Education as a Tool for Good
As a social animal, even though we have the potential to commit atrocities, overall we have, since early childhood, a stronger propensity to cooperation and altruistic behavior. Research shows that even from the age of one, when children are just beginning to learn to walk and speak, they already spontaneously exhibit behavior of mutual aid and cooperation that they were not taught by adults. This intrinsic quality gives people the capacity to contribute positively to society and to the world. We must also acknowledge and encourage the “banality of goodness,” the fact that most of the time, most of the seven billion human beings on Earth behave decently towards each other.
In order to fulfill their potential for benevolence, people need to be given the opportunity to develop their ability to do good. As David Brooks says in his New York Times Article, The Power of Altruism : “When we build academic disciplines and social institutions upon suppositions of selfishness, we’re missing the motivations that drive people much of the time.” Rather than teaching competition and encouraging success, we need to teach people to develop their potential for altruism. As Brooks puts it, “it’s time to build institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.”
In the field of education, we must get rid of entrenched theories and look with fresh eyes, asking basic questions such as: ‟What do we really expect from education?” Education should not only train people to solve problems and sharpen their intelligence, but, more importantly, to be good human beings. Quality education entails devising new skillful ways to achieve that aim. This requires a push toward teaching fundamental human values that are accepted by all and practicing awareness of oneself, others, and nature. Who could be against kindness, friendship, trustworthiness, honesty, generosity, compassion, authenticity and other such qualities? Education cannot be neutral anyway, since children will for sure acquire some values by themselves. So why not help them to foster pro-social behavior rather than abandoning them to the influence of violent video games, greed, and wild consumerism? If we do inspire them to develop altruistic love, and to engage in cooperation, we are more likely to foster a more compassionate, open-hearted, and tolerant society.
The benefits of teaching people to develop their intrinsic good is not limited to children. Helping people develop inner qualities also benefits marginalized and fringe members of society. Women have great potential to contribute positively, yet they face many challenges that impact their potential. Even though it has diminished over the years, domestic violence against women remains rampant in many countries, as is child marriage which is highly detrimental to women’s health, education and well-being. Conversely, a significant decrease of child mortality has been reported among mothers who benefitted from even a year of education. One of the many other challenges contemporary women face is bearing the responsibility for their children’s education alone, depriving themselves of an education and a professional life, especially in rural areas.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says: “Women play a crucial role in developing human sensitivity, compassion and non-violence which are often lacking in today’s world.” To promote a more just and altruistic society, we must help women to actualize their potential by providing access to education, training, and economic opportunities that break the cycle of poverty. When women achieve their potential, they find personal fulfillment, develop their self-esteem, and become agents of change at the family, community, and societal levels.
At the community level, teaching people to follow their natural tendency toward reciprocity and service results in more cooperation and effectiveness. In a cooperative society, people trust each other and are willing to devote time and resources to others, thus sustaining harmonious relationships through the virtuous cycle of solidarity and reciprocity. “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation,” said the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell.
Now more than ever, as climate change and related issues have become the main challenge for the 21st century, we need to cooperate on a global scale and show consideration for future generations and for the 8 millions other species who are our co-citizens in this world. We need to adopt a progressive approach to life and behave in ways that offer a better future for everyone. Education can play a pivotal role by teaching cooperation, compassion, and equipping people to pursue their potential. By teaching people to develop their intrinsically good qualities, we all benefit. As Aristophanes said: “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Let this flame be that of cooperation and compassion.