The Challenge of SDG 4: Ethics in Action Report
The Ethics in Action Committee at the Vatican in October, 2017
Education is a human right, which makes it a moral responsibility and a societal responsibility. As Pope Francis puts it, it is a “summons to solidarity” with current and future generations. It is for this reason that SDG4 calls upon the global community to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” SDG 4 comes with several targets. Target 4.1 calls for quality, free, universal education to secondary level (twelve years of school): “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.” And Target 4.2 says “By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
There is nothing more essential to the sustainable development agenda than access to education for all children, anywhere in the world. And yet we are a long way from achieving this goal, especially when it comes to the world’s poorest countries. Today, some 750 million adults lack even the most basic literacy skills—and most of these are women. Some 264 million children and youth and not in school at all—and most of these are girls. And over 300 million children and youth are not learning the basics even when they go to school. Only 60 percent of countries have achieved parity in primary education, and only 38 percent have reached this milestone for secondary education. There are still 57 million children of primary-school age are not in school. In sub-Saharan Africa, the secondary completion rate is only 28 percent for boys and 21 percent for girls. In the poorest countries, primary school children are packed into classrooms, with few is any supplies. By the time they reach lower secondary school, they get hit by school fees, and girls are typically sent home or to early marriage.
According to UNESCO, if all girls and boys completed secondary education, as called for by SDG 4, 420 million people would be lifted out of poverty. This would reduce the number of people living in extreme poverty by more than half globally, and by more than two-thirds in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. But if current trends continue, half of the world’s children will not have the basic skills needed for success in life by 2030.
There is an extremely strong relationship between access to schooling and economic performance—the data show a direct linear relationship between measures of scholastic attainment and economic growth cross countries. Economic development therefore starts with education. And this linkage is becoming stronger over time, as the jobs that did not require education in the past are disappearing. In the 21st century, there are no decent jobs out of poverty without at least a secondary school education.
Religions can step in and full this void, in terms of offering inclusive, equitable, quality, value-based education for all children. We need to build tens of thousands more schools in Africa, including by partnering with religious communities.
Educational Quality and Equity
The number of children out of school would be 4-5 times higher if we adjusted for quality. In too many low-income countries, the quality of public schools is so low that only the children of the poor attend them. We also cannot assume that children in low-income countries will learn in the same way as children in wealthier countries in terms of school curricula.
While the SDGs prioritize the poor and the marginalized, most resources in most countries are not directed toward those at the bottom of the pyramid. A “trickle down” approach to schooling will not aid those at the bottom. The current apportioning of education resources, which benefits the more privileged, serves to maintains and increases existing inequalities. Millions of people who live in shanty towns currently have no access to formal education. And as challenges such as globalization, climate change, migration, and youth unemployment affect the bottom of the pyramid more than any other group, this suggests that the best way to support the poor is to educate the poor.
All across the world, evidence suggests that high inequality leads to a segregated education system, where the rich send their children to private schools, perpetuating advantage and privilege, and making inequality even worse. Education increases inequality in the sense that career outcomes are highly dependent on educational attainment, making social mobility more difficult. When inequality is low, on the other hand, the rich are more inclined to send their children to public schools. Studies show that public spending on education is negatively related to income inequality and that the quality and extent of public schooling generally increase with the political weight of the poor.
A key challenge from an equity perspective is to improve learning among the poor. We need a learning equity agenda as well as a learning agenda. We should be aiming at “raising the floor” by investing in those at the bottom of the pyramid—including girls, minorities, and indigenous people. This has numerous dimensions. To start, learning needs to be understood across the lifespan, both in and out of school, and from early childhood through adulthood. Since all learning is local, there is a need to calibrate learning opportunities in cultural and linguistic contexts. Effective measurement is critical for gauging progress and effectiveness, and this is especially difficult at the bottom of the pyramid. It is also important to consider measures like a “learning equity index”, to help close the gap within as well as between countries.
The Case of Africa
Despite progress toward universal primary education, Africa is underperforming at all levels of education. It is the region with the lowest enrollment rates and the poorest learning outcomes. Globally, eight of the ten countries with the lowest pre-primary net enrollment rates are in sub-Saharan Africa—the region spends an average 0.3 percent of education budgets on pre-primary education. While the number of children enrolled in primary education more than doubled between 1999 and 2012—from 62 million to 149 million—no African country has yet achieved universal primary education. Quality remains an issue, with the average pupil/ teacher ratio in primary school at 42:1 (higher than 100:1 in urban areas). Across sub-Saharan Africa, lower secondary enrollment is 50 percent, while upper secondary enrollment is only 32 percent—the lowest in the world. Less than one in ten school children will be on track to achieve minimum secondary-school level skills by 2030. On the tertiary side, only 6 percent of young people in the region are enrolled in higher education, compared to a global average of 26 percent. A mere one in ten of the world’s top thousand universities are in Africa—and eight of these are housed in one country, South Africa. Technical and vocational programs declined in the 1980s due to budgetary shortfalls and have never fully recovered. On average, only about 2 to 6 percent of educational budgets are devoted to technical and vocational skills development.
Overall, there are more than 30 million children not in school across sub-Saharan Africa. Equity is also a major problem—twice as many girls as boys never start school, and low-income countries spend 46 percent of their education budgets on the top 10 percent most educated students. At least 20 percent of children enrolled are not expected to reach the last grade.
Developing countries spend 2 percent of GDP on education, but this does not translate into adequate learning—69 percent of school age children will not learn basic primate level skills (compared to 21 percent in middle-income countries) and only 8 percent will learn minimum secondary level skills (49 percent in middle-income countries). Less than a quarter of children reach functional reading by age 10—in some countries, such as Malawi, it is under 5 percent.
Against this background of subpar education, African demographics present a stark picture—Africa is the world’s “youngest” continent, with 200 million people aged between 15 and 24. By 2060, the population is expected to reach 2.5 billon, half under 25. In the coming half century, there will be more young people in Africa than in all of the G20 countries combined. Some 11 million youth are expected to enter Africa’s labor market every year for the next decade.
Turning this demographic growth into real economic potential—especially in terms of creating decent, dignified work—requires, first and foremost, a tremendous investment in education. We need to equip African educators and students to perform at the highest global standard while also raising the value of local expertise. This requires a strategic partnership between public sector, private sector, civil society, and religious communities; further connecting global networks of educational institutions; leapfrogging through information technology; sharing knowledge; incubating innovative solutions; and fostering research and new business models. This quest will require partnering with the rich countries to rethink and intensify investment and funding mechanisms for education in Africa, in a way that respects the agency of Africans themselves—not only African participation, but African management and geographical hosting.
