"Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions?"
In India, Geetha, the youngest child of a poor family, was pulled out of school at age nine because her father believed her time was better spent in doing housework and looking after the family‟s goats. He resisted the appeal of Geetha‟s teacher to send her back to school: “This is the way it has always been, and it will not change.” The boys in the village attend school every day and tease Geetha as she walks along the country road with her goats. She longs to go with them. “When I was younger I thought, I‟d study well and get a job. I really wanted to be a teacher. Now I just follow the goats.”1
In early August 1999, Yaguine Koite, 14, and Fode Tounkara, 15, stowed away in the landing gear bay of a Sabina airliner departing Conakry for Brussels. Their objective: an education that could improve their own lives and enable them to contribute to the well being of Africa. It was to be their passport to freedom from the poverty, conflict and affliction that stalked them during their childhood years in Guinea. In the unpressurized compartment, where temperatures plunged to 55 degrees below zero, their only shield against the cold was some extra layers of clothing—and hope. Found on their lifeless bodies when they were discovered at the Brussels airport was a heart-rending appeal. To the “excellencies and officials of Europe,” they wrote: “Help us. We have problems in Africa. We lack rights as children. We have wars and illness, we lack food.” “We have schools,” they added, “but we lack education. . . . We want to study, and we ask you to help us to study so we can be like you, in Africa.”2
If one has the determination needed to excavate the layers beneath the surface of these tragic events, one finds not only the fingerprints of those dark forces that have convulsed the twentieth century, but an agenda for the accomplishment of the century‟s unfinished business. Racism, nationalism, and materialism are the most obvious of the forces that raged in a century whose dominant characteristic was the clash of ideologies. Genocide and war claimed the lives of millions; millions more suffered from the side effects of conflict; and the purpose of countless others was thwarted by totalitarian or self-serving regimes.
Yet, despite its terrible failings, the 20th century has been a time of unprecedented advance. The ideological warfare that threatened the very existence of the planet gave way to new international institutions and agreements designed to harness nationalistic energies in a framework for common good. The nascent global economic system, though defective—as evidenced by the tremendous disparity between rich and poor—has brought into focus the need to rationalize the material pursuits of the world‟s population. Revolutions in agriculture, science, medicine, information technology and the extension of education to the masses have all contributed to individual well being. These changes took place simultaneously with a shift in consciousness that altered the perceptions of various peoples toward one another. The belief that women are essentially inferior in nature to men, that certain races or ethnic groups are superior to others, that poverty is an inescapable feature of the social order, that a particular religion can justifiably exalt itself over others, that a government can control its people, are among the age-old adamantine perspectives that have, in but a few decades, receded before a growing acknowledgement of the oneness of humankind.
The stage is set, therefore, for an aggressive agenda to consolidate the foundations of global society in the next century. No obstacle remains to the act of will necessary to complete this transition. It was progress toward this vision that stirred the dreams of Geetha, Yaguine Koite and Fode Tounkara. They were correct in their conclusion that education is the key to unlocking the potentialities of children to build a world of justice and unity. For the children of today are the protagonists who will shape the societies of the coming century.
Education for a New Century
To a significant degree, there is complicity between the current system of education worldwide and the disintegrative processes of the century now closing. This is manifest in the moral and spiritual crisis facing schools that have succumbed to violence and to a relativism that fails to find binding solutions in educational systems that provide at best inadequate instruction to their pupils, or in curricula that transfer information to serve a consumer society, draining human resources from rural to urban and from undeveloped to industrialized communities.
