“Democracy…is not a static inheritance that we can simply live off of, but an ideal that every generation must re-achieve through active effort. Schools are our chief cultural means for educating free citizens who can intelligently and creatively participate in this effort. Education is how we invest in the future of our democracy.” – The Conversation
I am of the generation that heard constantly that the route to a “better” life was through education, and the pursuit of a university degree. I am also of the generation that has seen the housing market collapse, continuous cutting of public funding, and the exorbitant growth of student loan debt.
Compared to many of my peers, I came out “lucky” with only about 30k in student loan debt for only two years of university study. The numbers on this are staggering, per at least one article on CNBC the US student loan debt is over 1.4 trillion and the US is the most expensive tuition rates in the world.
Now, it has to be admitted that the funding sources for the educational system (from Pre-K through university) are really complicated, and it would take a much longer piece to tease out all the nuance. All that aside, I think it is fair to say that education is both a public good, and a valuable method for skills training. A highly educated population is beneficial for the individual, for society, for the economy, as well as for democracy as a whole. I do not think this point can be overstated.
That being said, there is plenty of room for improvement our current education system. Once again, those problems are well outside the scope of this project. But there is certainly a lot of areas where we can do better, not only as a country but as a human civilization as well.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what the UN Sustainable Development Goals have outlined.
Sustainable Development Goals
“By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.”
This first one is a no-brainer in my opinion. It it is pertinate that we as a global community make sure that every one of our citizens gets a reliable, consistent and affordable education. Most public school systems in the US provide K thru 12 primary school education that succeeds this goal. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. But that is really complex, and it the kind of thing that must be examined locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. I doubt there is any single “silver bullet” that will fix the plethora of educational problems, but it is a goal worth striving for.
“By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and preprimary education so that they are ready for primary education.”
The next goals expands upon the earlier one, by going beyond both the primary school and secondary school system. This goal includes early child care, as well as Pre-K education in the United States. Making this kind of care open to all children is important preparation, and is also vital for child care.
“By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.”
This is a very important issue, as the cost for higher education has been all over the board for the last decade. In addition, the funding for public universities has generally gone down in the last decade, while the cost for higher education has gone up. This has been supplemented with a huge amount of student loans, which overall has shifted a huge amount of the cost, and the debt, onto students. As the CBPP points out;
“These reductions in support have hurt states’ higher education systems. Public colleges have both steeply increased tuition and pared back academic opportunities, often in ways that may compromise the quality of education and jeopardize student success. Students are paying more through increased tuition and are taking on more debt. “
In order to make our education system more sustainable in the long run, we will likely have to increase funding significantly, and ease the burden on individual students and their families. I will talk more on this in a moment.
“By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.”
Everyone should know how to read and be able to do math, period. This is a pretty self explanatory goal, so I will just move on at this point.
“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”
Education is the means by which we perpetuate many of our skills and knowledge, and getting future generations involved shaping our sustainable future is of vital importance. Many of the values promoted here are important, including but not limited to; sustainability, gender equality, human rights, and peace. Our educational systems are one of many ways to promote these ideals, and the are certainly ideas we should be promoting.
The Nordic countries and many countries in Europe approach education very differently than the US, especially higher education. In social democracies, education is often universal and paid for via higher tax rates. Each country does thing in a different way, and obviously there is a lot of nuance and detail that goes into each system.
But as a very brief preview, here are a few examples;
“Germany: Regional governments across Germany have all abolished tuition over the past few years.
International students are also able to enroll without paying tuition.” (CNN Money)
More here from Wikipedia;
“Public universities in Germany are funded by the federal states and do not charge tuition fees. However, all enrolled students do have to pay a semester fee… Summed up, the semester fee usually ranges between €150 and €350.” (Education in Germany)
Sweden, along with most of the other Nordic countries also carries tuition free higher education, though admittedly with more restrictions. Oftentimes, such perks are extended to citizens of the country, or the EU.
“The Nordic country offers tuition-free public education to citizens pursuing higher education, and the offer is also extended to students from the European Union. Other international students aren’t eligible.” (CNN Money)
Norway and Denmark are in similar circumstances.
“There are no tuition fees for attending public higher education in Norway, as all the costs are covered by the Ministry of Education and Research.
Students are also given the opportunity to apply for financial support (a part loan/part grant) from the Norwegian State Educational Loan Fund. The main requirement for support from Fund is that you are a Norwegian citizen. However, foreign citizens may also be entitled to financial support.”
This article would not be complete with an honorable mention to Finland, which is regarded as one of the highest performing educational systems in the world. So what makes the Finnish system so unique?
“Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.” (The Atlantic)
But surely it is worth exploring even deeper than that. According to the Nordic Business Insider , Finland has a better system that the US on several key points. First, it gets rid of the pressue to “teach to the test”
“Finnish students only take one standardized test during their entire primary and secondary schooling…
By contrast, the US, driven by No Child Left Behind and Common Core mandates, requires students in third through eighth grade to take annual standardized tests to track their performance. Critics claim constant testing doesn’t make students any smarter but instead creates a “teaching to the test” environment in schools.”
The pressure of the US system creates an environment that reinforces the idea of doing well on standardized testing. There are plenty of arguments to be made that this creates a poor learning environment. More than this though, Finland also on the whole leaves it students with a lot more free time, and a lot less stress.
“Students in Finland spend relatively little time on homework… Finnish students spend 2.8 hours a week on homework. This contrasts noticeably from the 6.1 hours American students spend per week. “
And of course, just like the other Nordic countries, Finland’s higher education system is pretty much tuition-free.
“In Finland, not only are bachelor degree programs completely free of tuition fees, so are master and doctoral programs. Students pursue higher education goals without the mountains of student loan debt that many American students face. And the same goes for foreign students. Tuition is free for any student accepted into a college or graduate program in Finland.
This contrasts greatly with the US, where the average student loan debt now approaches $30,000…”
Yes, it even applies to international students provided they can get accepted into a Finnish university. Now, please don’t take my word as rote, and with the caveat if you want to attend university in any of these countries you should look into that for yourself. I am working with generalities here, so please don’t make important life decisions without doing your homework.
The last part struck me as ironic. Remember where I said I came out of university with about 30k in debt. I guess that makes me an average American.
Now, let’s look at Drawdown for just a second.
This is another one of the SDG’s where Drawdown doesn’t have a lot of input. As educational systems are really complex, there is a lot of policy and deliberation that goes into shaping them. As such, most of the reforms and change will probably happen at the policy level.
That being said, I think there is one important solution from Drawdown that must be mentioned here. As education is a universal process, it affects the whole of the population. It just so happens that half of that population is women and girls, and so their education is of vital importance. It is also a hugely impact way to combat climate change.
“Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health. “
The impact of removing systemic barriers to half the human population cannot be underestimated. This solution is ranked as #6 out of 100 solutions proposed by Drawdown. This solution alone would help to reduce C02 emissions by nearly 60 gigatons by 2050.
That brings this piece to an end. Our next goal is 05 – Gender Equality. I will be spending a lot more time talking about women’s rights and gender equality issues.
As always, thanks for reading!