The case of Ghana is instructive in terms of challenges and solutions. While the constitution of Ghana affirms the right of all children to an education, over a million children and young adults (between 6-18 years old) are out of school and wealth disparities shape access, progression, and completion. Cohort tracking of students shows that for every hundred children in pre-primary, 96 enter primary, but only 16 transition to upper secondary. But in the poorest quintile, 90 out of 100 children enter primary school, but only 4 transition to upper secondary. To improve educational access, quality, and equity, the government instituted a number of initiatives including capitation grants to replace school charges; provision of uniforms and supplies to needy students; complementary basic education for nomadic and other out-of-school children; and ramped-up investment in school infrastructure. Most recently, it implemented free and automatic secondary education after completion of a basic examination—it did this by removing financial barriers such as examination fees, tuition fees, computer fees etc. In tandem, the government is introducing new standards to improve teacher quality and practice, and the curriculum is being modified.
Filling the Financing Gap
What is the basic cost of achieving SDG4? To derive a rough but accurate estimate: assume that there are 40 children in a classroom, teachers’ salaries are 60 percent of the budget, and a teacher earns $6,000 (the minimum required for a college-educated teacher to stay in a rural area). This comes out to $250 per student per year. Now consider what poor countries can actually raise. The usual assumption is that governments can mobilize 4 percent of GDP in revenues for education—about 20 percent of the budget, and where the budget is 20 percent of GDP. This is a standard of high performance that many countries fail to meet.
What if the country is extremely poor, at, say, $500 per capita per year? This means the country can only raise $20 per person, or $60 per student (assuming that school-aged children comprise a third of the population, which is the case in low-income countries). Similarly, a country at $800 per capita might be able to raise $96 per student. This is nowhere close to the minimum required for free, quality, affordable education to secondary level. Getting to $250 per student requires a minimum per capita income of about $2,100 per year.
The reality is that unless a country has at least $2,000 per capita income, it simply cannot afford a comprehensive education budget. What does this imply for the financing gap? If instead of raising $250 per student per year, the country can only raise $100 (the low-income country average), then the gap is $150 per student. With 800 million people in the low-income world, of whom a third are students, this gives rise to an aggregate global financing gap of $40 billion a year. This is a simple calculation, but UNESCO’s more detailed methodology arrives at the same conclusion. With world output at $125 trillion, this comes out at only 0.03 percent of global GDP.
This is miniscule, and yet lacking. While Official Development Assistance for health rose from about $12 billion to about $20 billion per year over the period covered by the MDGs, resources for education barely budged, and Official Development Assistance has been stagnant over the past decade. All that is spent is $3.5 billion for primary and secondary education.
We must therefore support financial scale-up at the global level, where several options are on the table. One is Education Cannot Wait, which aims to raise up to $3.85 billion by 2020, and to reach 18 percent of those children whose education is hindered by conflict, natural disasters, or outbreaks of disease. A second option, proposed by the Education Commission, is to form an International Finance Facility for Education—this would be led by the World Bank, and would borrow in capital markets to boost investment in education to $10 billion a year by 2020 and $20 billion by 2030. A third option is the Global Partnership for Education, but this raises only $500 million of donor funding each year—80 times less that what is needed to meet SDG4. More promising, a number of African leaders are championing a Global Fund for African Secondary Education, located and governed in Africa.
We need a more ambitious plan—a Global Fund for Education, to marshal the resources to fulfil the promise of SDG4. And we should support African leaders’ plan to establish a special Fund for African Secondary Education. The financing must come from bumping up Official Development Assistance, so that wealthy countries meet their 0.7 percent of GDP target (which can be paid for by taxing the wealthy, cracking down on tax havens, and reducing military spending); and from seeking a small commitment from high net worth individuals, especially the world’s 1800 billionaires who control a combined $7 trillion in assets.
At the end of the day, without children in school, we will lose a whole generation. This is the most urgent challenge of sustainable development. And nothing holds us back except will.
A new approach to education—applying insights from neuroscience
The importance of early childhood education
A key insight is that children, between pre-natal years and school entry, do not learn by themselves. They learn from the interaction and input of peers, parents, care givers, and community members.
Neuroscience shows that most brain development occurs from the prenatal period to age 3 years, and that the 3-year old brain is twice as active as an adult brain. Half of all infant nutrition goes to brain development in the first thousand days. The ability of the brain to incorporate environmental influences and to grow in response to enriching experiences declines rapidly across the period of childhood. As a result, intervening later in life—in adolescence or adulthood—is much harder. Another insight from brain development is that the millions of interactions between infants and caregivers and peers builds brain circuitry. Without these “serve and return” interactions, the brain simply does not grow. Hence growing up in adversity, neglect, and stress can actually damage neuronal connections in the brain, leading to lifelong changes in the body’s immune system and permanent declines in health outcomes, earnings, and educational attainment. This is pertinent because over 40 million children under the age of 5 are exposed to conflict and war across the world.
Early childhood development has been incorporated into the SDGs through Target 4.2. Yet there is a massive financial shortfall—access to preprimary education in low-income countries is below 20 percent. If we continue with “business as usual”, then the 249 million children (43 percent of children) in low and middle-income countries who suffer from extreme development risk—from poverty or stunting—will lose more than a quarter of average adult income. The societal cost of not reducing stunting to 15 percent ranges from 4-13 percent of GDP across the low-income countries. And the cost of not improving child development through preprimary education and home visiting can be as large as 4 percent of GDP.
In terms of policies, early childhood development can be aided by women’s education, early learning opportunities, daycare, preschool, health insurance, family social protection, access to clean water and sanitation, and efforts to protect children from stress and maltreatment. One promising area is the deployment of community health workers at scale, which includes training on parental interaction with children—examples of successful programs in this area include Jamaica, Peru, and Pakistan. Financing is important, as are networks to promote best practice in early childhood development. The critical issues in early childhood development are intersectoral—we need to integrate health, nutrition, education, social protection, and child protection.
Fundamentally, without investment in the early years of the next generation, sustainable development will be short-circuited.
The neuroscience of “deep reading”
The neuroscience shows that literacy is not only about knowledge and productivity, but also about contemplation, reflection, and critical reasoning. Without literacy, the good society vanishes, and children are incapable of reaching their full potential.
The starting point is to understand that the human brain was not born to read, multiply numbers, or program. Instead, we have design principles that allow us to make new circuits out of older parts—networks originally designed for vision, language, and cognition. When we become ever more sophisticated, it adds affect, emotion, value, and morality. And these circuits can either be impoverished or elaborated. This is one reason why it is important to develop the component parts of those reading circuits from the earliest age (zero to five). This is not just about language and cognition, but about forming moral and ethical children.