No less problematic is the systematic deprivation of girls in the educational process. Of the 120 million children deprived of access to education, 70 million are girls; the disparity is as high as 24% in certain countries. This “gender gap” in educational opportunities is exacerbated further when taking into consideration qualitative aspects such as participation in classrooms and access to higher education. The problem of the lack of education for girls is particularly disturbing in light of the data that has been available for more than a quarter of a century correlating critical development indicators with the girls‟ education. The evidence is unqualified. Teach girls, and infant mortality, birth rates, and incidence of AIDS fall. Factors such as the protection of the environment and support for increase. Considering all potential benefits, the education of girls produces the best rate of return on any investment made in the developing world.3
The central concern in the relation between education and the forces of disintegration that have assaulted global society is, in essence, not a failure of education per se, but rather, the inability of the field to keep pace with, or even lead, the process of transformation to a new age.
Any approach to education must be based upon a theory of knowledge and on a theory about the nature of the human being. Education as currently practiced in the nations of the world has two dominant aims. The first concerns the need to prepare children to earn a livelihood. The second conveys to children the ideology of the nation. There will, of course, in any educational approach need to be room to prepare children for earning a livelihood and for being good citizens—both essential aspects of becoming productive members of society. But alone, and carried to an extreme, these aims dwarf human potentiality, particularly when they are hidden by a veil of lofty rhetoric. A misplaced emphasis on “the real world” may, for example, belie a materialistic philosophy. A patriotic call to good citizenship may be nothing more than a mask for totalitarian control.
With several million adherents spread in almost every country, the Baha'i Faith is attempting to create a global network of educational organizations and projects that can respond to the challenges of the new century. In more than 2000 grassroots activities in villages and in cities, including tutorial programs and character classes, and at more than 400 sustained efforts, including academic schools and training centers, Baha'is are learning to translate their broad teachings and principles on world unity, equality and tolerance, and individual and social transformation into practical action.
In Global Education: A Worldwide Movement, Kenneth A. Tye identifies the need for “thoughtful, continual dialogue throughout the world about the kind of global education that is needed to prepare students for productive, rewarding lives in this new world” and highlights the Baha'i network as one notable example:
“In Baha'i communities around the world, schools have been established to provide education based upon Baha'i teachings. The promotion of academic learning, fostering of moral development, and upholding of spiritual values are all given priority. The goal of the school is to develop young people with well-trained minds who are, at the same time, imbued with distinctive moral and spiritual characteristics so as to enable them to contribute to the well-being and advancement of their community.”6
In an attempt to candidly reveal the underlying thought behind the proposals which follow, two principles are offered from Baha'i literature. With respect to the individual, those writings say:
“Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.”7
With respect to social progress, they identify an equally vital need:
“. . . All details of material civilization have reached the highest stage of perfection, but spiritual civilization has been left behind. Material civilization is like unto the lamp, while spiritual civilization is the light in that lamp. If the material and spiritual civilization become united, then we will have the light and the lamp together, and the outcome will be perfect. For material civilization is like unto a beautiful body, and spiritual civilization is like unto the spirit of life. If that wondrous spirit of life enters this beautiful body, the body will become a channel for the distribution and development of the perfections of humanity.”8
The first of these statements is an expression of confidence in the potentialities latent in each human being, and in the power of education to awaken them. The second acknowledges a spiritual as well as a material dimension of reality, and thereby affirms a place for religion as well as science as knowledge systems for the investigation of reality.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the astonishing advances in science emboldened humanity, giving rise to confidence that science could, at last, be the fountainhead of truth, and that all aspects of social order could be rationalized accordingly. In such a world, God was dead, and human nature confined to its material dimension. Many were the brazen experiments shaped by this perspective. Yet, from the certainty of modernity to the stark nihilism of postmodern doubt, the century has been buffeted by extremes in attempting to know reality. The study of physics, which contributed so much to the mechanistic view of the universe, later gave rise to the possibility that purpose and intelligence are intrinsic to the universe. By the end of the century, a beaten, yet wiser human race now recognizes the limits of scientific investigation interpreted through a set of materialistic assumptions. Moving beyond both positivism and relativism, humanity is learning to participate in a continual search for truth and to gradually translate this understanding into just action.
