For the past two years, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, developed a report to define international education goals.
The report, titled "Reimagining Our Futures Together: a New Social Contract for Education" identifies key issues that all countries should center their educational systems around.
"The main problems we're trying to fix are climate change, democratic backsliding, growing social inequality, and growing social fragmentation. And the report is saying this is the business of educational institutions," says Fernando Reimers, director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative at Harvard University and member of UNESCO's commission on the Futures of Education. "Unless educational institutions intentionally align what they do with these four challenges, our future as humanity is in peril."
Unfortunately, Reimers says that the United States' education system is not currently designed to address these challenges. "I'm very concerned, frankly, for the disconnect between education in America and the big challenges of America," he warns.
The report comes shortly after the COP26 summit in which 200 countries approved a U.N.-brokered pact that critics say falls short of limiting global warming after delegates struggled to resolve major sticking points, such as phasing out coal, fossil fuel subsidies and financial support to low-income countries.
To help address climate change, Reimers says research universities should partner with elementary, middle and high schools to develop curriculum for the next generation of climate scientists and should open access to available research and data.
"We call on the 28,000 universities of the world to partner with school systems for the purpose of collaborating, of sharing what they know, and in building curriculum," he says. "How can you hope that a teacher by herself in her classroom can design the most effective climate change curriculum, when the science of climate change is in research universities, in laboratories, in departments of physics, of chemistry and so on? We need to find ways to connect those dots and to create collaborations."
And Reimers says collaboration between schools and business sectors can help address many of the other concerns raised by the international community.
"Integrate schools with other schools, in partnerships with universities, in partnerships with organizations of civil society, in partnerships with businesses, for the purpose of providing students the experiences that they will need to develop the capacity to address these challenges," argues Reimers. "And that is a tall order, we realize, because the [common] model of education is one where a little school with their teacher, in her classroom, or in his classroom, can solve all the problems in the world. And we just don't see that happening, given the scale of the problem."
The report points out that poverty and poor educational opportunities are often interconnected and claims that collaboration between businesses and schools may help address growing inequality in wealth.
The report also comes after the United States, for the first time in history, was added to a list of "backsliding democracies" by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an organization based in Sweden.
"The National Defense Council produces a report every four years on the main challenges to our democracy. The report they released this March said that the main challenge to American democracy is growing social fragmentation. If we don't figure out a way to bridge our divides, and to agree, this democracy may not survive," says Reimers, pointing to the Jan 6. insurrection at the Capitol as an example of the U.S. educational system failing to produce citizens that address their concerns through democratic means. He also mentions anti-democratic violence in countries such as Turkey, Poland and Russia.
"In a society that is governed by law, individuals shouldn't resort to violence to resolve their differences," says Reimers. "In a number of countries, you now have regimes who unabashedly see no problem in using violence as an instrument to maintain political control and to advance political ideas. And of course, that means the end of the world that was built after World War II, ruled on the notion of human rights. And I hope we don't want to live to see that world. That's why this is a call to action to educators saying, 'The stakes are very high.' If we want human rights to actually mean something, we better examine whether we are preparing students to understand these rights and to live in a manner that these rights actually have any reality in their own lives."
He says including topics of human rights in curriculums, as defined by the United Nations in 1948, could help education systems around the world avoid democratic backsliding and social fragmentation.
"It is very important that educational institutions help individuals think about purposes bigger than themselves, not as an idea, but as a practice, to help [students] understand that the business of addressing climate change is our business, that the business of making democracy work is our business, that the business of growing inequality is everybody's business," says Reimers. "The truth is, we have curricula, and we have the knowledge about how to develop these capacities in children."
"But in the United States, we have a huge problem in that our growing social fragmentation and political polarization is invading our schools, our school boards, and making it even harder to tackle these challenges."