Uskudar University, Istanbul, Turkey
THE ROLE OF EDUCATION FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
In September 2015, Governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which
includes a comprehensive, far-reaching and people- centered set of universal and transformative goals and
targets. Governments envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable
economic growth and decent work for all. Doing so a new world is dreamed for all:
A world of over 9 billion people in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural
resources — from air to land, from deserts to forests, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas and
from frozen tundra to expanding towns and cities — is sustainable; democracy, good governance and the rule
of law, as well as an enabling environment at national and international levels, which are essential for
sustainable development, includes sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development,
environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger as well as respect for human rights and
fundamental freedoms; development and the application of technology is climate-sensitive, respects
biodiversity and is resilient, and humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living
species are protected (UNEP, 2016).
Therefore, it called all nations for critical action to address urgent and increasing environmental
degradation, and related challenges of social and economic unsustainability.
Provided that it is not difficult to understand that every nation has to re-think her education system to
prepare students to understand our major global problems such climate change, biodiversity and ecosystem
loss, pollution, deforestation, desertification and unsustainable land and water use, and then come up with
new solutions. In other words, without changing our education system and mind sets, we cannot expect from
our students who will live in the future to reach these shared vison of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable
When we integrate environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda in our education system, then our
students can propose and promote strong, inclusive, green, sustainable and transformative economies, based
on circularity, sharing and collaboration, and alternative measures of growth and wellbeing. Moreover, they
can “significantly contribute to ending extreme poverty, leaving no one behind when addressing multi-
dimensional poverty and related challenges such as the rights of women, youth and minorities, and access for
all to basic services” (ibid). Therefore, it has become more urgent than ever to re-think about the role of
education as a key to respond the challenges of global World.
However, despite the advances in technology and mass communication, mass travel, the intermingling
of races, the ever-growing reduction of the mysteries of our world, a depressing fact of our time is that
inequalities, misunderstandings, prejudices, and stereotypes among members of different faiths, religions, and
cultures still endure. Moreover, these misunderstandings cause regional and globalized major problems and
tensions, wars, and mass migrations. Eric Hobsbawm, when arguing our major problems and underlying
mentality, makes following observations:
We live in a world captured, rooted and upturned by the titanic economic and techno- scientific process
of the development of capitalism, which has dominated for the past two or three centuries. We know that it
cannot go on ad
The future cannot be a continuation of the past, and there are signs that we have
reached a point of historic crisis.
The forces generated by the techno-scientific economy are enough to destroy the environment, that is to
say, the material foundations of human life... Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change...
If humanity is to have a recognisable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or present... The price of
failure, that the alternative to a changed society, is darkness (Hobsbawm, 1994).
If we want a better, bright and sustainable future for ourselves and our societies, we have to decide today
as French futurist Jacques Attali warned us a few years ago that “what the world will be in 2050 and it’s today
that we prepare what the world will be in 2100. Depending on how we behave, our children and our
grandchildren will live in a livable world or they will live hate us to death” (Attali, 2011). Although
Hobsbawm and Attali offer no concrete proposals and solutions to respond these challenges, I think, it is a
major responsibility of Higher Education institutions to find the cure. Neil Postman even argued that
“universities have a sacred responsibility to define for their society what is worthwhile knowledge.” (Postman,
In fact, many thinkers, philosophers and prophets, including Confucius, Socrates, Prophet Muhammad,
(pbuh) Rumi, J.J. Rousseau, Kant, Alfred North Whitehead, and Gandhi, stressed the importance of education
for humanity. Humanization, civilization, and possession of a future are all made possible by the quality of
education. Above all, education is a fundamental right to which all men and women are entitled. Moreover,
social and economic sustainable development are ensured through high-quality education. Likewise, better
health services, greater participation in social activities and enjoyment of fundamental rights are possible
Therefore, at the outset, the beliefs, the assumptions, the myths, the truths, and stereotypes which shape
our understanding of ourselves and others must be questioned and challenged. Here “others” means not only
other humans, but also the whole environment. We have to look at the mirror and try to see our face, identity,
and psyche. We have to reunderstand our perception and relationship not only with our human fellows of
different cultures, religions, ethnicities, but also our relationship with nature and all creatures living in it. In
other words, we have to understand and then criticize the present selfish, materialistic, and consumer-oriented
understanding of modernity at the individual and multi-national corporation levels. In the words of Thomas
Berry, what is needed is “a new story”.
Erich Fromm, the American psychologist, told us as early as the 1960s that “we are living in a period
when the human race is threatened by physical destruction through nuclear war, and by spiritual decay through
an ever-increasing alienation of man from himself, his fellow man, from nature and from the products of his
own work”. (Fromm, Rumi, 1974: vii, italics added)
This paper, therefore, will argue that we cannot create a better, brighter, and sustainable future with
traditional and out modeled education systems which was enough to master the
‘'‘'reading, writing, and
skills. We may use critical and creative thinking as a tool and skill to unearth the potentialities of
our children and youth and encourage them to be actors of change in a positive and creative way.