As to religion, so inept has it become in its degenerated forms of extreme fundamentalism and anti-rationalism that it has long been discounted by thinking people as a means for the investigation of reality and the championing of truth. Yet, historically, the power of religion to overcome barriers and to be a source of unity and progress for civilization building is self-evident. Researchers such as Robert Coles9 remind us of the persistent presence of a spiritual nature in the child that, however much we might ignore it, remains active in shaping the understanding of reality and practice in the physical and social realms. There will, undoubtedly, continue to be problems with the role of religious denominations in nurturing sectarianism and suppressing human progress. Nevertheless, the original impulse imparted by the founders of the world‟s religions has been a motive force in developing human attributes and ethical systems that served as the basis of social institutions. To deny the influence and role of religion in contributing its share to global civilization is to surrender to fossilization caused by moral degeneration.
The progress of humanity, therefore, increasingly depends upon an intensifying dialogue between science and religion. The role of education, in response to this new conception of knowledge and to the reawakening to the moral and spiritual dimension of man‟s nature, is to prepare individuals to utilize the two knowledge systems of science and religion in order to systematically seek truth about the world, both within and without, and to translate that understanding into a continually evolving pattern of action towards the creation of a new social reality.
In order to act effectively in the current period of human history, individuals must work for a two-fold purpose—to transform themselves and to contribute to the transformation of society. Personal transformation involves the development of innate potentialities, those unique talents and abilities as well as those virtues and qualities which adorn every human being. Social transformation involves the effort of the individual to contribute to the progress and welfare of the human race. These two elements are inseparable. It is not sufficient, for example, for an individual to be just when the structures of society perpetuate injustice. Nor can society establish its unity through well-ordered laws when the hearts of human beings smolder with hatred. The individual is organic with the world; the inner life affects the outer environment and the environment deeply affects individual character. Every change in the construction of the social reality must be the result of these mutual interactions.
Fostering the Development of Capabilities
Throughout history, those who have undertaken the task of educating humanity have been faced with a paradox. To truly educate, you must understand the nature of reality and the nature of the human being. But surely any such understanding is limited. When these limitations are imposed on the educational process, the resulting new human beings would necessarily be less than those who created the educational methods. Thus, the failure of approaches such as behaviorism whose weaknesses, in hindsight, are self-evident. How can one define in minute detail all of the learning objectives that would incrementally form a mature person? How does one control every aspect of the learning environment? How does one create, throughout the world, a cadre of teachers and educational professionals that can fulfill the boast of Skinner, or from an earlier age, Rousseau, to forge a child according to one‟s will? In such approaches, the limits of the teacher define the boundaries of the potentiality of the student.
The aim of education should be that students of the classroom become the students of reality. Education is an apprenticeship in the process of learning. It is still necessary, of course to have some vision of the person who will be the fruit of the educational process. One should attempt to see the end in the beginning. What are the characteristics of the youth we are trying to prepare when he or she reaches the age of maturity? What qualities, what attitudes, what skills and abilities, as well as knowledge and understanding are necessary to become an autonomous human being that can contribute to the progress of the community? How do students learn to investigate the world, discover truth, and generate and apply new knowledge in a systematic manner to reconstruct social reality?
Thus, a capability has a fairly complex nature, and there is no prescribed way of defining a given capability. Yet it is a useful conceptual tool for organizing a body of information and associated concepts, skills and abilities, attitudes, and spiritual qualities that can become the focus of a set of educational activities.
A few examples from the various parts of the curriculum may help to clarify this approach. Mathematical capabilities may include the capability to speak about the world in quantitative terms, or to classify. Both of these require an understanding of concepts such as sets and numbers and that things can be divided into sets according to their characteristics. They can only be developed if certain skills such as that of estimating magnitudes and sizes are acquired. And, they are enhanced by such attitudes as an appreciation for order and precision.
