Towards a sustainable, humane society

A university stands for humanism, for tolerance, for progress, for the adventure of ideas and the search for truth. It stands for the onward march of the human race towards ever higher objectives. If universities discharge their duties adequately, then all is well with the nation and the people.

Jawaharlal Nehru.

Vasudhaiva kutumbakam is a phrase drawn from ancient Indian Vedic literature that simply means ‘global family’. It is not just about peace and harmony among the people living in different parts of the world, but also about a truth that somehow the whole of humankind has to live together like a family in peace and harmony and that any power in the world, big or small cannot have its own way while disregarding others.

Since ancient times, the most important objective of education in Asia has been to inculcate universal human values and to prepare the citizens needed for the creation of a humane vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the global family. This was clear in Confucianism as well as in the Vedic values which have been most influential in the laying of the ethical, spiritual and philosophical foundations of Asian societies, emphasising peace and global harmony for several centuries, if not millennia.

Excellence, equity, justice, compassion, caring and harmony were the underpinning values of the ancient universities in countries like India. Famous seats of higher learning of the ancient period like Nalanda, Takshashila (also known as Taxila) and Vikramaditya in India stand as a testimony to this.

As valuable ‘public goods’ that the whole society cherished were produced by the education systems in abundance, education was accorded a high pedestal in the ancient societies in Asia and education systems received the unquestioned patronage of the entire society – the rulers and the ruled. Teachers were widely respected by all, as it is they who imparted the values of high importance to young minds and moulded the future citizens of the global family.

Even though Asia consisted of populations with diverse rich civilisations, cultures, religions, ethnicities and faiths, their development paths were deeply embedded in values such as peace, prosperity and human welfare. The creation of a humane and just society was an important objective of education. This tradition continued even during the medieval period.


However, all this changed over the years. The erosion of these value-based institutions of learning started noticeably during the colonial period and, as Mahatma Gandhi described, the ‘beautiful tree’ was uprooted. In the current era of globalisation, the pace of change has been dramatic. Nations and social systems are in rapid transition. Continuities with the past are rarely found. Traditional values gave in to new values.

With very few exceptions, such as in the case of Bhutan which has been striving for ‘human happiness’, most societies today place undue emphasis on materialistic development and the purpose of education is redefined as to orient it towards the creation of materialistic prosperity as against human values of utmost and universal significance. Few societies aim at creating a balance between materialistic values and intangible basic human values.

During the post-colonial period, the present neoliberal phase is the most important and has, in a very significant way, brought in several questionable ideas on the very nature of societies and their development and methods and strategies of development, including the development of education systems.

The hitherto unquestioned role of the state is attacked. New relationships between the state, markets and education are defined. New elucidation is provided to imply that the state should play only a facilitating role to enable the markets to work.

Novel conceptual paradigms have emerged that have given, inter alia, new interpretations to the very nature and purpose of education. Education is considered merely as an instrument for the creation of economic wealth. Education systems are increasingly getting re-oriented to serve not even the nation state, but national and global capital markets.

There is a significant shift in the perception of education from it being a public good, a global public good, to a private good, a commodity that can be subject to all, even the vulgar, principles of markets.

During the period of post-socialism and neoliberalism, this is happening rapidly even in some of the tradition-bound societies and erstwhile communist societies. Even theories and methods of research in education, in addition to policy approaches, are seriously influenced by neoliberal approaches. The familiar contours of globalisation are rarely challenged.

Western neoliberal values

Diversity in the development models adopted by different countries of the Asian region is so high that few would say that there is an Asian model of development. As Philip Altbach observes, “no Asian university is truly Asian in origin” or as it has developed over the years. All are based on Western academic models and traditions and universities of the 21st century are increasingly based on the Western neoliberal values.

At this point the pendulum has swung too much to the extreme. Increasingly many sections of society have expressed that these trends need to be reversed; humanism has to be brought back to be the pivot of human society.

This is the most serious challenge most systems of education – particularly higher education systems in Asian countries - face. In the era of globalisation this quest becomes more imperative as we need good quality global citizens and production of good global citizens is the responsibility of education systems.

In order to develop a humanistic society, a humane educational system is absolutely essential. Education systems need to be carefully nurtured towards this goal and the traditional values for which education systems stood need to be resurrected. They need to be restructured to again become places for the cultivation of intellect and humanism.

The public good nature of education has to be restored. In this task, the role of the state assumes utmost importance. The state cannot continue abdicating its responsibility for developing a strong, vibrant, humane system of education to the markets, private players and international actors. Research in comparative education has provided valuable evidence of the grave consequences of excessive reliance on the private sector in many countries in the region.

A fragile under-developed system of education based on weak foundations has been found to be a serious bottleneck in national development, in ensuring political stability, social harmony and economic growth. Literature on comparative education both within the region and in the world at large has also shown that countries with strong public education systems, including specifically strong public higher education systems, have the capacity to ensure harmony, peace and prosperity among and to their people.

The creation of an equitable and just society also requires an equitable and non-discriminatory education system, where people from different strata of society enjoy equal opportunities to pursue their educational aspirations, to become effective partners in development and to contribute to the development of a humane society.

Elitist and authoritarian systems of education do not contribute towards this goal. Market-based models of education systems that rely on financing by students and private players hinder the growth of an equitable education system and a just society.

A humane society

It is also important that education systems are carefully nurtured so as to promote understanding of and respect for the multiple perspectives of various cultural, religious, ethnic and other strata of society, and of traditional indigenous as well as modern modes of living. This is necessary for promoting harmonious living among the increasingly fractured society in many countries.

Goals of individual advancement and human well-being have to be simultaneously met by the system. The co-existence of traditional and indigenous social systems along with modern systems has to be recognised and valued.

A humane society requires harmony not only between different strata of the population of the society and between traditional and modern systems, but also between people and nature. It means non-violence against people, animals and the environment. Hence sustainable development becomes an integral part of a humane society.

A humane society requires, for its very survival, not only scientists, engineers, doctors, but also philosophers and critical thinkers and organic intellectuals, to use the term coined by Antonio Gramsci.

Only a humanistic education system that combines sciences, engineering and technology with humanities, social sciences and liberal arts, can produce such critical thinkers, intellectuals, conscience-keepers and revolutionaries, who can understand and draw inspiration from the past, live in the present and develop a vision for the future and contribute to the creation of vasudhaiva kutumbakam.

A humane society is perhaps both a utopian and practical idea. Hence it requires utopian, romantic, unconventional, innovative, as well as practical and constructive, ways of imagining and reimagining visions of development of humane education systems. Humane education is the very texture of life, without which the modern world would vanish.

Asian countries associated with a rich historical heritage of pluralistic cultures can and may lead the world education systems in this direction to rediscover and resurrect, thus, the paradise that we are fast losing.

Professor Jandhyala BG Tilak is based at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi, India. Email: This article was prepared for the Comparative and International Education Society, or CIES, 2015 conference on “Ubuntu: Imagining a humanist education globally” in Washington DC, USA. The author is a member of the Academic Advisory Committee of the CIES 2015.