Without access to education, wealth disappears

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinions – In a truly powerful society, ideas reign and an educated population is seen as the greatest possible resource

Published: Monday, August 16, 2010.   Roseann O’Reilly Runte

The question of short-term gains versus long-term gains as part of corporate strategy arose in the class I took recently at Harvard Business School. The discussion broadened to oppose wealth and social development. In my mind, it is not a matter of choice. One cannot enjoy wealth without strong civil society and vice versa. Voltaire pointed out that without food, shelter and clothing, people would not be in a position to contribute positively to the social fabric. By the same token, if there is not the means to improve one’s status through education and hard work, chaos results and wealth disappears.

The parallel can be extended to universities. In recent weeks, there has been some debate in Ontario over who should bear the cost of a university education, given that both society and the individual benefit. When the contribution of the individual to the costs of education results in overburdening debt and inaccessibility for those without significant financial means, the system is off balance and the resulting inequities will reduce both the effectiveness of civil society and the consequent economic benefits. On the other hand, if the costs outweigh the benefits generally perceived by members of the society, popular support will dwindle.

Chamfort, another 18th-century French philosopher, once said that the only difference between humans and animals was that the former pay taxes. I would venture to propose, on a more serious note, that humans perceive their own fatality and think and act creatively with a view to often intangible benefits for the long-term future.

Many philosophers and poets have asked what will remain when we no longer are of this world. Will all great artistic and architectural monuments crumble, returning to dust? Will our best scientific formulas and technological inventions, our brightest ideas and most beautiful words disappear?

As long as there are humans, we will transmit ideas and stories, inventions and discoveries, information and wisdom from one generation to the next. Knowledge and its transmission are not only power. They are the only possible way we can preserve the best of human thought and work. Education offers us access to a point as close to the eternal as human beings can aspire. The role of knowledge transmission and education is not solely reserved to the future. A truly powerful society is one where ideas reign and where an educated population is understood as the greatest possible resource. The society that limits access to education and knowledge is short sighted and destined for extinction, like the societies described in Collapse by Jared Diamond. Survival of the human species requires not only natural resources but the transmission of experience, values and inventions. Without this, there is no progress.

Imagine a world without innovation. The best ideas emanate from thoughtful research, discipline and team work. They are built on the successes and failures of the past. For example, Carleton University students who recently won the national award for innovation based their concept on enhancing current technology with new electronic systems of organization. Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before is based on the proposition that one could be caught on the international date line. With no past and no future, people dedicated their efforts to reintegrating time, preferring mortality to stasis.

Tolerance and respect are based on knowledge. Fear and distrust stem from ignorance. A world without access to education would be a hotbed of strife. The UNESCO peace garden project for schools offers an excellent illustration of the concept that understanding emanates from dialogue and that the key to dispute resolution requires bringing people together.

Education promotes civic engagement and is essential for democratic governance. Every university in the country can cite projects in which engagement with the community builds better towns and cities, while students learn valuable lessons for life and work, becoming better citizens and custodians of what they inherit.

We can be proud of the excellent education available in Canada. Whether you are from Peace River or Baddeck, you can aspire to the highest leadership roles. Other countries may well tout the virtues of a less expensive work force, but in the “flat world” economy of Thomas Friedman, as soon as these populations have access to education, they will begin to rival Canada’s knowledge economy with better qualified workers. The only way to maintain our competitive advantage is to provide access to excellent education, thereby providing innovation and economic development, as well as civic engagement.

This must be our commitment to the past and the future. It is our responsibility as Canadians and our duty to our children.

Roseann O’Reilly Runte is president of Carleton University.

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