The Goal of True Education, Now, and in the Future

In the same month that remembers and celebrates the life, work and witness of Martin Luther King, Jr (on the third Monday of January), the world is called upon to observe the International Day of Education (24 January), marked each year since 2019 following its declaration by the United Nations.

The discussion paper, Ethics in Higher Education - A Key Driver to Recovery in a World Living with COVID-19[1], announced on the International Day of Education this year, is an invitation to reflect and exchange on the transformative potential, lived experiences and vision of an education and an educational system that is based on ethical values and principles. Endorsed by the international Board of Foundation, the paper is the result of a global consultation process during 2021 that was initiated by the Board at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The foundational thesis proposed in the paper is that as the world reacts to the heavy loss, of life, of livelihoods, of health, of industry, of education and starts to emerge from one of the most disruptive periods in modern times, asserting values-driven and values-oriented education is critical for a sustainable future. Education, encompassing the leadership, governance and administration of higher education institutions as well as integrating the teaching of ethics fully into the curriculum across disciplines, serves every individual and ultimately society and our environment as a whole in bringing out, empowering and informing the thinking around and practice of individual and institutional integrity and responsibility for the common good.

Martin Luther King, Jr in his essay ‘The Purpose of Education’ in 1947[2] wrote that for him:

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education”.

Furthermore, he stated that:

“Education should equip us with the power to think effectively and objectively. To think is one of the hardest things in the world, and to think objectively is still harder. Yet this is the job of education. Education should cause us to rise beyond the horizon of legions of half truth, prejudices and propaganda. Education should enable us to ‘weigh and consider’, to discern the true from the false, the relevant from the irrelevant, and the real from the unreal. The first function of education, therefore, is to teach man to think intensively. But this is not the whole of education. If education stops here it can be the most dangerous force in society. Some of the greatest criminals in society have been men [who] possessed the power of concentration and reason, but they had no morals. Perhaps the most dangerous periods in civilization have been those periods when there was no moral foundation in society.

“Education without morals is like a ship without a compass, merely wandering nowhere. It is not enough to have the power of concentration, but we must have worthy objectives upon which to concentrate”[3].

Fifty-five years after Dr King penned these words the call for direction and change in the educational system has been underlined by UNESCO with the theme ‘Changing Course, Transforming Education’ chosen for the fourth International Day of Education on 24 January 2022.

Among the objectives of the International Day of Education (see the concept note for more) is the aim to,

“generate debate on the essential triggers of transformations to build more equitable and inclusive education systems that will accelerate progress towards SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) 4, taking on board findings of UNESCO’s Futures of Education report”.

The global report, elaborated over a period of two years by the International Commission on the Futures of Education, delivers a clarion call for a new social contract for education. Acknowledging the “power of education to bring about profound change”, the authors remind readers that,

“we face a dual challenge of making good on the unfulfilled promise to ensure the right to quality education for every child, youth and adult … To do this, we need a new social contract for education that can repair injustices while transforming the future … grounded in human rights and based on principles of non-discrimination, social justice, respect for life, human dignity and cultural diversity. It must encompass an ethic of care, reciprocity and solidarity”[4].

The report is comprehensive in its scope, putting education at the heart of a global effort to re-establish balance, between and within countries, in our relationships with each other, with nature and with technology, founded on common principles and commitments. It concludes with two calls: for research and innovation; and for global solidarity and international cooperation.

More immediately, is in turn also calling for the transformation of education with a focus on the higher education sector that is challenged by, living with the consequences of and envisioning new futures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The President of the Board of Foundation, Christoph Stückelberger and the Executive Director, Obiora Ike extend the invitation to,

“all those concerned about the medium and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, interested in and convinced of the value of values in higher education and in society and of the restorative potential and power of placing ethics at the heart of the educational enterprise”, to take up the discussion paper.

They continue, saying that,

“Awareness of, reflection on and subsequent action founded on ethical values by those in higher education – leaders, teachers, students, administrators – a sector that is a vast and decisive force and presence in society, can bring about the much needed positive changes to help current and future generations to respond, recover and thrive by becoming more attuned and resilient, together, as a common effort”.

Let it be so.

Lucy Howe López 
Deputy Executive Director 



[1] Ethics in Higher Education. A Key Driver for Recovery in a World Living with COVID-19, Text No. 7, 2022, 

[2] Published in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume I: Called to Serve, January 1929-June 1951, Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker, and Penny A. Russell, eds.

[3] Ibid

[4] Reimagining our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education, UNESCO, 2021,

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