In language arts, one would need to develop the capability to read with good comprehension, to appreciate and analyze literature, and to make descriptive statements about the world. In studying history, it would be important to develop the capability to analyze and understand events in a historical context and to identify forces operating in any historical moment. Practicing science would require, among others, the capability to make systematic observations of phenomena, and the capability to make mental designs of experiments to prove or disprove propositions.
It is even possible to think of certain moral capabilities. An individual who is able to engage effectively in the processes of personal and social transformation will need to be endowed with the capability of taking initiative in a creative and disciplined manner. This capability includes an understanding of such concepts as principled action and goal-directed behavior; such abilities as those needed to set goals and take account of actions each day; attitudes such as perseverance and an appreciation for learning; and—because initiative has clearly been misused to perpetuate injustice and cruelty—appropriate spiritual qualities such as justice, self-sacrifice, generosity and sincerity.
Focusing attention on the development of capabilities—on what a person must be able to do to fulfill a twofold purpose of personal and social transformation—provides a balance and a means for integrating subjects within the curriculum. It also prevents education from becoming the mere transmission of predefined, decontexturalized chunks of information; from being unduly concerned with self-esteem independent of real performance; or from reducing the educational process to a few functional skills. A curriculum organized around the development of capabilities allows for flexibility in moving from the specific and concrete—facts and procedures—to abstract and moral reasoning, soaring to the limits of the student‟s capacity. Each lesson, each course, contributes to the development of one or more capabilities by focusing on some of their components, building them progressively, year after year.
Content and Process
Despite some creative research in the past century in the field of human development and learning, and the extension of primary education to much of humanity, educational practice worldwide is woefully inadequate. Absorption and regurgitation of facts remains the staple of education used in most schools of even the materially developed nations, while most of the children of the world suffer through a mere shadow of the curricula these nations export, finding them far removed from any relevant context. The capacity to think meaningfully about the world, to acquire the skills, knowledge and attitudes to guide one‟s personal growth and contribute to social change, to generate and apply new knowledge, to work productively in collective endeavors for the common good, is almost completely absent. Indeed, one study of a university teacher education program showed that only 64% of graduating seniors felt that the program “helped them to become self-directed learners who know how to develop their own knowledge.”11
A crucial step towards remedying the situation is to turn the school itself into a center of learning, with staff and students committed to a process of continual action and reflection on action to determine how capabilities to fulfill one‟s two-fold purpose are developed. Such a learning process implies a rearrangement of the curriculum, sequencing educational activities to gradually build the necessary capabilities. It calls for a reevaluation of educational methods, transferring as quickly as possible the responsibility for education from the teacher to the student through participatory methods such as peer tutoring, cooperative learning, and action research. It requires teachers who can expose students to the thought process underlying the learning experience.
Methods for the development of scientific capabilities must be rigorous. This is crucial in a time of fragmentation of knowledge—and consequently of society—and explosion in the sheer quantity of information and the ability to access to it. Unfortunately, even in favorable circumstances, the level of science instruction provided in schools rarely breaks through students‟ pre-scientific worldview. While they may memorize the necessary information for a test, they soon revert to non-scientific thoughts and perceptions of reality. This process tends to produce a laity receptive to the high-priesthood of a science that can overstep its boundaries, presenting subjective, materialistic views in the guise of scientific facts. The complex structure of science as a body of knowledge and system for the investigation of reality is seldom addressed sufficiently.
