Education is a human right and not just a right of children as education is a lifelong process. Education is also public good and a public responsibility. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has proclaimed January 24 as the International Day of Education, in celebration of the role of education for peace and development. In December 2018, January 24 was announced by the UNGA as the International Day of Education.
Without inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities for all, countries will not succeed in achieving gender equality and breaking the cycle of poverty that is leaving millions of children, youth and adults behind. In fact, education is widely seen as the best way to counter abject poverty.
Today, nearly 250 million children and youth are out of school around the world, and 763 million adults are illiterate. Sadly, many children have fallen behind or are missing out on education altogether because of Covid-19 school closures and disruptions due to conflict and other crises. While most schools went online during Covid, many children in developing countries had little or no access to 4G data and devices such as smartphones and tablets, which cut them off from the learning process.
The extended time out of school has had a drastic impact on children’s health, safety and future life choices. At the end of 2022, up to 1 in 5 children in some countries had dropped out of school because of Covid, rising poverty, child marriage and child labour.
The sixth International Day of Education will be celebrated on January 24 this year under the theme “learning for lasting peace”. The world is seeing a surge of violent conflicts paralleled by an alarming rise of discrimination, racism, xenophobia, and hate speech. The impact of this violence transcends any boundaries based on geography, gender, race, religion, politics, both offline and online.
Thus an active commitment to peace by all Governments is more urgent today than ever: Education is central to this endeavor, as underlined by the UNESCO Recommendation on Education for Peace, Human Rights and Sustainable Development. Learning for peace must be transformative, and help empower learners with the necessary knowledge, values, attitudes and skills and behaviours to become agents of peace in their countries.
This year, the UN and UNESCO are dedicating the International Day of Education to the crucial role education and teachers play in countering hate speech, a phenomenon which has snowballed in recent years with the use of social media, damaging the very fabric of our societies. Here in Sri Lanka too, we have experienced the horrific effects of hate speech and the online radicalisation of youth.
Countering hate speech
As a quarter of humanity – almost two billion people – live in conflict-affected areas, this theme is particularly relevant. Education offers multiple opportunities to address the root causes of hate speech and sensitize learners of all ages to its forms and consequences online and offline. This includes equipping learners with the skills to recognise and respond to hate and injustice, preparing them to respect the value of diversity and human rights, and teaching them to recognize the difference between hate speech and the freedom of expression.
Hate speech, whether delivered by politicians, preachers, or even teachers themselves fuels prejudice and discrimination and can enable and normalise violence. Its recent global escalation, amplified by the use of social media and exacerbated by new and protracted crises in different regions, severely impacts the safety and security of communities around the world, including children. UNESCO has urged its Member States to prioritise education as a tool for promoting societies which value human dignity and peace.
On January 24, UNESCO will organize a one-day online training for teachers from around the world including Sri Lanka on the deconstruction of hate speech, which will give them the tools to better spot, tackle and prevent hate speech incidents. This training is part of UNESCO’s action to help its Member States and education professionals address hate speech through education
The same day at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, UNESCO will bring together Ministers, education leaders, and educators from around the globe to discuss the central role of education in achieving sustainable global peace. In November 2023, UNESCO’s 194 Member States adopted a new recommendation which establishes a global framework in this respect.
A great leveller
Education should be a secular experience, devoid of any man-made barriers such as ethnicity and religion. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where schools segregated on the basis of race and religion exist and we all know the dire consequences of that. Going forward at least, all new schools in the country should be co-educational and open to every child regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion and social standing. When we were schooling, we had friends from all ethnic and religious backgrounds in class and there was no animosity among us. There was no special need back then to deliver special lectures on hate speech.
Attending school is a great childhood experience that is then carried over to university or another higher educational institution for those who are lucky enough to enter the latter. School is a great leveller as all students, rich and poor, have to wear the same white (or sometimes blue) uniform without exception. The uniform itself imparts a sense of discipline as all parts of the uniform, down to the socks and shoes, must conform to the standards and rules set by the school, not to mention rules governing hair and personal hygiene or grooming.
The school also imparts the value of punctuality as all children have to be at the gate by 7 30 a.m. and those who come later face some sort of warning or even punishment such as standing for some time. School also helps us to compartmentalise the day in the form of periods for various subjects. Many people carry this habit well into their adulthood, dividing the time for various tasks.
In person teaching in a school setting also allows for individual attention for students, which is important especially for students who may lag behind in certain subjects. This also allows teachers to go through students’ workbooks and homework personally, which is also impossible in an online environment.
But school is not only about book learning per se. It is the first place where you make friends, some of whom will stay by your side for life. Friendship teaches us values such as sharing, caring and forgiving. The sharing of food among friends during the interval (and dare I say it, even while teaching is going on) is an established school ritual. Falling out with friends, sometimes for silly reasons, is rather common but then you learn to make up. And caring is sometimes extended to the many cats and dogs that roam the school compound and one learns to care for animals too this way.
School is the place where one learns to respect elders other than parents, i.e. teachers and other elders. School helps us to learn to respect the opinions of others, even if they differ from our own. And through sports that we do in school, we learn about the value of fair play – what matters is how you play the game, not whether you win or lose.
In fact, education is not only about book learning – sports are a vital part of it. Physical Exercise (PE) and other sports-oriented extracurricular activities help develop a healthy body as well as a sound mind. They also encourage team work.
School education also offers many other activities such as clubs and societies focused on media, science, astronomy, quiz, debates, art and religion. School is also an ideal place to compare notes on individual hobbies such as collecting stamps and coins. It is fun to learn more about these subjects in the company of friends and teachers. The morning assembly is another great school ritual that simply cannot be held online. This is where students can present dramas, speeches, songs and other creative work to highlight their talents. The students can also gain insights through lectures by teachers and outside guest speakers invited by the principal. In addition, the collective singing of the National Anthem and the School Anthem gives a sense of belonging to the country and to the school. Many schools also permit students to engage in religious activities during this period.
School is also the first place where one learns about Nature and our relationship with it. Most, if not all, schools now have a garden or cultivation where children can plant saplings and track their growth. Education also helps develop our aesthetic and spiritual side through music, arts, dancing and religious studies.
Some time ago, the school curriculum offered hands-on job-oriented subjects such as carpentry and electronics, which have now been taken off. This was a truly myopic decision and is one of the causes for the present mismatch between educational qualifications and job market requirements.
In the end, school is an enlightening but also fun experience. It is the place that lays the foundation for our future and where we learn the skills of life that enable us to survive in the wider society. Attending school or university is definitely good for the health of children, both mentally and physically. In fact, studies conducted in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, which forced the closure of schools for nearly two years, showed that many students showed signs of depression as a result of missing school and their friends.
It is, therefore, imperative for our education and other authorities to resolve the problems now affecting the education sector and create a conducive environment for all children to get an education that will make them useful citizens of the world.
Like everything else, education is also evolving with the times. The physical presence of a teacher in a classroom may not even be necessary in the future as technology develops. Already, the system allows a student to download the lessons from home if he cannot attend school due to illness. Thus the classroom is not confined to the four walls in the school, it can (virtually) be anywhere in the world. Our education system must adapt fast to changing times.
But should there be a world without teachers? I, for one, would not like to see them go away. ‘Live’ interaction with a teacher makes lessons more interesting and rewarding. The human element is very much a part of education and in my opinion, it can never be entirely replaced with machines which can however be an invaluable aid. But we have to keep an open mind about this and in keeping with the theme of this year’s Education day, fight misinformation and hate speech targeted at children and youth through online platforms.