In fact, many educators and politicians have been aware of this phenomenon in recent decades and some
developed countries took revolutionary steps while leaving behind th
old paradigm and developing a new one, which is described as critical/creative education. Scholars and
experts on the subject stated the task quite clearly: «[there is a need to produce] graduates who can live, work
and contribute as productive citizens in an increasingly fluid and borderless global context». (Huitt, 2013).
Thus, a new vision for educating children and youth, both formally and informally, is required if they are to
become successful adults in the twenty-first century. Therefore, the youth of underdeveloped and developing
countries and societies needs a new education paradigm to respond economic challenges and have descent
work on the one hand, and to have
critical reflective minds
to overcome ideological, authoritarian, and
marginal ideologies de-stabilizing the world on the other.
Today, indoctrinated and brainwashed by ruthless and marginalized ideologies, sometimes in the name
of religion sometimes in the name of ethnic nationalism, young people easily used in terrorist acts over the
globe. If our educational system does not provide a better future and employment as well as a critical mentality
to understand the realities of modern World, unemployed, marginalized and uneducated youngster can easily
be used by marginal groups for so-called self-claimed lofty causes by a seducing language and impact of
social media. (Stern, 2003).
Therefore, it is time to think deeply on these issues and discover the root causes of the problems at hand.
Moreover, different responds and alternative views of education should not be feared and seen as a threat to
society and policy makers. As John Dewey recommends that “individuals” and communities can and should
grow through seeking insight into and solution of problems. Problems, contrary to the wishes of many, should
not be ignored or avoided in the interest of harmony (Dewey, 1938/1963, p. 5).
In short, we should “dig deep” to understand the present situation of education in the developed and
underdeveloped counties and the root causes of educational problems, then propose a new system based on
the spirit of critical thinking. Albert Einstein once observed that problems cannot be solved at the same level
at which they are created. This insight seems profoundly relevant today as we need to step back and gain a
whole-systems perspective if we are to respond effectively to major problems annoying our societies.
New Role of Universities in 21st Century
As the forces of globalization shake the world and especially their economies, it is an imperative for
higher education institutions and governments to understand the realities of globalized world and the new
dynamics of higher education in the 21 st century. In fact, when EU leaders convened in Lisbon in 2000 to
draft what we call today the Lisbon Strategy, their major aim was to make the EU
«the most competitive and
dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and
better jobs and greater social cohesion»
by 2010. (EU, 2000) (italics added). The document is updated as
Lisbon 2020 recently. Interestingly, five headline targets the EU wants to achieve by the end of 2020 cover
employment; research and development; climate/energy; education; social inclusion and poverty reduction.
The OECD’s perspective on the new role of Higher Education, summarized by Angel Gurria, former
OECD Secretary-General, is also instructive. Gurria argues that three simple tasks of Higher Education are
«ensuring access and equity, improving efficiency and effectiveness, and raising quality and relevance».
Moreover, Gurria also underlined that “globalization of higher education can foster an exchange of cultures
and ideas, opening minds, creating mutual understanding” (Gurria, 2009).
We should also remember the second part of the Lisbon Strategy’s above-mentioned sentence is “
social cohesion” through peace education.
In the words of Lourdes R. Quisumbing, “we must accept the
reality of the dramatic changes that are affecting our lifestyles, our ways of thinking, feeling and acting. As
educators, we must guide our students to discern between the potentials and prospects, the benefits and
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globalization and the
new information technologies on one hand, and the dangers, threats, and pitfalls on the other. We must develop
in them the sense of freedom and responsibility in making the right choices” (Quisumbing, 2002). Here, I
want to emphasize critical/ creative thinking and peace education as key concepts to respond challenges
engulfing us and ache the MDGs goals with the spirit of sustainability.
The literature on critical thinking has roots in two primary academic disciplines: philosophy and
psychology (Lewis & Smith, 1993). Sternberg has also noted a third critical thinking strand within the field
of education. These separate academic strands have developed different approaches to defining critical
thinking that reflect their respective concerns (Sternberg, 1986).
According to the philosophical approach the history of critical thinking can be traced back to Socrates
famous motto “unexamined [uncritical] life is not worth living”. In other words, he tells us to examine our
lives to the extent that it can challenge our lives. With his tragic death, Socrates stick to what he advises to
coming generations. Moreover, critical thinking and examining life was an imperative of moral life, that is
what is good and what is bad; what is just and what is unjust. Therefore, it differs little bit from the narrow
meaning of learning critical and problem-solving skills just for a better job and career. It is not surprising to
see the same spirit of critical and creative thinking in life and the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant
in West; Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali, and Ibn Rushd in the Muslim world. How we can neglect the legacy of Ibn
Sina, who was a philosopher, a physician, a scientist, a mathematician, a poet, and specialist in literature.
