How Gandhi can help Gen Z

How Gandhi can help Gen Z
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The shootings in EL Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, are markers of a growing problem for the world. Like so many other similar incidents of violence in recent history, the perpetrators were in their 20s, members of Gen Z. Too many young people across the world are succumbing to violence, victims and perpetrators alike.

We can no longer ignore this catastrophic waste of youth. What’s going wrong? Where are we failing our youth?

Our education systems might be a good place to start. Mahatma Gandhi observed, “the real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated.”

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The sad fact is that we still have no idea what education truly is. Gandhi is being proved right, yet again. Our education systems are flawed. A growing body of evidence shows that building “character” in terms of social and emotional competencies is far more consequential than traditional ways of measuring academic success.

For instance, rigorous research has established that social and emotional competencies early in life — such as self-regulation and impulse control as exhibited by skills in children five years of age demonstrated first by the now seminal experiment called the “Marshmallow Test” — are better predictors of major young adult life outcomes such as health and financial success, than traditional academic metrics of grades and standardized test scores.  

We’re seeing several paradoxical forces at play. Against the backdrop of rising knowledge economies, increasing youth population, globalization, are the trends of increasing polarization, destructive climate change, extremism, xenophobia, radicalization, discrimination and assertion of religious, social and cultural identities. Global peace deteriorated for the fourth successive year in 2018 according to the Global Peace Index report published by the IEP, which ranks over 160 countries.

These conflicting forces are taking a mental toll on the youth. The World Health Organization’s 2015 report on mental health states that the incidence of mental health problems with the younger generation is increasing rapidly. The increasing pressure to “excel” in academics to secure a stable job is definitely high on the causes of stress for young people. IndiaSpend reported in 2018 that about 75,000 students committed suicide in India between 2007 and 2016. That is about 20 young people a day for the past 10 years, and these are just the reported cases. Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29 according to WHO data.

Research shows that interventions focused on social and emotional learning are helpful in promoting effective emotion regulation, the setting and maintaining of positive goals, empathy toward others, establishing and maintaining positive social relationships and making responsible decisions. Moreover, socio-emotional learning programs can act preventatively to minimize the likelihood of bullying, antisocial behavior, excessive risk-taking, anxiety and depression.

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Academic success, while important, cannot be the end goal of our education system. Education must pursue a grander goal; an education for human flourishing. Such an education will ideally give equal weightage to not only knowledge acquisition and use but also equal if not more attention to developing pro-social aptitudes with an end goal of giving the individual the opportunity to, as what Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen advocates, lead a life she or he has reason to value.

The digital world can also be a trigger for both good and bad. We live in an interconnected world where around 90 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are connected to the internet and actively engaged in some form of social media. While these digital spaces can be exploited to expose young people to hateful agendas, they also provide a unique avenue for engagement, mobilization and exposure where youth can be recognized and reinforced in their roles as formidable agents of change.

For instance, UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) is using social media to promote positive experiences and kindness, providing a counter-narrative to the constant barrage of negative and often violent acts that we see daily in the media outlets.

The need to build inclusive societies and the need to guide and reinforce behavior towards a more sustainable future has never been more pressing. I've previously written about how merely telling young people about the evils of violent extremism and hate is not enough. There is a pressing need to spark open dialogue, practice respect through empathy training and critical thinking in our schools as a first step towards combating violent extremism and hate.

This conversation inevitably leads back to Gandhi. In 2019, though the world is different from the time of Gandhi — with unfettered technological advancement, increased accessibility to education, improved democratic spaces and freedom — in various ways, it is still similar in that it is far from achieving peaceful and sustainable societies. All his life Gandhi held to two fundamental principles, Ahimsa, non-violence, and Satya, truth. We will always have different opinions and values but the ability to understand, respect this diversity and to live together as one in this planet is the only sustainable path for humanity. 

If real societal change is to be achieved, Gandhi’s learnings, which he meticulously imbibed through his experiments, need to be built into our education systems and exemplified in our daily lives. These skills such as empathy, mindfulness, impulse control, kindness and criticality, can be built through constant experimentation and experience, the same key pathways that Gandhi himself deployed to build and ultimately embody them. 

The ideas of peace, kindness, criticality, truth and nonviolence could still be the revolutionary anchor for young global citizens as they gear up to clean up the intergenerational mess of the past and the present and transform their societies towards sustainable peace.

Anantha K. Duraiappah, Ph.D., is the director of the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development. Follow him on Twitter @akduraiappah