Educating ethical leaders and critical thinkers

The Global Risks Report 2017 by the World Economic Forum and Global Catastrophic Risks 2017 by the Global Challenges Foundation catalogue an impressive series of major threats to human survival. The reading is enough to make you sleepless for several nights.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda and its 17 global development goals offer, however, some consolation by prescribing strategies for managing and averting such threats.

The objectives set for the world community are both ambitious and crucial. Eradicating poverty. Making hunger a thing of the past. Ensuring universal access to health and wellbeing. Providing education for everyone. Fighting climate change. Guaranteeing clean water and proper hygiene. Building peaceful and inclusive societies. And that’s just for starters. There are 17 goals and 169 targets.

The goals are not only crucial in themselves, but certainly of the utmost importance for increasing overall human well-being. But are such goals even conceivable unless the decision-makers of tomorrow acquire both the desire and ability to think and act critically and ethically?

What if short-sighted self-interest is the main message students get from attending higher education programmes? One way to move things in the right direction is to make sure that all institutions of higher education offer training in these qualities in all their programmes.

Silo thinking and contempt for knowledge

It strikes us that many current decision-makers around the world are trapped in economic determinism, egotism, contempt for knowledge, short-term perspectives and silo thinking.

For that reason, we are proposing that all institutions of higher education, regardless of faculty or subject matter, adapt their training in order to instil:
  • • The desire and ability to promote sustainable goal fulfilment (also known as ethical thinking);

  • • The desire and ability to see through the faulty and unrealistic assumptions of yourself and others (critical thinking);

  • • A thorough understanding and mastering of systemic structures (to deal with ethical dilemmas).

At the request of the leadership of an international network of universities, we put together a proposal for a declaration concerning Whole-of-University Promotion of Social Capital, Health and Development. The declaration was discussed and unanimously adopted in 2014 by this network – the Compostela Group of Universities.

The declaration has since won the approval of Transparency International, Quality of Government Institute, World University Consortium and the World Academy of Art and Science, as well as many individual academics.

The following year, we helped to put together three seminars on this theme with the ambition of performing a more in-depth analysis of how to implement this declaration. The seminars were organised by the Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters in Helsinki, the Swedish Society of Medicine in Stockholm and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan.

No quick fixes

Last year the time was ripe for a high-level conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in collaboration with a number of academicians as well as several national policy-makers and the chairpersons of the Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation and the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise.

The chairpersons of the three central trade union confederations subsequently wrote to the Association of Swedish Higher Education requesting that institutions of higher education “provide ethical assurance for all programmes within their purview in terms of scope, coverage and quality, given that critique and ethics are crucial to the vibrancy of employees and civil society going forward”.

But politically expedient quick fixes will not take us there. The 17 development goals and 169 targets are difficult to grasp by virtue of their diversity, complexity and internal contradictions. In our view, a basic ingredient of success is that the higher education offered to future decision-makers must instil the desire and ability to engage in critical and ethical thinking.

Our proposal for the first step in that direction is an international, interdisciplinary summit conference with the task of analysing both what needs to be taught and how to teach it. Why? Because worn-out phrases and longing gazes won't get us where we want to go.

Lennart Levi is professor emeritus of psychosocial medicine, Karolinska Institute, Sweden, and Bo Rothstein is professor of political science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.