable and slightly controversial in several ways. She’s a political scientist with the audacity to gain the world’s top economic prize — a feat that has some economists scratching their heads. Hooray for interdisciplinarity! The study of politics IS the study of economics, sociology, psychology, communication, anthropology — IS the study of the liberal arts! I’m glad the Nobel Committee recognizes the fact that human achievement is not something to pigeonhole by the name of degrees or disciplines — the organization of the academic curriculum is simply a convenient device for orderly transmission of knowledge by subject, but the sum of knowledge is so much greater than the rather arbitrary boundaries of any individual discipline. That’s the entire reason why any excellent undergraduate education must require a full general education program across all disciplines; it’s also the reason why great major programs also welcome interdisciplinary studies.
The substance of Dr. Ostrom’s work is fascinating and piquant given today’s debates over how much government is necessary in our lives. She has developed a theory on the voluntary governance of “the commons,” the resources on which civilization depends for its entire life — water, forests, fields, minerals, air, and similar kinds of environmental resources. In her theory, voluntary private collective management of such “common” resources by the collective effort of individuals depending on such resources is far more effective than governmental intervention. Here’s a You Tube clip of Dr. Ostrom presenting her theory.
Those of us who are getting along in years should also find inspiration in the fact that Dr. Ostrom is 76 and still going strong. Hooray for that! Her story should be a reminder that no one is ever too old, too female, or too progressive to keep achieving at the highest possible levels of academic and intellectual endeavor.