Reading is not just surface-level decoding. Human beings develop “deep reading” processes, beginning with background knowledge, which allows them to become analogy makers (from what we know to what we read). This in turn allows them to make inferences, which then paves the way for empathic understanding of others, so that they can ultimately come to a critical analysis of what is read. This then leads to generativity—novel thought and insight. Deep reading entails “passing over”, which enables people to inculcate empathy and understanding of others by entering into their lives. Hence deep reading is a moral laboratory. But if critical analysis and empathy are not added to the circuitry, we lose the foundation of the good society and the ability to resist demagoguery, demonization of the other, and “fake news.”
Practical interventions with technology
Technology can help develop the circuits of the reading brain. We must be careful here, though—while digital technology brings many pedagogic advantages, it can also impede learning. Reliance on digital media has well-documented consequences—increased skimming, browsing and word spotting. It leads to increased distraction and decreased attention spans (attention span is about half of what it was even a decade ago). And this in turn leads to diminished memory, concentration, critical analysis, and empathy, as people gravitate to comfortable, non-challenging, and closed-off silos of knowledge. For instance, studies show that there has been a 40 percent decline in empathy among youth over the past decade. The key question, therefore, is whether changes in attention spans and the expectation of constant, immediate, and voluminous information threaten the formation of deep reading in young digital readers.
The challenge is to navigate these minefields and exploit digital wisdom in education. For example, can we use the insights of neuroscience to create an experience on a tablet that can help children in poor countries learn to read effectively? Can we help new readers develop a bi-literate brain, and to know when to skim and how to read deeply, with empathy, critical analysis, and insight? Experiments show that this is possible. And by reaching 100 million with open platforms, we can reduce global poverty by 12 percent.
We have practical examples of how targeted interventions based on neuroscience can help overcome the learning crisis, measured by the percent of grade 2 students who cannot read a single word in a short text (over 80 percent in counties like Malawi, India, and Ghana) or perform two-digit subtraction (again, over 80 percent in countries like India and Uganda). In a Millennium Villages Malawi intervention, teachers were asked to follow a simple methodology—emphasis on letter sounds; teaching one letter per day; practicing blending and sounding together, and decoding; individual reading practice; and corrective feedback for each student. The results were successful, as the treatment group outperformed the control group. The same experiment was undertaken in India, and the results were again positive—across grades 1-3, 70-90 percent were reading at grade level in the treatment group, compared to 20 percent of less in the control group. This approach, which uses classroom time highly effectively, needs to be scaled up dramatically, and technology can help reach scale.
Another intervention shows how school attendance can not only be monitored effectively, but improved—a study from India used biometrics to diagnose absence and improve attendance, by using an education extension monitor to go to the child’s home to assess why they were absent. The results differed by gender. For boys, the main reasons for chronic absenteeism were illness (60 percent) and helping on family farm (18 percent). For girls, it was illness (46 percent) and menstruation (31 percent). This system proved effective in reducing chronic absenteeism, because it grappled with the deep roots of the problem.
Cultivating altruism—children as teachers
We have come to understand that teaching is one of nature’s most remarkable inventions. Teaching is not simply knowledge transfer between teachers and learners. Cognitive components are important, but teaching also contains emotional, interpersonal, and motivational aspects. Teaching is remarkably complex—its cognitive aspects regarding knowledge transfer are twinned with interpersonal aspects.
In teaching, there is mind-to-mind coupling. Teaching is a natural cognitive ability on the part of humans. This is universal and deeply-embedded in human nature. There is even evidence that toddlers and even one-year old infants teach, in the sense of acting to reduce a knowledge gap, even though they are not taught how to teach. Human teaching is unique among the various kinds of teaching found among other animals.
With respect to the interpersonal aspects of teaching, there is heart-to-heart coupling as well as mind-to-mind coupling. Altruism is a natural human instinct. Research indicates that toddlers spontaneously engage in helping behavior. Some of this research on altruism in toddlers has been done without reference to teaching. Nevertheless, teaching embeds values such as altruism, responsibility, trust, respect, and friendship. It follows that encouraging children to teach other children in schools and in informal situations hones their altruistic tendencies and contributes to the good society.
Education and the abatement of violent religious extremism
Education is also an effective tool against violent extremism, as can be seen from the experience of Pakistan. Part of the problem is the hijacking of the education system to promote hatred, demonization of the other, and violence. Yet the education system can also be used to heal these wounds. Psychological profiles of young insurgents show that they lack logical reasoning and critical thinking skills, allowing them to believe whatever authority figures tell them. The root problem is the toxic admixture of poverty, politics, and power. These children are mainly high school dropouts who cannot envision any hope for a sustainable future. They often lack an authority figure as their fathers worked abroad. And they tend to hail from low socio-economic backgrounds, typically from rural areas.
This attests to the importance of education in poor and rural areas. It has been demonstrated that corrective religious education, psycho-social intervention, literacy classes, sports and recreation, and vocational training can allow these boys to be reintegrated into society. Post-reintegration monitoring is extremely important in this context. It is vitally important to use education to inculcate critical thinking, social intelligence, and empathy. It is also important to use religious education to inculcate the virtues of tolerance and mutual understanding, including by letting children in multi-religious societies learn about other religions.
Education for 21st century challenges: A new approach for a new era
Education is essential to equip children and youth with the skills, knowledge, values, and mindsets they need to tackle the grave challenges of sustainable development, to craft solutions, and to drive positive change.
We therefore need to adapt the education system to the changing world of the 21st century, and find much more innovative solutions to what we learn, how we learn, when we learn, and where we learn. We need to move away from an instrumental and industrial approach to education. The things that are easiest to teach and test are also easiest to automate, digitize, or outsource—this is especially the case with routine cognitive skills. Digitalization can be both democratizing and concentrating, particularizing and homogenizing, empowering and disempowering. At the same time, the school curriculum ends up a shallow shadow of our rich multifaceted world. In a real sense, education today faces a “crisis of love”—students are disengaged, and teaching is held hostage to the demands of a dehumanized global economy.
In this vein, curricula should be reformed to teach fewer things more deeply. They should remain true to the disciplines but encourage interdisciplinary learning and the capacity to see problems through multiple lenses. There should also be a balance between knowledge of disciplines and knowledge about disciplines. Teaching should focus on areas with the highest transfer value—to allow people to apply what they know in different contexts. And it should aim for authenticity—thematic, problem-based, project-based, allowing for co-creation in conversation.
We also need to move from the old bureaucratic system to the new enabling system whereby all learn at a high level, not only a select few though sorting. This system would move from routine cognitive skills to complex ways of thinking, doing, and collaborating; from standardization and compliance to high-level professional knowledge workers; from a Tayloristic and hierarchical approach to a flatter, more collegial, work organization; and from accountability mainly to authorities to accountability also to peers and stakeholders.