When we look at the history of philosophy, it is difficult to reach a consensus on a definition of what
they understand by term “critical”. However,
the American Philosophical Association’s
of the ideal critical thinker is very meaningful and important for our case here. According to this definition, a
critical thinker is
“someone who is inquisitive in nature, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded, has a desire to
be well- informed, understands diverse viewpoints, and is willing to both suspend judgment and to consider
(Facione, 1990, italics added).
Linda Elder, a guru on critical thinking, summarizes all these with a new emphasize on the role of critical
think for education and society. According to her, “critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking
which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way”. Moreover, people who [learn
how to] think critically “consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically” (Paul-Elder, 2008).
Michael Wessells defines peace education as
“the cornerstone of a culture of peace"
43). The creation of such culture of peace is a major responsibility of universities. As Homer said once,
generation grows, another dies away”,
ours is a new generation who has to discover the language of diversity,
dialogue, and peace. What is more important is to make this new language a part of our national curricula
through education. Then, we can expect from the next generation the construction of a new world and a better
future. So, todays universities cannot confine themselves to educate young minds for the global markets and
the demand of the economy alone. Mostly, universities must teach them the courage, ability, and skills to
build a more peaceful world and future, where inequalities, environmental problems, violence, and conflicts
minimized, if cannot be uprooted.
Reardon’s concept of peace education can also help us to understand the role of universities in 21
century in peace education. According to Reardon peace education should be situated within “the broader
issue of citizenship”. Then, she argues that “peace education should be fundamentally concerned with the
development of the political efficacy of future citizens”. We should remember that “learning how to think
concerns conceptual clarity, thinking within conceptual frameworks, posing questions, rationality, and most
importantly reflective inquiry"
(Reardon & Snauwaert, 2011, italics added).
So, one of the major features of a Higher Education institutions of our time is the content and method of
teaching system. It must provide instruction, to students as well as to the public, in the spirit of life-long
learning, on how to reach
“conceptual clarity, thinking within conceptual frameworks, posing questions,
rationality, and most importantly reflective inquiry".
Moreover, it also should teach a habit of creative and critical thinking in the spirit of great masters of
philosophy, from Socrates to Kant and all other major critical thinkers. Kant argues forcefully that philosophy
values the thing that makes the university modern and gives the university its critical function: reason, and
the capacity to reason freely (Kant, 1979). So, todays universities must provide a new mindset and a critical
outlook to students to solve complex problems challenging us. This may include a new vision to teach not
only bio-diversity but also cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity as assets for humanity.
It seems that education is a matter of survival for any nation in the 21st century. In a world of
interconnectedness and interdependence characterized by high technology and enhanced means of
communication, education appears to be the most important issue. It is not possible for countries ignoring the
importance of education to gain full economic and political independence. In addition, high-quality education
and investment in human capital is necessary to enjoy the benefits of the globalization process.
To conclude, “the need to develop an approach to schooling and education that both prepares individuals
to live successfully in the current context as well as prepare for flourishing in a more sustainable future is just
one of the challenges facing educators and societies” (Huitt, 2012).
It will be very meaningful to remember Margaret Mead’s (1901-1978), a notable for her studies of both
primitive peoples and complex contemporary cultures, powerful argument that “war is an invention”.
Explaining her argument with historical data and in convincing way, she underlies that “the people must
recognize the defects of the old invention, and someone must make a new one”. To do this “propaganda
against warfare, documentation of its terrible cost in human suffering and social waste, these prepare the
ground by teaching people to feel that warfare is a defective social institution”. Then, we have to take a second
courageous step forward that is “a belief that social invention is possible and the invention of new methods
which will render warfare as outdated as the tractor is making the plow, or the motor car the horse and buggy”.
She concludes that “a form of behavior becomes outdated only when something else takes its place, and in
order to invent forms of behavior which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that an
invention is possible” (Mead, 1990).
Today, the very idea and concept of sustainability is a strong indication that many ideas shaping modern
world since the dawn of enlightenment are obsolete and we have to invent new one, in the spirit of
sustainability of the whole system, not only humanity. Now, we had learnt at a high price that we could not
solve “new problems with old concepts”. Even we try once effective concepts and tools “they do not respond”
(Laszlo, 2005, 2). In other words, “ideas and beliefs that were reasonable and productive at one time become
irrational and nonproductive at another time” (ibid). Therefore, it is time to ponder over what the Sufi master
and philosopher Rumi advised us in 13
“Make peace with the universe. Take joy in it. It will
turn to gold. Resurrection will be now. Every moment, anew beauty"
(Rumi, 2005, 110).
Rumi, as we know, was born in Balkh, Persia, passed away in Konya, Turkey. Today, he lives in the
hearts of humanity as a master and symbol of love, wisdom, peace, and brotherhood. I understand his message,
as Mead recommends us earlier, is to invent a new culture of peace, prosperity, and sustainability. When it is
an imperative to teach a culture of peace and co-existence, our major tools will be critical and creative
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