Preparing the Next Generation to Join the Conference Table

“The path to avoiding catastrophe, the path to achieving the aspirations — the promise — of the United Nations, lies in education.”

President, Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey, USA
President-elect, International Association of University Presidents

The United Nations Charter represents the most ambitious attempt in human history to unite across borders, secure peace, promote social progress, and forge solutions to the most critical problems facing humanity. As US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “The United Nations represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield.”1

As noble as its goals are, though, and as determined as the peoples of the United Nations may be, the Organization remains a mere conference table. It is only as strong as the people who come together at this global conference table. The United Nations can achieve nothing unless people who work across borders have an understanding of the history of different nations, an appreciation for diverse perspectives, and an awareness of the interconnected nature of humanity and today’s most important global challenges. H.G. Wells once wrote, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”2 The enemies are ignorance and intolerance. The path to avoiding catastrophe, the path to achieving the aspirations — the promise — of the United Nations, lies in education. And to match the universal goals and global alliances represented by the United Nations, we need to offer students around the world a global education.

Those who want to join hands across the table, those of us who aspire to be world citizens, must have a new skill set beyond mere diplomacy. We must have an understanding of the past, but always with a view toward the future. We must understand the complexities, challenges, and risks associated with decision-making in the twenty-first century.

The United Nations was formed from the ashes of two world wars, and its greatest success has been preventing a third global conflict. Today, the importance of the United Nations has grown even more significant as the world becomes more interdependent. With increasing globalization, finances flow freely across continents, as do goods, services, and ideas. Unfortunately, though, major problems like terrorism, pandemic diseases, and environmental calamities also cross borders at will. No nation can protect its citizens against ideas or problems that do not stop for passport control.

In some ways, globalization has outpaced our ability to comprehend what’s happening. Thomas Friedman wrote, “Global integration has raced ahead of education. Thanks to globalization, we all definitely know ‘of’ one another more than ever, but we still don’t know that much ‘about’ one another.”3 Education must catch up to globalization. Education must catch up to the United Nations.

Through global education, we must prepare world citizens who understand the interconnected nature of our planet and who are willing to act on behalf of people everywhere. We each must spend more time learning about other cultures and other lands. Schools and universities need to introduce more international lessons, expand language programmes, extend study-abroad opportunities, welcome international students, and encourage cross-cultural dialogues. Schools and universities also need to fully employ new technologies to connect students with others throughout the world and introduce different perspectives on the lessons being studied.

How does one become a world citizen united in solidarity with the goals of the UN Charter? The Greek Stoics believed that the main task of education is to imagine oneself in the minds of others. In other words, we must look at problems through the eyes of others and understand their points of view. By doing so, we not only learn more about ourselves, but we simultaneously build solidarity with those from other countries that will enable us to solve global problems.

We must understand that geography and culture influence how each of us sees the world. Two individuals might look at the same thing, but each sees something different — and neither is wrong. At the conference table, understanding this concept changes the game. It is not “right” against “wrong,” but rather agreeing that we each must move to another view.

A global education considers the world as a whole, with a rich interplay of nations, cultures, and societies. Teachers must regularly bring the world into the classroom and link classrooms to the world. Students must learn to make global connections and understand that actions around the world can affect them and that they can have a global impact. A global education should break down boundaries, expand horizons, and introduce learners to the breadth of human achievement and diversity. Most importantly, a global education should emphasize what all peoples share in common.

Buckminster Fuller, the twentieth century philosopher, described the Earth as a spaceship, and he wrote that all humans are really astronauts sharing residence on a planet travelling 60,000 miles an hour.4 He believed, “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”

This is exactly the underlying philosophy that propels the United Nations. Unfortunately, modern educational systems were not built with such a global attitude. Instead, they have been designed first and foremost to develop loyal, national citizens. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with celebrating national heritages and traditions, however, there must also be significant attention devoted to sharing stories from other nations. Schools should help further national goals and interests, but they also must enable us to understand the whole world and our role in it.

The first declaration in the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations affirms the desire “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Simply put, wars are cultivated by dehumanizing the “other” and exaggerating the differences between “us” and “them.” This is much harder to do when we have learned about our fellow astronauts and appreciate and understand their viewpoints and their common humanity. Gaining that appreciation and understanding has never been more necessary than today.

Having a global education and being a world citizen is the key element for peace and for all elements of progress outlined in the UN Charter. Indeed, that is the foundation for the necessary new skill-set at the conference table. Being able to look at the problems through the eyes of others reduces fears and misunderstandings that breed conflict and confusion. We must learn to work together; we must learn more about each other; and we must come to the table with resolve to solve those problems no single country can address.


1 S. C. Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations (2003), 287. 2 H.G. Wells, The Outline of History (1920). 3 T. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999), 127. 4 B. Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1963).