Relatedly, we need to shift from vertical to horizontal teaching methods. The gap between work practices (based on cooperative attitudes) and the learning logic at school (based on individualistic premises) has been growing over the last quarter of a century. College education in particular is based on the myth of individual achievement, downplaying the power of academic teams. Even worse, many colleges still grade on the curve, which requires students to compete against each other for grades. Yet we know that cooperative learning is superior to competitive and individualistic learning. There is also evidence that horizontal teaching methods (whereby students work together collaboratively and ask teachers questions) are more conducive to the development of social capital than vertical teaching methods (whereby teachers lecture, students take notes, and teachers ask students questions).
In this light, self-designed education will likely become more the rule than the exception. This could take the form of individualized educational opportunities infused with ethical values, grounded in philosophy and history, and enriched by civil discourse among students and teachers alike. This would focus on content rather than hours in the classroom, and it would be carried out by students with the guidance, mentorship, and support of professors and peers.
Especially in wealthier countries, the changing nature of the economy suggests that every young person with the capability and desire for a university education should be able to get one. This vision of education requires adequate government funding, from pre-primary through university—including by providing free tuition at public universities. This represents not only an investment in the person, but in the country. At the same time, we need much more emphasis on on-the-job learning—this needs to be recognized as just as valid as a university education.
We should also consider new institutional models of education, including schools that offer practical experience in building community and opposing the dominant technocratic paradigm and cult of individualism, which stresses that the only social goal is to make money, and that education must further this goal. Lifelong learning must be at the heart of a new approach to education, which leads to a healthier formation of citizens and better social mobility. And education must make room for people with disabilities.
Technology can also be deployed to teach the new skills required to succeed in the 21st century. Evidence shows, for example, that simulators can be effective in teaching motor skills and that game-based learning can yield positive results. Evidence from India also shows that technology can be effective in teaching women in the informal sector, especially with life-skills training—people in the informal sector learn differently and need different kinds of skills. This can help create communities of learning and practice, supported by technology.
Finally, a vital democracy requires an informed electorate. Educating for global citizenship requires the ability to think critically, write clearly, and communicate effectively. It requires an understanding of the complexities and moral imperatives of sustainable development. And it requires empathic connection and an ethical standpoint.
According to the OECD, an educational system attuned to these new challenges would emphasize three competencies:
Creating new value. This encompasses processes of creating, making, and bringing into being, and outcomes that are innovative and original, contributing something of intrinsic positive worth. The constructs that underpin this competence are imagination, inquisitiveness, persistence, collaboration, and self-discipline.
Reconciling tensions and dilemmas. In today’s globalized and imbalanced world, young people must become adept at handling tensions, dilemmas, and tradeoffs. The underlying constructs are empathy, adaptability, and trust.
Taking responsibility. Dealing with novelty, change, diversity, and ambiguity assumes that individuals can “think for themselves.” This implies moral and intellectual maturity, whereby a person can reflect and evaluate actions in terms of ethics and morality.
The role of universities in sustainable development
Universities must inculcate the virtues associated with sustainable development—care for our common humanity and our common home. They must play a central role in the implementation of the SDGs, especially in terms of providing academic and technical input and training the next generation. Laudato Si’ puts a strong emphasis on ecological education for ecological citizenship. Much of this takes place through religious institutions, but this still requires the kind of rigorous training associated with universities.
Yet the reality is different. Most universities do not see education in sustainable development as part of their core mandate. Administrative structures make it hard for them to promote the kind of interdisciplinary learning required for sustainable development. There are impediments such as silos across departments and disciplines, pressure to prioritize academic publications, governmental oversight, financial constraints, pressure from donors and trustees, and students who care only about grades. Universities often lack the needed resources in areas of faculty, curriculum, research, and pedagogy. Regulation often restricts the capacity space of universities to innovate. Universities rarely interact with their local communities, including in terms of influencing policy. Most universities are not online at the scale needed to students to experiment with different modes of learning. And there is the problem of the “ideological colonization” of universities, whereby education is seen as a market commodity subject to market forces, rather than a vital component of the common good.
Sustainable development is not something that can simply be taught in a classroom—it requires a continuum of research, teaching, and practice. It is also a field that is rapidly evolving, and this dynamism to be incorporated in curricula. Life-long learning is also important, as many of those who need to learn about these issues are no longer in university. And people must be trained to work in sustainable development across all sectors—public, private, and non-profit.
Universities in richer countries should also partner with universities in developing countries, including teacher training colleges, to help train the next generation of sustainable development leaders. And when new schools need to be built to meet SDG4, the funding of teacher training is crucial.
In the academic context, all fields must hone in on the key challenges of sustainable development. Economists would prioritize inequality and global poverty. Scientists would stress sustainable development solutions to the environmental crisis. Teacher-education specialists would utilize and share the latest discoveries in neuroscience to help nurture creativity, curiosity, and confidence in the classroom. And all studies would be interdisciplinary, bringing students together from different fields to work collaboratively.
In this context, the curriculum of economics education is especially important. Economics plays a key role in making good policies politically possible, as economic reasoning has a powerful effect on what can be done—and ought to be done—in the economy. There is therefore a need to reform how economics is taught, to align better with the challenges of sustainable development. Currently, what students are taught in introductory economics classes bears little resemblance to how economics is actually conducted and what students actually care about—issues like inequality, climate change, global poverty. To help equip students with the tools to tackle the problems of sustainable development, a new CORE (Curriculum Open-Access Resources for Economics) has been developed by a global collaboration of economic researchers and educators to offer an alternative introduction to economics—one grounded more in reality, in a more sophisticated vision of human nature, in the topics that most interest students, and in issues of power relationships and fairness as well as efficiency.
Following the example of Laudato Si’, it is also important for economics programs to rethink the whole development paradigm. In this sense, the term “too-big-to-fail”—as it relates to size, interconnectedness, and critical importance—should apply also to major ecosystems. Drawing a parallel with the financial bailouts, we need a large rescue package to save something far more valuable than the banks—the large terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems that sustain life on earth. This should become a major component of economics and business education. We must also invest in the education of the caretakers of ecosystem services—not only do these people not get the credit they deserve, but they are victims of injustice, with little in the way of power or political influence.
A key question is whether sustainable development should be considered a profession. This is not the case right now—there are no universally accepted skills and knowledge sets associated with expertise in sustainable development, there is no established teaching protocol, there are no universally accepted credentials, and employers do not consistently recognize and reward skills in sustainable development. And while there are common values that underpin sustainable development programs around the world, dictated by the SDGs themselves, these values do not imbue university teaching at this point. The SDG Academy was founded to fill these gaps—to break down institutional barriers and to support universities in terms of creating and curating online courses in sustainable development, taught by leading experts from diverse institutions and regions. The goal is to equip a million learners around the world over the next three years with the knowledge and skills needed to grapple with the challenges of sustainable development.
