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Last Updated: 04/01/2011
Reaching the World's Young People with Education for Peace
John J. Maresca

UPEACE Rector John J. Maresca discusses the potential of new communication technologies to transform higher education, emphasizing the particular opportunity that these changes bring for the University for Peace to fulfil its mission of offering higher education for peace "to humanity".

For years, the University for Peace (UPEACE), which has its main campus in Costa Rica, has struggled with the daunting challenge laid down in its mandate from the United Nations General Assembly: to offer education for peace "to humanity". With no regular funding of any kind, and with a beautiful but isolated campus in the scenic green mountains of a picturesque Central American country, the goal of reaching "humanity" seemed unattainable. But now, thanks to the multiple miracles of digital communications, UPEACE is offering its programs on-line, making them accessible to anyone in the world who can use a computer.

This change is radical and dimensional, and reflects an underlying evolution in human relations which is being seen in many other aspects of life; young and educated peoples, in every country, on every continent, of every colour and every faith, have more in common with each other in the pragmatic way they approach problems and challenges than they do with their own parents. The younger generations of today are the first in the history of the world to share more ideas and approaches with their contemporaries elsewhere than they share with those of their own diverse cultural heritages. The consequences of a profound change such as this are difficult to predict, and certainly, the impact of these developments will take years to play out. But the world is at a crossroads, and we already know that this younger generation will move toward even closer cultural commonality with people of their age in other countries and other cultures.

These developments present educators with huge challenges, and unlimited opportunities. Many ideas, curriculum components and teaching techniques are simply not credible to young people any more, and need to be re-thought and revised. Old-style language and logic is received cynically by women and men who have already absorbed more sophisticated, more international, and more modern ideas through their computers.

At the same time, students are keen to absorb new approaches and new ideas, and have a remarkable capacity for digesting them; they are sophisticated, rapid learners because they have the direct, personal experience of quick transfer of thought -- on Facebook, Twitter, and through the abbreviated texts of SMS messaging. Sadly, they read books less, but significantly, they run through ideas more -- more ideas, more rapidly reviewed, than ever before. As a result, they look for knowledge from varied sources and are more critical.

Educators must adjust to these changes, and quickly. This profession is as challenged by the current situation as any other, and must modernize or gradually become irrelevant; very simply, many students today know more about the modern world than their professors!

Moreover, education today is moving away from its traditional national focus. In earlier periods, education was often used as an instrument to reinforce national loyalties and to unify nations with divergent regional cultures. But today the emphasis must be broader, because the students in many countries come from multiple national backgrounds. In a time when schools in Europe often include young people from Africa and the Middle East, and colleges in the USA enrol large numbers of young Chinese, an approach based on national loyalty or national interests is outmoded. Many subjects of fundamental interest to students today transcend borders and depend on worldwide approaches, such as climate change, the future of the world's environment, or equitable and responsible business.

UPEACE, a multicultural institution by definition, has always based its programmes on the principle that all cultures, and individuals, are of equal value, and that this is a basic assumption for addressing all subjects. The University has engaged with students on this basis in all of the twelve different MA degree programs it offers, but has been unable to reach large numbers of students, especially those in developing countries who were not able to finance their studies.

The University for Peace has offered a unifying message to the world's young people for three decades: all cultures are equal, all individuals are free and merit respect, all nations must decide in freedom and respect for others on their own future, and the human race must live in peace and equity if it, and its extraordinary terrestrial home, are to survive. This message is more relevant today than it has been at any previous time, because people everywhere are aware that there are threats to our world which require the joint efforts of all humankind if they are to be surmounted. The challenge for UPEACE has been to make its message available to young people everywhere.

With the worldwide spread of information technologies, this mission has become technically feasible, and so the University for Peace has taken the basic decision that its educational programs should be available to students and individuals everywhere, regardless of their ability to travel to a campus to study. UPEACE is therefore offering its courses and its programs of study, on-line, for the first time in its 30 year history. Qualified people of any age with access to a computer can follow these courses, along with women and men from every culture, worldwide. With this step, UPEACE has truly become "The World's University".

It should be added that this is a matter of particular pride for the university, which has done this entirely on its own, using the only resources which are available to it: the hard work of its faculty and staff, who are devoted to the mission of the institution. Over time, UPEACE hopes that people in every corner of the globe will enrol, and join the effort to ensure enduring worldwide peace.

At the same time as we are offering our courses on-line, we are innovating in how we offer our courses, in the kinds of programs we propose, and expanding their availability in other ways. We have added new programs in responsible economic development, the problems of modern cities, and the use of sports to promote peace. And even though we are, in principle, a graduate school, offering Master's degrees and Doctorates on a selected basis, all of our courses can now be taken by advanced undergraduates. This can be done for advanced degree credits, which we will save for students to use when they enrol for an MA degree, at UPEACE or another institution. We believe this new approach is justified by the increased sophistication and awareness of many young people, and the fact that they advance at different speeds through their programs of study. This new flexibility will attract many undergraduates, encourage them to pursue an MA in a peace-related field after they receive their BA degree, and accelerate their access to an advanced university degree.

Plato once posed the general question as to whether it is possible to teach virtue. We are well aware that there can be no final answer to this tantalizing enigma, and that it remains the same, even if young people are more sophisticated and knowledgeable. But we do believe that it is beneficial to expose students to the moral issues, and to encourage them to actively engage in the effort to bring, and maintain, peace in the world on the basis of human rights and responsible, equitable development. This is what UPEACE is all about, and we will continue to reach out to all interested people, to offer this perspective in as many ways as possible. As of now, UPEACE courses are available to millions more people than ever before.

John J. Maresca is Rector of the University for Peace.