Vapor Trail: The UN's Plan for Higher Education

Peter Wood

September a year ago, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, addressed a meeting of the International Association of University Presidents in the Chilean coastal city (famous as a beach resort and destination for international gamblers) of Viña del Mar. He said the usual things about the importance of education and then announced a new UN initiative: “Academic Impact.” 

I must admit that the name puts me off. I used to tell my students in Rhetoric that they ought to reserve the word “impact” for the meeting of bugs and windshields and other such hapless collisions. But perhaps the analogy holds. When the United Nations and university presidents get together, nothing good can be expected. 

Ban Ki-moon explained that the United Nations Department of Public Information would oversee “Academic Impact,” and left it at that. He didn’t say what impacts Academic Impact would be impacting, but concluded by calling on the university presidents to do their parts “to promote and sustain the concept of the Universal Citizen cutting across cultures, religions and backgrounds, promoting the kind of education that can foster the spirit of universality among your students.“

UN-speak is notoriously as wispy as a cirrus clouds, and seldom condenses to anything more substantial than virga—the rain so light that it evaporates before reaching the ground. So one has to concentrate hard to keep Ban Ki-moon’s pronouncement in focus. Seemingly Academic Impact has something to do with “universal citizenship.” Of course, the word “citizen” implies membership in a political unit. But a “universal citizen” cuts across political units and everything else. So where were we? Oh yeah. Cirrus clouds. Virga.

But Ban Ki-moon was indeed launching a new program and the UN Department of Public Information has followed up. Yesterday an NAS member who is on the faculty of Saint Paul University emailed me, noting that his university is “endorsing the UN's Academic Impact principles,” and wondering whether NAS had taken a look at these. Well, no, not then. But now we have. 

Guide to the Perplexed

Academic Impact turns out to consist of ten principles, and the program aims to get every college and university in the world to endorse the principles and then to adopt annual programs that advance at least one of them. Let’s hold on to the principles for a moment while we provide the proper UN context. The principles are not stand-alone injunctions like the Ten Commandments. They have behind them the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),

                       1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

                       2: Achieve universal primary education

                       3: Promote gender equality and empower women

                       4: Reduce child mortality

                       5: Improve maternal health

                       6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

                       7: Ensure environmental sustainability

                       8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

The MDGs—well I can’t say this better than Academic Impact says it— “The eight MDGs break down into 21 quantifiable targets that are measured by 60 indicators.” New Jersey’s own Fairleigh Dickinson University maintains the website for Academic Impact, so I feel I certain local pride in my contribution to “world peace.” The motto of Academic Impact is “We Believe.” 


The reader can go examine the 21 quantifiable targets and 60 indicators at his leisure. I am returning to the Ten Principles. And they are:


1. A commitment to the principles inherent in the United Nations Charter as values that education seeks to promote and help fulfil [sic];


2. A commitment to human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion, and speech;


3. A commitment to educational opportunity for all people regardless of gender, race, religion or ethnicity;


4. A commitment to the opportunity for every interested individual to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary for the pursuit of higher education;


5. A commitment to building capacity in higher education systems across the world;


6. A commitment to encouraging global citizenship through education;


7. A commitment to advancing peace and conflict resolution through education;


8. A commitment to addressing issues of poverty through education;


9. A commitment to promoting sustainability through education;


10. A commitment to promoting inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and the “unlearning” of intolerance, through education.


How many college presidents have signed on to the ten principles? Sorry; that information is not yet available, but the entire list will be presented to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at an undisclosed time and location. And the people behind Academic Impact “look forward to your presence at that event.”


What can we say about the principles themselves? Wkikipedia says cirrus clouds are sometimes “so extensive that they are virtually indistinguishable from one another, forming a sheet of cirrus called cirrostratus.” We think that the UN Academic Impact initiative’s ten principles rise to the level of cirrostratus. 


What more is there to say? We too favor “human rights, among them freedom of inquiry, opinion, and speech,” and are a bit surprised that at least some American college presidents suddenly feel the need to endorse principles that ought to have been part of their fabric since the beginning. 


Educational opportunity for all? This certainly sounds benign, but what does it really mean? Item four—get every “interested individual” in the world ready for college—doesn’t sound benign at all. It sounds foolish. Interest doesn’t equate to ability. 


“Global citizenship” is a poisonous idea. The only parts of the world that have known civil order, the rule of law, and respect for human rights have been the parts organized on the basis of citizenship in well-ordered nations. Why would presidents of American colleges and universities blandly endorse a concept that flatly contradicts the spirit and the letter of the American Constitution?


As for promoting “sustainability through education,” we at the NAS have been pointing out the folly of this masquerade for the last year and a half. “Sustainability” is a code word not for wholesome environmental policies, but for the elevation of unelected elites who seek to take away individual rights across a wide spectrum: including free markets and personal freedoms of all sorts. 


“’Unlearning’ of intolerance” is the capstone of the list. Unlearning is something to ponder. Presumably this means acquiring a new overriding value. We see nothing amiss in encouraging virtue in students, but tolerance is a slippery sort of virtue, standing on a slippery slope of relativism and diffidence. We want children to learn intolerance of some things, such as intolerance of cruelty and intolerance of dishonesty. In that sense, Academic Impact’s language goes way too far. It is a recipe for raising tolerance to an elevation it does not deserve—and a mandate for using education to tear down traditional values, even where these are positive and their loss would be a grievous injury to the students. 


But we know full well how American academics are attracted, moth-like, to that particular candle. They like to see themselves as liberating their students from the bad old culture and replacing it with progressive values—which they see as far more intelligent. 


Perhaps the real value of Academic Impact is that it distills those progressive values down to a list of ten (or is it eight? Or 21? 60?) and we can see exactly how wispy the whole thing is. 

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