Universities also have a role to play when it comes to educating children on sustainable development. We know that when children are exposed to these kinds of values, they are inclined to change mindsets and behaviors. Yet schools and teachers are not always equipped with the appropriate skills and knowledge. To solve this problem, we should utilize digital resources, online courses, and curriculum guides—complemented by an advocacy program. In terms of digital resources, there is scope for creating an online one-stop-shop to give students and teachers easy access to the accumulated knowledge in sustainable development. Teachers can educate themselves with online courses, enabling them to pass on the knowledge to their students. Curriculum guides are needed for integrating this knowledge and applying it to particular contexts. All of this requires local advocates, including university students.
The role of religious higher education
In many universities, especially in Europe and North America, there is a secular myopia about the role of religion, including when it comes to development. Yet there is a growing awareness of religion’s capacity for constructive social transformation. For example, the mission of the new Keough School of Global Affairs at Notre Dame University is to advance integral human development, a holistic model of flourishing based on respect for the dignity and full potential of the human person. Its research and teaching centers on the design and implementation of effective and ethically-sound responses to the challenges of sustainable development—and in this context, the study of religion, culture, and ethics feature prominently in the education of global professionals. By building partnerships with government, business, civil society, and religious and humanitarian organizations, the School seeks to integrate disciplines and best practices. And in doing so, it engages with religions and religious institutions and actors on a global scale.
More generally, Catholic universities have an important role to play in this space—they explicitly ground questions of value, meaning, purpose, and ethics; they explore and underscore spiritual dimensions of human flourishing; they provide philosophical foundations for the unity of knowledge and integration of disciplines; and they articulate second-order ethical discourse bridging religious and secular perspectives, methods, and approaches on the basis of the common good. They can also address the absence of an adequately integral understanding of education and how it relates to human flourishing. They can draw upon, serve, and partner with networks of Catholic schools and universities across the world. Catholic universities specializing in development can send professionals to work with local Catholic schools.
There are some differences between secular and Catholic visions of education, of course. The Catholic schools emphasize the development of the whole person—including the religious/ transcendent dimension, the moral dimension, and the social dimension. Instead of faith in tension with science, Catholic education teaches the unity of knowledge, which encompasses faith and reason. It embeds implicit views on freedom and truth, not shared by secular education. And rather than just transmitting culture, it offers a critique of culture by developing a commitment to the common good, justice, and goodness.
Catholic schools face challenges too. There are limited “networks” of these schools, which tend to be diffuse and decentralized. This requires figuring out the landscape and assessing the needs. The terrain is also shifting in terms of resources, personnel, pedagogies, theologies, different generations of students etc. It is also important to break through the secular ceiling, so that Catholic and other faith-based educational institutions can work with secular institutions of learning for the common good. Interfaith cooperation is also important in this context, so that religions can collaborate on educational goals.
The importance of moral education and the ethics of sustainable development
Not only is education failing to encompass issues like climate change, social exclusion, the SDGs, or new forms of slavery—it is also silent when it comes to ethics, justice, and fraternity.
This is important because education must go far beyond transmitting knowledge—it must also incorporate critical thinking, ethical reflection, and the inculcation of the right values. Today more than ever, we must educate for inclusion, dialogue, solidarity, and fraternity—for sustainable development, and ultimately for peace. In the words of Pope Francis, education is about practicing a “grammar of dialogue” as a foundation for a culture of encounter and mutual respect to overcome ignorance, insularity, and indifference. Education must inculcate a different way of looking at the world, rejecting the throwaway culture, and instead grappling with the deep challenges of inequality, exclusion, and environmental degradation. It must also allow the excluded and those on the existential peripheries to become protagonists of their own development, so that all can participate in building a new society, a civilization of love. Education is also needed to break down barriers of hatred and suspicion, and to end violent extremism, especially through the abuse of religion that comes from a wholly inadequate form of education and moral development. Education must be humanized, to promote integral human development in its totality.
Education is also about learning to live in a world facing limits, in a planet under pressure, by helping to instill new habits of ecological citizenship. As Pope Francis stressed in Laudato Si’, “Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.” Education must seek to overcome this logic of the technocratic paradigm, which insists that human beings can and should achieve mastery over the earth and its resources in the name of unlimited economic progress, which gives rise to a ceaseless quest for profits in the context of unbridled consumerism. This paradigm disconnects human activity from questions of ends or purposes, leading all economic activity to be assessed narrowly in terms of utility, productivity, and efficiency—negating any inherent dignity or value in either the human person or in creation.
Fundamentally, education is the frontline of our struggle for a more just and peaceful world. At its core, education trains people to build unity and live in peace. It not only builds skills and competences but develops capacities for active, responsible citizenship.
Education and the inculcation of virtue
Historically, the primary purpose of education was seen as the formation of character and the inculcation of virtue. This is an insight going back to Plato and Aristotle, who stressed that the common good must be based on ethics, justice, and friendship, which must be cultivated. Specifically, Aristotle believed that human nature needed to be educated to attain its telos or purpose—namely, happiness or human flourishing. He thought this would be possible with the help of reason and the cultivation of virtues. In Confucianism too, education emphasizes the values needed for self-cultivation, managing the family, governing the state, and bringing peace to the world. Traditional moral education was, to a large extent, based on role models.
This conception of ethics also became part of Christian moral thought. In both the eastern and western traditions, moral education aimed at the cultivation of virtue with the help of reason and on the basis of human nature—with the addition of divine law as a guide to human reason, and divine grace as a supplement to human nature. In Christianity, a relatively ethnocentric Judaic ethic became universalized, and the virtue of charity came to be seen as the basic principle of ethics (this would have been alien to the ancient world). Again, this was linked to the imitation of a personal role model (especially the role model of Christ). In the Catholic tradition, this approach was developed into a sophisticated ethical system, most notably by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica.
Across all major ethical traditions, therefore, we can say that education was linked to the inculcation of virtue, both individual and social—giving people the ability to calm the mind, distinguish right from wrong, act with empathy, eliminate selfish behavior, and hone critical reasoning skills. There is indeed a classical cross-cultural consensus on the principle that if the adults are not good, then the children will not be good either. There are different ways in which the adults are not morally good—they could be caught within structures of sin or institutions that inculcate and perpetuate vices; they might lack certain virtues, such as courage, compassion, or critical thinking; or they might simply be indifferent, in the sense of simply not caring enough. The bottom line is that it is not possible to create the conditions for being a viable economic agent without the conditions for living a meaningful human life, which entails being a good person. It is therefore vital to infuse education with ethical values.
The eclipse of ethical education
In the modern era, we have moved dramatically away from the idea that education is about character building—focusing instead on the acquisition of knowledge and skills needed for a career or to meet market needs. In the process, we have lost track of a truly holistic vision of education focused on integral human development—seeking the true (the realm of human knowledge), the good (the realm of ethics and judgment), the just (the realm of political and civic life), the beautiful (the realm of creativity and aesthetics), the sustainable (the realm of natural and physical health), and the prosperous (the realm of economic life).