Mastery of the use of the word—in written and spoken form—is essential for generating and applying knowledge in the collective endeavor that is human society. The noted Brazilian educator Paulo Friere has identified the capacity to use the word with unshackling the human mind, changing individuals from objects to subjects in their own development.12 Children and youth, must therefore, be well grounded in this arena which opens the door to all other fields. Far beyond the mechanics of language and functional literacy, their studies should give them facility in eloquent speech, incisive thought, and moving composition. Facility in the use of language should also be attuned to the needs of an age struggling for unity. Children should develop the capability to participate in consultation, a method of collective discourse designed to explore a wide range of opinions while distilling truth and allowing for learning through unified action.13
In developing moral and spiritual capabilities, there is justifiable concern with imposing values or unthinkingly indoctrinating young people. For too long, however, this difficult matter has been avoided in public education in the name of objectivity and individual freedom, which itself has only resulted in another form of indoctrination in extreme materialistic assumptions, moral relativism, and rugged individualism. Such methods as have been derived from adult psychology—values clarification, personal decision-making, or self-esteem building—fail to recognize that children can only exercise choice responsibly after a foundation for choice has been laid.14 The family, the school, the church are among those units of society from which a moral code is instilled, and means must be found by which the varying perspectives of these “communities” can reinforce one another and contribute to a common conversation about the values of society.15
Schools are, of course, only one of the agents that can help develop the capabilities of children and youth. These efforts need to be complemented by a host of organizations of various types, large and small, religious and secular, formal and informal. A legacy of the 20th century is the vast multiplication of agencies of civil society. These can become centers of learning, operating at the grassroots in diverse cultural settings. Special tutoring programs, service programs for young people, literacy campaigns, music and drama workshops are all additional means to extend educational opportunities.
Some Learning Experiences in India
In India, the Baha'i community is engaged in a wide range of efforts to learn how to apply the concepts discussed above in practical action.
The New Era Development Institute (NEDI), established in 1987, grew out of years of extensive outreach efforts for community development by the New Era High School In Panchgani. NEDI‟s purpose is to assist young people to realize the connection between earning a livelihood through service and their personal growth, while contributing to the advancement of their local communities. All NEDI‟s programs include a core curriculum on moral education, community service and social action, cultural sensitivity, and small business development. Among the areas of vocational specialization are primary school teacher training, radio and television, motor mechanics, secretarial and home science, computer operations and office management, women‟s tailoring and animal husbandry. Approximately 70% of the graduates either begin a business or become employed in the field of their vocation. NEDI has had a far-reaching impact in the states of Gujarat, Manipur, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra through its work with local community service providers. Over 800 rural youth have participated in NEDI‟s integrated training programs. Approximately 200 students are enrolled annually in NEDI‟s programs.
The Foundation for Advancement of Science in Lucknow was created in 1996 when a group of educators decided to pool their experience in the fields of education, literacy, and development to serve in the rural communities of India. Among its various programs is the Junior Youth Enrichment Program which focuses on developing the capacity of students ages 12-14. The purpose of the program is to endow junior youth with mastery of the word—to be able to read and have a profound grasp of the challenges facing them and their communities and to learn to arise and take action to resolve these challenges. Basic literacy is, therefore, only a subcomponent of the program. Youth are trained as facilitators to work with the junior youth during an intensive period of several weeks before the school term begins. A pilot effort was established in 2001 in 10 villages in the vicinity of Lucknow, and 227 students have completed the first course. A number of textbooks are used to develop the moral capabilities of the participants, including the publication of “Uncle Hathi” magazine to reinforce reading skills. Facilitators will return to the villages each year to work with a new cohort of junior youth with the aim of eliminating illiteracy within that village. The effort will be systematically expanded; as more youth facilitators are trained, the program will be introduced in village after village across India.
Ultimately, the basis of all action must be grounded on a humility that admits that we do not know, yet, how to achieve our lofty aims. We do not know the capabilities that we seek to develop. We do not know the educational methods that guarantee our aims. Thus, the pursuit of the new educational practice has to be itself a process of learning. Clearly, there is not a level playing field for the nations of the world. But in this regard, less-industrialized nations do not need to walk in the footsteps of the technologically advanced nations who also face a crisis in education. Technology can help the teaching-learning process but none of the proposals in this paper depends on the use of gadgets. The most profound scientific education can be imparted to children in very simple environments. What is needed is a worldwide thrust to help individual educators and educational institution to begin in their own environment, with their own challenges and resources, to generate and apply knowledge and share it with other communities of learners, as we all seek to raise a new generation with new endowments to contribute to a global civilization.