Nacho Man

…or how great ideas travel

“Formerly the things which happened in the world had no connection among themselves…
But since then all events are united in a common bundle.”
—Polybius, 2nd century BC

The idea behind international education is at its heart a simple one—it’s about taking good ideas from one place and trying them out in another. This is nothing new. More interesting than trial and error is the process of discovering what sparked an idea to be worth considering someplace other than its origin; where those ideas percolate or explode; how those ideas have managed to build their own internal resilience and therefore travel well; and who decides to pack those ideas into their carry-on bags.


Consider the story of the Nacho, that delicious combination of fried corn tortilla chips topped with melted cheese and peppers found at every stadium concession stand and Mexican restaurant outside of Mexico.

Though fat, salt, corn, and spice have been around a long time, it is how they were put together…and why Nachos (as we know them) were nowhere to be found in 1942. Football, for one, had been invented many years before in 1874, and Mexico had been around for even longer, but neither had anything to do with a particular crunchy, cheesy, wonderfully addictive snack.

The story goes that in 1943, Ignacio Anaya (nicknamed Nacho), a maître d’ at the Victory Club in Piedras Negras, scrambled to cook up something for a group of American military wives from Texas visiting there on a shopping trip. The kitchen was closed, and he was the only employee around. His solution? Grate some cheese on triangle-cut corn tortilla chips, melt it, and top it with jalapeño peppers.

I can imagine him screwing up the courage to push open the double doors and present it to the shoppers with a kind of Latin flourish. It was a hit. One of the customers, Mamie Finan, enjoyed this snack enough to tell people all about it back in Texas. She simply took a good idea from one place and spread word about it in another. Taking the next step, restaurants in Texas tried out this good idea and served Nacho’s chips and cheese to their own diners. It was a success there, too.

A very good start. Nachos enjoyed its place as a niche Tex-Mex restaurant snack for 34 years until the next concession stand owner at Arlington Stadium in Dallas, Texas in 1977 sold a version of Nacho’s dish to sports-goers with pre-made tortilla chips and perpetually soft cheese. One of his customers was Howard Cosell, announcer of Monday Night Football, who enjoyed the snack enough to talk about it on national TV for weeks, inspiring restaurant owners across the country to try the idea themselves.

Now we’ve covered the what and where of a great example of innovation – nachos. Onto the hard part: the how and the who. I’ll leave the why up to your imagination. That’s above my pay grade and it makes my brain hurt.

But I hope you remain curious, so let me return from the commercial break to the regularly-scheduled program: global comparative education. This story about how the nacho idea spread across nations – a good idea being recognized and tried in other places – is remarkably similar to stories about how educational ideas have spread.

Let’s start with when. Over 400 years ago in Bohemia, what’s now the Czech Republic, a man named John Amos Comenius had some new ideas about how education should be.

Comenius didn’t start school until he was 16 years old, and when he did he trained to join the Protestant ministry as part of the Moravian Brethren, the sect his parents belonged to before they died.  He was quite content to be a minister, but in 1618 the emperor Ferdinand II went on a campaign to reclaim Bohemia for the Catholic Church, forcing Comenius and other Protestant leaders to flee to Poland.  Settling in the town of Leszno, Comenius took charge of the school and the Bohemian churches.

The school in Leszno was his connection, environment, and inspiration for leadership in education.  He was a smart man, and he had ideas that with education he could go back to Bohemia after the war and rebuild the society.  He came up with the idea that education should be a process that students enjoy, and that teaching techniques should be centered around the ways that students learn best.

The education-as-process concept has become a central, intuitive idea to modern education now, but in the 17th century it was quite new. Education at that time was something to be beaten forcefully and painfully into children, just like manners and religion.  With this – let’s say lighter – approach in mind, Comenius wrote the first picture textbook for little children, teaching them through images and objects instead of by words alone.  The idea was to move children along from simpler stuff to more complicated concepts. Then, with an eye to help older students, he wrote the first textbook that used native languages as an aid to teach students Latin.

He wanted to make the world’s knowledge to be accessible. And he believed that anyone – and every child – could learn. All of these concepts were tied to his faith and inspired him to embrace fresh thinking, put pieces together, and construct something new.

People liked his ideas (just like Mamie liked Nacho’s food), and so they “un”packed his books by translating them into many European and Asian languages.  Comenius was famous for education reform by this time, and so he had choices. Samuel Hartlib, a German merchant living in London at the time, invited Comenius to come to England and establish a college and test out his methods. He spent time there and more offers came rolling in. After the civil war broke out in England, he had to decide whether to accept Cardinal Richelieu’s offer to reform education in France, or take up John Winthrop Jr.’s offer to become the president of Harvard College in the USA, or say yes to the government of Sweden’s offer to reform education there and write a series of textbooks.  Not bad.

Sounds great, but great ideas are never embraced so quickly and easily. More often than not, those ideas (and the people that popularize them) are often the subject of derision and blasphemy (pity, knowing Comenius was also a theologian). Though his timing was perfect for the introduction of such a stirring set of innovations, it was abysmal because his ideas were emerging just as religious wars were ravaging Europe. He lost his writings. His house was burnt down. He was exiled.