Much of this change in emphasis can be traced to the Enlightenment. The confessional divide in Europe prompted an attempt to disconnect ethics from the claims of a single religion. The emphasis instead was on norms that were binding for everyone—this was the basis of the universalist ethics developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, associated with philosophers such as Kant and Mill. One of the greatest changes over the course of the 19th century was the evaporation of the metaphysical foundation for ethics, the belief that moral norms are objective. Nietzsche, for example, completely rejected this idea.
One of the outcomes of the Enlightenment was that human reason took center stage, at the expense of both divine law and divine grace. And reason became identified with the intellectual capacity of the individual, and the dominant figure became the self and its happiness. Under this paradigm, education aimed mainly at the development of the rational capacities of the individual with the accumulation of information. And the ideal virtues today carry the prefix “self”—self-esteem, self-respect, self-determination. Ethics today is dominated by individualism and the self. This is also related to the rise of ethical subjectivism, the notion that ethical decisions are based on subjective feelings.
As a result of these developments, we have witnessed the peeling off of moral convictions as a guide to behavior and the vanishing of the idea of objective truth—not only with regard to value questions, but with regard to facts too. In these conditions, a common political discourse is no longer possible. All of this makes it extremely difficult for moral education to function in today’s society.
This has profoundly negative consequences for the common good. In too many countries, the capacity of institutions like families, schools, religions, and the community at large to inculcate the virtues of a flourishing society has declined precipitously over the past few decades. We have been spending down the moral capital accumulated in past generations. In some of these countries, democracy itself is in crisis. The only solution is a commitment to rebuilding civic virtue underpinned by a shared spiritual and moral vision of what a flourishing society should look like. This calls for recognizing the sacred dignity and worth of every person linked to a commitment to the common good, in the sense that each can flourish only when all can flourish. In turn, this requires spiritually-grounded education for citizenship.
To inculcate a stronger understanding of moral duties in our world today, three things are necessary. First, we need a metaphysics of ethics—rejecting the reduction of ethics to personal choices and subjective preferences, and the notion that ethics simply reflects the consensus of society. Second, we need to grapple with concrete ethical challenges that people (including children) face, because ethical reflection never takes place in the abstract. Third, moral education cannot simply be academic, but based on actual dialogue and witness.
The importance of ethics in economics and business education
In contrast with the Aristotelian notion that a good constitution has as its end the formation of good citizens, economics says that it possible to govern a society well, no matter how bad the people are. This “economic alchemy” reflects in some part the views of David Hume, who argued that in establishing a system of government, it should be assumed that every person is a knave who only cares about his or her private interest. Hume thought that base motives could be harnessed for the public good. The classical economists described how this “constitution for knaves” could play out in governing economic affairs. Most famously, Adam Smith argued that it was self-interest rather than benevolence that led to better social outcomes. An implication of this is that good laws and good institutions replaced good citizens as the sine qua non of good government. This embeds a mechanistic paradigm, with people acting as mere automatons, pursuing fixed preferences in the context of self-interest maximization.
In turn, this had the effect of banishing ethical reasoning from economic considerations, based on the presumption that with the right laws and institutions, prices would do the work of morals. Economics therefore embraced a value-free and sometimes value-averse standpoint whereby instead of ethics, human beings were held to be motivated by the calculus of personal gain. Avarice—one of the deadly sins—was rehabilitated as individual self-interest, and homo economicus became an acceptable—even admirable—member of society. This attitude has now permeated all areas of society, in a sharp departure from the virtue ethics of the past. Today, economics is largely seen as a morality-free zone—as long as there is no dispute about property rights, there is no need for people to care about each other’s wellbeing.
Yet while prices do indeed play a positive role in society, it is not true that the pursuit of self-interest can be harnessed by prices, incentives, and markets in a way that eliminates the need to cultivate virtue. Virtue remains necessary in a well-governed economy. Modern economics shows that key markets—labor markets, financial markets, and markets for information, for example—will not function effectively without some commitment to diligence, fairness, honesty, trust, reciprocity, and solidarity. These virtues are essential to facilitating beneficial exchanges, which would not take place in their absence. It is therefore not possible for prices to replace morals.
In reality, this vision of a “moral economy” is not an oxymoron or a utopian pipe dream—it reflects, to a large extent, how we actually function. As Aristotle and Aquinas stressed, the virtues of good citizenship are not alien to human nature. Over the past few decades, a huge literature in behavioral economics has shown conclusively that even when large sums of money are at stake, motives such as fairness, reciprocity, and altruism are common—so much so that homo economicus is in a distinct minority in most populations.
But this is not reflected in the study of economics. Instead, we have “dangerous exposure” in classrooms, as students are taught that homo economicus is who we are and who we are supposed to be—and as long as markets are sufficiently competitive, and property rights are clear, we can harness self-interest to yield socially-desirable outcomes. This exposure is dangerous. Experiments show that children who play with coins are less helpful in an assigned task than children who play with other objects. Even reading a passage about economic rationality can induce people in experiments to act in a selfish way. Experiments also show that when there is an incentive on the table, it is seen as permission to act selfishly. The signal sent is that this is a situation in which being self-interested is acceptable or even required. This can induce people who would otherwise follow pro-social norms to set aside their scruples. All of this is encouraging our citizens to be amoral. Fundamentally, financial incentives alone cannot provide the foundations of good governance for a society seeking sustainable development.
Studies also show that students exposed to homo economicus display ethical degeneration over time—moral solidarity, ethical empathy, and moral imagination decline while opportunism, materialism, and hedonism rise. Students lose moral capacity in the process of being taught. A key question is whether these findings reflect self-selection or indoctrination. While some students self-select in economics and management courses, the evidence suggests that it is mainly indoctrination. This gives rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy—they are taught homo economicus, and they then act like homo economicus.
This also has implications for business education. Under the mechanistic paradigm, which regards economic interaction as a zero-sum game of maximizing self–interest, business school students assess any form of moral, social, or ecological responsibility as a curb on managerial freedom. This reflects a quantitative conception of freedom, which assumes “the more, the better”, and which is loggerheads with broader responsibility. Yet evidence suggests that firms actually do well by doing good—there is a strategic and causal connection between the internalization of ethical values and financial sustainability over time.
In terms of educational reform, we need to move from the mechanistic paradigm of conventional economics to a humanistic paradigm, in alignment with Catholic social teaching and other ethical traditions. Instead of the distorted and dangerous anthropology of homo economicus, this would adopt the standpoint of the entire “conditio humana”—a more recognizable and psychologically complex ordinary human, one that also relies on concern for others, the intrinsic desire to do the right thing, and ethical motivations that can work in tandem rather than at cross purposes with incentives. It would engage economics and business students in ethical issues, teaching them to flex their moral muscles. It would teach students that markets are valuable, but never in isolation of ethical and social preferences. And business education would undergo a conceptual shift from a quantitative to a qualitative notion of freedom, whereby freedom and responsibility enhance each other—instead of “the more, the better”, this form of freedom stresses “the better, the more”, which opens up space for better, more creative, and more ethical options.
