Education, as a central element of democracy, human rights and the rule of law

Education, as one of the central elements of democracy, human rights and the rule of law

By Flora Sapio

As we gear up for the holidays, the Advent seasion and then Christmas, thousands of persons continue to reach the coasts of Europe. This winter is being extraordinarily warm, with temperatures averaging 68 degrees. Off-season warmth and good weather have allowed those persons to transverse the sea, and reach our cities and towns. Some of them will soon reunite with their families in Europe.

The other will find illegal work in the fields of towns with unpronounceable names – Villa Literno, Sala, Tredici. There, only a strong man can make $18 a day, if by sunset he will have picked 700 pounds of tomatoes, lemons or oranges. There are many who would be happy to take these jobs, if only these jobs paid more than $1.8 an hour. But, it doesn’t matter: fruit will be labelled, shipped to the five continents, unloaded, unpacked and displayed on the shelves of supermarkets from New York to Tokyo.

This is a real scenario. Each one of the components, causes and consequences of this scenario was discussed by a different international body at a different time, in a different city, by different persons. Migration and illegal work were discussed in Geneva, at the Forum on Business and Human Rights (November 14 – 16). Climate change was discussed in Marrakesh (Morocco, November 7 – 18). Human rights, democracy and the rule of law were discussed in Geneva (November 21 – 22).

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The UN Forum on Democracy, Human Rights and the Rule of Law was the latest event to take place. I had the pleasure to contribute my views on what I believe is one of the central elements of democracy, human rights and the rule of law – education. There are at least three sides to education. The first one of them is the act of imparting factual information and knowledge about a topic. The second one is the act of receiving factual information and knowledge, and retaining all that information in one’s memory.

The third side to education is what Umberto Eco talked about in an interview he gave in 1984 or 1985 to an Italian tabloid. In that old interview, Eco stated how one of the skill requirements for his students was the ability to write programming languages, and instruct a computer on how to perform tasks. Only if students mastered the technique of giving instructions to a computer would they become true masters in the art of creating meaning, and in the art of interpreting meaning. They, so did Eco reason, would become the ones to control the computer, rather than the ones controlled by it. Eco’s students were outraged – they thought they were attending his classes so they could graduate in semiotics, rathern than just becoming programmers!

They had been outwitted by Eco – of course. Because, in Eco’s understanding, education was something more than just memorizing, retaining, and repeating knowledge. Education involved developing the ability to understand what kind of information was really useful to oneself, knowing where that information could be found, understanding how it was made, where it came from, and using it in productive ways. In talking about education, Eco liked to use the metaphor of a dim-lit library without a catalog, managed by a blind librarian, and crammed with piles of books written in arcane languages. Also, at some point the library would go on fire, so all the books and the knowledge they contained would be forever lost…

No such library exists in the real world but, the real world sometimes might be similar to such a library. This doesn’t mean that the real world is bad, or that we need the guide of a librarian to find the information useful for ourselves. Umberto Eco was known for using metaphors and difficult words, words which not everyone could truly understand. Maybe, all that Eco meant to say was that education should enable the youth to understand where their best interest lies. Perhaps, education should allow the youth to command all the different channels – material and virtual, practical and academic – where information can be found under different guises, and create knowledge for themselves and others.