Palmer spoke about Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani activist who was shot by the Taliban for protesting the ban on girls attending school.

Popular Harvard lecturer speaks about public heroes

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By Prajakta Dhopade


Brian Palmer, known for his creation of one of Harvard’s most popular classes, came to Ryerson last Wednesday to speak on behalf of civic courage. “There’s something about people who are willing to risk their lives for others. People who show what’s sometimes called civic courage to take risks for those outside of their family,” Palmer said.

While at Harvard, Palmer founded the course Personal Choice, Global Transformation, which further delved into the bravery and influence of certain individuals around the world. The class became so popular that students would stand just to hear him lecture.

“I had to change lecture halls until there was sufficient space for the 300 students,” Palmer said.

In his speech, titled Living with Extreme Courage: How a Global Heroine Can Change Your Life, Palmer pulled from topics he covered in his Harvard lectures. He described several inspiring individuals that risked their lives for the greater good and even dedicated the discussion to the full recovery of 15-year-old Pakistani blogger and education activist Malala Yousafzai.

In 2009, Yousafzai gained international attention by protesting the Taliban’s ban on education for girls through blog posts, which were published under a pseudonym on a BBC News blog. But in late 2012, Taliban gunmen ambushed the bus she was in on her way home from school and shot her in the head and neck.

Palmer tells Yousafzai’s story because he believes that stories have the power to influence others.

“I think that’s often the way that courage is contagious, because we see something good and beautiful in someone else,” Palmer said.

Witold Pilecki is another person Palmer spoke of. Pilecki was a polish soldier that volunteered to become imprisoned in an Auschwitz concentration camp to find out what was really happening inside of them. He was beaten, risking his life to be there and then again to escape. But he didn’t have to, he was not Jewish and could have been safe at home with his wife and children.

“I find it hard to understand Witold. How you could be so brave time after time?” said Palmer. “Not to simply go home to your family. How did you do it?”

While Palmer spoke of these examples of “extreme courage,” he also praised the little guys, the people that don’t necessarily risk their lives but still do more than most.

“One man has gone down in YouTube history forever as Snack Man,” Palmer said.

Snack Man, an anonymous bystander in a New York City subway, stood between a man and a woman having an altercation. While quietly eating chips, he was able to separate the two and defuse the situation.

Palmer hopes others are inspire to step outside their comfort zones and do something for someone else.

“Together they form a counterweight to our world of violence and greed. They remind us of what we are capable of.”

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