Ethical education in the workplace
Ethical education also has a role to play in the corporate world. In this context, it is important to distinguish between corporate training and corporate education. Most companies focus on the former rather than the latter, limiting internal and external learning to the provision of knowledge and skills needed to perform specific tasks. The goal is to allow employees to work with optimal effectiveness and efficiency in different areas of corporate core competence. Corporate education, on the other hand, goes beyond this narrow focus by adding dimensions that deal with “doing the right thing” rather than merely “doing things right.” The purpose is to stimulate normative reflection and to frame daily business activities in the context of a greater purpose.
In this context, teaching core philosophical concepts from the great traditions—such as the golden rule, the impartial spectator, the veil of ignorance, the imperative of responsibility—is important, but this alone does not change managerial behavior and attitudes. We need instead a greater reliance on case studies, including those that deal with: (i) why ordinary people can be driven to act in an unethical way (such as by the setting of unrealistic targets or offering high bonuses predicated on short-termist thinking); (ii) how to prioritize values when different objectives clash and it becomes necessary to find a compromise; (iii) the necessity of stakeholder dialogue and co-creation; (iv) how general moral principles that are broadly supported at the societal level (such as integral and sustainable human development) can be applied to specific roles and situations by managers.
One particular model of corporate ethical education is the Confucianism-inspired “family culture” model. In the traditional Chinese view, the family is a vital social institution that can unite hundreds of family members to live harmoniously, respectfully, and lovingly with each other. Family members help and cooperate with each other, which embeds social norm of trust, self-sufficiency, and respect. From this perspective, a business enterprise can adopt the spirit and functions of a tradition Confucian family by engaging family values to transform, educate, and benefit all people. Business leaders assume the role of clan elders who respect, love, help, and take care of their employees, providing them with a sense of belonging, and enabling people to treat each other as members of an extended family. In this system, the manager plays the role of leader, parent, and teacher. And the value of a business enterprise is measured by the happiness of its workers and the appreciation shown by customers. Equally important are promoting good health, ecological sensitivity, religious practice across the different traditions, and giving back to society.
For family culture, how children are treated is especially important. Companies run along these lines often offer special privileges to expectant mothers, as well as maternity leave, daycare centers, child subsidies, and education subsidies that cover all levels of education from kindergarten through university. To promote filial piety, managers might offer free phone calls to parents or monthly filial allowances to employees with elderly parents.
These concepts are taking root in some Chinese companies with great success. This business model builds internal trust, removes the need for extensive monitoring of time and activities, leads to a high employee satisfaction rate, and promotes a reciprocal response on the part of employees that goes beyond minimum duty. This is turn can boost productivity and profitability. The key point is that ethical concerns take precedence over profit making. This system encourages ethical education in employees, and puts a high priority on humanistic education and elevating the mind. And all can then act as role models for the wider inculcation of virtue in the commercial world and across society at large.
Religious perspectives on education
The Jewish tradition regards education as the sine qua non of enabling people to fulfil their human potential, making it critical for the actualization of the God-given inalienable human dignity. The value of education has been remarkably central to Jewish life and history over the ages. The text that Judaism reveres as the essential Divine Revelation, the Pentateuch, is called the Torah, which means “instruction” or “education.” The study of this book, and of the literary expounding and expanding on it, is seen by Jewish tradition as a supreme religious duty.
The Torah teaches the uniqueness of the father of monotheism, Abraham, in that he will teach his children and his household to observe the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19). Above all, the “credo” of Judaism, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) contains the verse “and you shall teach them diligently (i.e. the divinely revealed words) to your children and you shall discuss them when you sit down in your home and when you walk on the way.”
Following the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people in 586BCE, the leaders understood that, to survive exile in a foreign land without their geographic security and roots, the people needed to be knowledgeable possessors of their identity—and this of course called for education. The synagogue thus emerged in the Babylonian exile as the gathering place where the words of instruction of the Torah were heard and learnt. After the exile, this educational innovation was extended further by Ezra the Scribe to encompass official public readings of the Torah and an increasing focus on public education. This was extensively embraced and developed by Pharisaic Judaism. By the first century, Judea had a free national program of education, enrolling children from age 6 or 7. The free and meritocratic character of this program cannot be overemphasized—the sages declare (TB Nedarim 81a) “do not neglect the children of the poor, for from them will go forth the Torah.”
The Hebrew word for education is hinuch, which means “dedication”, and is the same word used for the dedication of the Temple. To be sure, Judaism places much importance on providing life skills—the Talmud (TB Kiddushim 29a) refers to the obligation of a father to teach his child a craft, so that the next generation can live their lives and maintain their own families in dignity and security. But education is above all hinuch, a spiritual dedication to the promotion of the moral virtues that ennoble the human spirit and society.
The traditional Jewish method of religious study is known as havruta, which involves two partners coming together to grapple with a third partner—the text. Havruta partners read a text aloud in small sections, attempt to understand these sections, and then assimilate them as a coherent whole. This process allows for the development of pro-social values in various ways. First, it encourages responsibility for the other, as partners are responsible for each other’s ultimate success. Second, since ideas are multi-faceted and complex, students learn how to navigate conflicts and respect the views of others. Third, the process of deliberate partnering, often of unlikely individuals, teaches students how to be in a critical relationship with those with whom they differ and even disagree. Fourth, it cultivates compassion and deep listening, as partners must listen on at least three levels—to the text, to each other, and to his or her own interpretations. Fifth, it allows for a movement between intellectual discussion and personal contemplation, as students use real life to understand the text, and then allow the text to inform real life. And sixth, it offers a dynamic approach to educational authority, breaking down traditional notions of the educator as one who has knowledge to impart to passive students—in havruta, the student is instead an active participant in the educational process, with the authority and responsibility to make valued contributions.
The sages of the Torah discuss the question: “which is greater—study or action?” (TB Kiddushin 40b). The conclude that study is greater, because study leads to action. The ultimate value of education is ethical action and interaction, as a basis for the wellbeing and flourishing of society as a whole.
According to Aquinas, the right to education comes from the natural law, stemming from the nature we share with animals (in terms of the rearing of children). Based on this natural law tradition, the Catholic Church relates education to the rearing of children, and as such considers it an expression of a child’s right to both knowledge and truth. Education, therefore, is not just about the acquisition of knowledge and skills, but the acquisition of truth—and that becomes the basis of the right to education.