He looked for the most hospitable place and picked Sweden. From there, he traveled around Europe writing textbooks, organizing schools, and spreading his education reform ideas.  My point is this: great ideas, like flowers, need pollinators. They also need fertile soil – a community willing to feed and water those ideas in their own backyards.

Today, John Amos Comenius is recognized as “the father of modern education,” and he and his long white beard can be seen on the UNESCO Comenius Medal for outstanding achievement in education research and innovation, and on statues, postage stamps, and paintings all over Eastern Europe. We still use textbooks inspired by his teachings. Most of the time, at least.

As a result, we take many common education conventions for granted: required attendance (sounds better if we call it universal education), specific training for teachers, national testing for all students, standard curriculum for age grades, and mandatory kindergarten.

When did they come about? The answer…wait for it…the 1700s and 1800s. Where? Prussia. No doubt influenced by Comenius, the Kingdom of Prussia was one of the first countries in the world to provide state-sponsored primary education for its citizens. The King of Prussia’s original idea was to train his youth to become loyal citizens of the crown, and to equip them to take over the functions of the aristocracy.

His motives were not exactly pure; he wanted to influence generations of Prussians to believe in him, trust him, and if need be go to war for him. His brilliance was in the way he went about it – he knew that just telling them things wasn’t good enough; he had to make a system that would mold them to believe these ideas deep down in their cores. The system taught literacy and math as basic job and life skills, and placed a strong emphasis on teaching ethics, obedience, and civic duty. By the time Horace Mann visited Prussia to get ideas about public education in 1843, Prussia already had made education compulsory for 5-13 year olds, established the national school exit exam (called the Abitur), and had instituted state certification requirements for teachers.

It was a simple matter then for Horace Mann, the first U.S. Secretary of Education from Massachusetts, to recognize good ideas when they were working and bring them back to his own place to put into action. Mann worked to convince his fellow public servants to turn this Prussian system into Massachusetts state law. The system was formally adopted in 1852, and then soon after many northern American states adopted their own versions of Mann’s Prussian-inspired Massachusetts public education.
Today, education reformers make pilgrimages to Finland (more on that later). Back then, education reformers from all over Europe, the USA, and Asia went to Prussia, soaked up their education ideas, and took them back to their own countries. They’re so common now that it can be difficult to imagine education without them.
Comenius may be credited with a stunning array of transformational concepts in the education, but his contribution is far more than the sum of its parts. I believe he showed the world an eminently embraceable view that all cultures recognize as part of their DNA – the unimpeachable longing for – and right to – education.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, begins with “Everyone has the right to education.” In the aftermath of World War II, the Declaration’s purpose was to outline priorities for international cooperation so that we might never have such a devastating war ever again. The Declaration, including Article 26, was recognized around the world by diplomats, heads of state, and policy makers; has been translated into nearly 250 languages; and is the most cited human rights document in the world. Language from the Declaration has been remixed for incorporation into constitutions, laws, and international treaties.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights represents the widespread acceptance of what were once radical ideas. I am not about to claim that Comenius was the founder of the modern human rights movement, but I am prepared to say that he contributed to a transcendent notion of Nacho goodness without borders because today most would agree that universal education is only be possible as a globally shared enterprise. In so doing, it paved the way for the development and explosion of international comparative education as a valid field of study, and is what allows organizations like UNESCO, the World Bank, and USAID to engage in education development projects around the world.

But visionary, vital, transportable, adaptable, and adoptable ideas with irrepressible lives of their own hit speed-bumps along the way. They also activate death squads. The Boko Haram in northern Nigeria doesn’t agree with this sweeping view of education as a right. The words, boko haram, translate into western education is evil. In several regions of the world, schools and teachers are targeted for attack just because they are, well, teaching.

Yet, just when it seems as if all hope is lost, a bold, visual, pubic act somehow captivates the imagination and ordinary citizens spill out into the streets of a large public square to light fires in trashcans to stay warm, cook potatoes, share ideas, and tweet reports of repression, even when thugs pull up in pickup trucks with black flags and masks or white hoods and burning crosses.

In a less dramatic way of making my point, good ideas can also be distorted into their opposite. These days, many countries turn good ideas into national jealousy. They’re nacho nervous, obsessed with test performance envy or worried about global competitiveness. Countries fling chips at each other. Sputnik meant that the Russians were going to win. Then it was Japan or India or Korea or China or Singapore. These days, it’s Finland – a country that did not plan on getting As on global comparative tests; never prepped their teachers to drill the students to ace them; doesn’t assign homework; doesn’t start teaching kids how to read until 7; and has the thinnest textbooks in the world. Finland is too homogenous or lucky or rich or (fill in the blanks). Perhaps they simply tapped into the core of good ideas and adapted them to their own landscape.

So, whether it’s Ignacio Anaya, John Amos Comenius, or the King of Prussia, great ideas in education inspire others to follow in their footsteps. They invite experimentation and mashups and spectacular failure or success. Along the way, those processes that spread Nachos from the Victory Club in Piedras Negras to restaurants everywhere are the same processes that spread sensible and adaptable ideas about education, human rights, and responsibility around the world, and they continue to do so to this day.

Good for you, John Amos Comenius. I, for one, hope to make certain that I am a good steward of your great ideas.