Laurence Peters directs the United Nations Association’s only graduate seminar on the United Nations in Washington DC. It was Peters’ students who inspired him to write his book: The United Nations: History and Core Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan). Peters book offers a rich historical perspective of the UN’s earliest beginnings, which included the participation of the world’s greatest thought leaders from all religions and persuasions. Additionally, Peters explores the UN’s role today and for the future, and why participation by all global citizens is essential to ensuring this organization continues its work of enabling a better world for all. Joining me in The Global Search for Education is Laurence Peters.
Laurence, your students inspired you to write this book. What historical narrative on the UN were they lacking?
The history my students knew was similar to mine – that the League of Nations was a product of US leadership, specifically the brainchild of President Woodrow Wilson. It is an easy narrative to consume because it celebrates US initiative in terms of helpfully confronting the European tragedy of two world wars but it is also a misleading one in that it misrepresents the achievement of a much longer arc of history–one that goes back at least to the Biblical period where there were efforts to establish codes of conduct to treat people who came from other tribes, races and beliefs in a civilized fashion. We tend not to focus on the enduring aspiration for peace and security that the UN represents. We not only neglect to teach the UN in its proper context (the ancient ideas about the need to treat others as ourselves the “golden rule” – found in every major civilization) but fail to connect these ideas with the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was embodied within the UN’s legal structure. We also ignore an entire tradition of enlightenment thinking that concerned the question of how nation states can curtail their natural tendency towards conflict by conditioning their claims to sovereignty through international legally sanctioned structures.
“Even though many people are powerless to affect the way their undemocratic governments are run, disenfranchised individuals can affect change through things like global petitions to multilateral organizations, educational awareness activities reports to the media, and by working together in collaborative teams to help highlight the way local problems are connected to global ones.” — Laurence Peters
What role is technology playing in helping to realize the 17 SDG’s? What else do we need to do?
Intelligent use of new technologies can empower students who are so economically disadvantaged that they only receive basic primary education. Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) requires us to use technology more imaginatively so we can help vast portions of the world’s population move beyond just basic literacy (qualifying them only to perform repetitive manual labor jobs) and push them towards jobs that require more advanced cognitive skills. Governments could play an active role here to incentivize the private sector to assist. Governments could, for example, offer funds for colleges and other training facilities to partner with the private sector to design courses that could assist an organization’s workforce skill needs. Through the use of technology – tablets and phones, books and instructional manuals along with video lectures – can now be made widely available to create courses. Online skill certifications could complement the entire package so that people with any degree of motivation, regardless of income, age, gender or location, could gain an education that would qualify them for a meaningful job that would allow them to enter a career ladder. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is currently working with the UN to take the Internet to vast areas of the globe. Although he is not an altruist – he clearly sees market potential in his internet.org to further enrich Facebook – but by throwing satellites up in space he is also creating the necessary pre-conditions for an expanded understanding of global society’s unlimited potential.
“The UN increasingly is the vehicle the world must rely on to help create the political framework that will allow us to move in a sustainable direction.” — Laurence Peters
The Internet connects us all. How large a role is technology playing in nurturing global citizens?
Technology in a broad sense, and personal devices in a specific way, represent the way young people today in particular communicate and understand their world. A case in point was the UN sponsored “World We Want” project that attracted an unprecedented 6 million votes from 193 countries who expressed their opinions on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), using both online and offline formats. Many of the young people who voted on the 17 Sustainable Development goals are living under repressive and authoritarian regimes that have little concern about their future and would rather represent their own interests and the interests of a few wealthy backers. For this reason, these regimes will fail to make necessary investments in education and training as well as green energy investments that could better secure their future. The few ways that young people living in these countries can make their views known and counted is through global society, not just the UN but through the myriad of NGOs (Oxfam, Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Greenpeace, Transparency International). These organizations have each in their own way helped move global public opinion in a more progressive direction. So even though many people are powerless to affect the way their undemocratic governments are run, disenfranchised individuals can affect change through things like global petitions to multilateral organizations, educational awareness activities reports to the media, and by working together in collaborative teams to help highlight the way local problems are connected to global ones. Human trafficking, girls’ education, and clean water supplies are all fundamental to the SDGs and will involve complex work at all levels if there is to be any chance to overcome the sometimes willful negligence of certain governments to improve basic issues related to the human rights, health and security of their populations.
As we become more globalized, do you believe the role of the United Nations is changing?
Yes, the focus now is on saving the planet from the environmental threats it faces. The issues related to security are real but they mainly involve addressing non-state actors who use terrorism to address their issues. The real issue is that nation states are designed to set political agendas over at most four to five years and those agendas have to meet short term needs, particularly increasing GDP. Longer term issues that relate to sustainable development — as opposed to popularly supported development like passing a carbon tax — tend not to be vote winners. The UN increasingly is the vehicle the world must rely on to help create the political framework that will allow us to move in a sustainable direction.
If you had to predict the future 5 to 10 or even 25 years from now, how will technology change global education?
We clearly need to move to a society that moves away from the 20th century notion of the classroom teacher as the sage on the stage and move him or her to be the guide on the side. Although this has been slowly happening, a true 21st century education would use technology far more extensively than most schools currently do to focus teachers’ time on managing the learning process, changing their role from content purveyors to working through the conceptual and other blockages that inhibit good learning. Everyone’s personal device will be the way they can access the world’s best lectures and tutorials, and interactively engage with online tutors to work just on their own learning issues. Another innovative idea that will make internet powered education even more effective will be to connect assessment with learning in order to allow the creation of a positive feedback loop that will enable information to get back to the learner. That will allow athletic performers to be motivated to improve on a constant basis.
(Photos are courtesy of CMRubinWorld, Artistic Photos, DG Limoges and Rawpixel.com)
C. M. Rubin with Laurence Peters