Since its faith is based on the scriptures, Catholicism has a keen interest in literacy. Beyond this, education is regarded as an indispensable tool for the development of the human person. This is based on Christian anthropology, whereby the human person is created in the image and likeness of God, which expresses its potential for the abilities of the mind and the pursuit of knowledge. This anthropology also grounds human dignity, which compels all to seek the truth, including the truth about God. The truth that guides education in Catholic thought is the truth about a threefold relationship—between the person and God, between the person and his neighbor, and between the person and the natural world that supports life. This is a major theme in Laudato Si’, and it also constitutes a basic expression of justice.
Rooted in this Christian anthropology, the human person is considered to belong to a fallen nature, but is invited to rise in the grace of God. This also undergirds the Church’s approach to education—the idea that the person is called to transcend the limitations of fallen nature and become something greater. It is in this sense that education forms the character of the person. Education, therefore, has a basic anthropological character—it is about the acquisition of a manual of life, allowing a person to succeed across all dimensions of life.
For the Catholic Church, informal education is as important as formal education. Before children go to school, their family already begins to form them, introducing them to role models and value systems. Catholic social teaching stresses that the family is the primary forum for the education of the child, and it insists on the rights of parents to determine the form of their childrens’ education.
The Christian Orthodox Church offers two main sources of anthropology as a basis for moral education. One comes from the ascetic fathers, who located the fundamental problem of humanity in “self-love.” The purpose of education, therefore, is to cultivate altruistic virtues, following the example of St. Paul who called upon Christians to not put their own interests above the interests of others. The ascetic tradition stressed the importance of “kenotic love”—empting oneself to make space for others, just as Christ emptied himself of his divine glory in the Incarnation, and as the three persons of the Trinity do in their very way of being. The second source of moral education for the Orthodox tradition is the Holy Eucharist. This suggests that apart from communion with the other, there is no salvation. Christianity understands the human being as relational in its very nature. This means that the other must be respected and accepted as a very condition for one’s existence. Respect for otherness, therefore, emerges as a fundamental moral principle that must be taught in schools and safeguarded by civil law.
One of the most basic teachings of Buddhism is that “all things arise interdependently.” This idea of interdependent origination is Buddhism’s response to the universal challenges faced by human beings. In western thought, “being” is understood as already existing in the world. Buddhism, however, teaches that nothing exists in and of itself, which is revealed in the doctrines of interdependent origination and non-self. Buddhism regards the relationship among beings as a precondition of their existence. In particular, Mahayana Buddhism teaches that “nothing has a fixed entity.” This means that nothing has its own inherent, permanent substance, and that all things exist interdependently with others. From this perspective, self and others have no fixed entity, which is described as “emptiness”—and from this standpoint all of us are absolutely equal.
Therefore, what is most important from the Buddhist perspective of “living together” is how to transform the relationship among beings that arise interdependently. The starting point is the realization that “I am being sustained by everything around me.” Because we are all imperfect, we are all called upon to support each other and complement each other. This means that people who possess knowledge teach people who do not, including in an ethical sense. This gives rise to the Buddhist duty to support inclusive and equitable education.
The Hindu tradition is preeminently a tradition of knowledge. The name for the most ancient sacred text is Veda, a Sanskrit word meaning knowledge. In the Veda (Rg Veda 1.89.1) we find a prayer for noble teachings to come to us from all sides. Knowledge, as this text suggests, is not the monopoly or exclusive possession of any particular group or community. In Hinduism, one of the living forms of the divine is the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati, who has a special period in the Hindu calendar designated for her worship and honor. The teacher, as a disseminator of knowledge, is deeply revered in the Hindu tradition and there is a day set aside (gurupurnima) for students to express gratitude. It is considered a noble profession and a lifelong bond is forged between teacher and student. Among the various gifts, the gift of knowledge (vidya dana) is regarded as one of the most precious, since it continues to bear fruit. For this reason alone, it must be made available to all.
The value of knowledge across the Hindu tradition is a direct consequence of the fact that ignorance (avidya) is understood as a primary cause of suffering and knowledge has the pragmatic purpose of overcoming suffering. In the Hindu tradition, knowledge is not to be pursued for power, vanity, or greed, but for the overcoming of suffering.
If education aims at the common good in terms of overcoming suffering, it must be enriched with moral and ethical commitments. In this context, the Vedas narrate a dialogue between a teacher and his students. In the famous story, on the last day of classes, three groups of students approach their beloved teacher for a final teaching, the distillation of what they had received. To each group in turn, he uttered the syllable “da” and asked if they understood. Each group answered affirmatively. The first group interpreted this utterance as “control yourselves” (dama). The second thought it was “give” (datta). And the third heard “be compassionate” (daya).
This suggests three great virtues that should be taught through education. Control is the unique ability to consider the common good in all choices, to be moderate in use of the earth’s resources, and to desist from causing suffering to others. Giving is the joyous and abundant sharing of one’s gifts as an expression of gratitude for receiving, and as such is the antithesis of greed. And compassion is the identification with others in joy and sorrow, the deepest source of generosity and concern for the common good. These virtues are not only the finest fruits of education—they are also the moral grounds for an inclusive and quality education.
A multi-religious consensus
The religions are coming to a remarkable area of core consensus in terms of the moral imperative of sustainable development, which includes education. Not only do they all acknowledge human dignity but they all recognize that it is unbreakably linked to the common good. All religions also have a notion of solidarity and a notion of subsidiarity, in the sense that all are actors with both responsibility and agency. Another crucial moral principle is that capacity implies responsibility—if you have the means to solve a problem, you have the duty to do so. This applies clearly to the challenge of universal, quality, and equitable education as stressed by SDG4.
In this, the religions must play three vital roles. First, they must communicate the moral imperative of education for all. Second, they must become moral advocates at all levels—religious communities, local communities, nation states, and globally, Third, they must take action in the area of education, using their own initiative, capacities, and resources.
The religious traditions all prize virtue as integral to education. Virtue, in this sense, is understood as the realization of the excellency of a potential. Religious communities must do an assessment of their own assets in terms of this “virtue capital”, to figure out how to deploy it to meet the challenge of education. The virtue traditions also need to learn how to navigate with modern science—this calls for a stronger alliance between faith and reason.
Religion is also called upon to propose a moral education to address the predominant individualistic ethics and the associated technocratic paradigm. Through education infused with ethical values, religions can help build a moral framework to guide economic and societal interaction, including in terms of the values that must underpin scientific and technological progress, as well as harmonious co-existence in a multi-religious society.
From this perspective, religions are well- placed to propose an ethic of personhood as an alternative to individualism. The individual is an entity than can be conceived in itself, whereas a person can only exist in communion with others. This must become the golden rule of ethical education. Given that the prevailing individualism of our time threatens humanity with disintegration, religious education must propose a relational anthropology of personhood as the base of ethics. This can be an ecumenical and inter-religious proposition.