Is it still necessary to teach about the United Nations?

Is it still necessary to teach about the United Nations? Absolutely—now, perhaps more than ever. With a spiraling global population, the need to better inform and educate young people the world over about the United Nations represents an ongoing challenge that cannot go unheeded.

If the United Nations is to remain true to its Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it must continue to promote such education to this and succeeding generations of young people. From primary classrooms to university campuses, this challenge requires a similar commitment by the United Nations partners in civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Unless students come to know and appreciate the mandate and the role of the United Nations to help their world become safer and more humane, far too many of mankind’s failures will simply be repeated. Unless students understand the nature and breadth and depth of the global issues that confront the United Nations and its Member States, the less likely their creativity and resourcefulness will be employed in solving such issues. Unless students discover how and where they can one day apply their readiness and enthusiasm to work within the United Nations System and/or support its endeavours through its related NGOs, the poorer the world body will be. And unless students learn to recognize false claims and unfair criticism about the United Nations, the harder the road to overcome such issues as human rights abuses, poverty, literacy, climate change and terrorism.

While there have been substantial achievements in creating the materials and learning environments necessary, especially in the developed countries and in English, much more can clearly be done in many of the less developed countries and in the five other official UN languages.

Starting with the K-12 curriculum and moving on to higher education, there is an ever present need to update and improve the existing curriculum and, at the same time, encourage the development of new, technologically enhanced units and lessons. More specifically, there are at least a minimum of six imperatives:

1.  With respect to the plight of less developed and developing nations, it’s important that students learn how the United Nations, from its founding, has played a major role in decolonization and the emergence of some 80 new sovereign States. Such history provides valuable insights and basic understanding of the hardships that many of these nations have had to overcome on the road to self-governing.

2.  Closely related is the need to learn about the huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Without this broader perspective, younger generations are less likely to assist in the development of new and better ways to reduce the ravages of poverty, hunger, malnutrition, disease, tainted water, soil erosion and other conditions that the have-nots endure.

3.  Learning how the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization, among others, currently improve the lives of both the haves and the have-nots is a critical part of this education process.

4.  On a broader scale, young people have a fundamental need to learn the essential objectives of each of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by the General Assembly in 2000, as well as what has been and what is not likely to be achieved by the 2015 deadline.

5.  Discovering what happens to these and other UN programmes when Member States withhold or delay the payment of dues, when financial pledges are only partially met, when compassion fatigue prevails in wealthier Member States and when many parts of the world experience a decline in their middle class will hopefully spur efforts by today’s and tomorrow’s youth to mitigate or reverse these obstacles.

6.  The need to grasp and understand the scope of the United Nations impact on the daily lives of people from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe is substantial, but equally important is the need to carefully examine the nature and responsibilities of its principal organs:

The Security Council

Students may be most familiar with the Security Council, given its primary responsibility for global peace and security and its frequent appearance in newspaper headlines and radio and television newscasts. However, in the absence of study, how can youth properly comprehend and evaluate the political dimensions of the Council’s deliberations and those occasions when its decisions or failure to act generate heated debate in the media and civil society? This is especially critical when the use of the veto or threat of veto delays or suspends the preferred outcome of the majority. Probing the merits of the veto or the expansion of permanent Council membership through classroom debate can be invaluable.

The General Assembly

As a forum for its 193 Member States, the General Assembly is still another dimension of the United Nations that requires the ongoing attention of students. Shouldn’t the Assembly’s functions, main committees and recent actions be grist for the classroom mill both now and in the future? Shouldn’t young people learn why each Member State, including their own, is restricted to a single vote regardless of its size?

The Secretariat

Although young people may be quick to name Ban Ki-moon as the current Secretary-General and may recall such predecessors as Kofi Annan or Dag Hammarskjöld, how much deeper does their knowledge reach in terms of the Secretariat? Without curriculum to highlight the functions and tasks assigned to that office, what is it likely to mean to youth? And what significance do they attach to his statements or declarations when he uses his position as a bully pulpit?

The Economic and Social Council

Among the less familiar organs, the significant role of the Economic and Social Council in dealing with international economic and social issues escapes many young people, let alone adults. Understanding its purposes and support to Member States in such fields as trade, economic development and transport should certainly remain a requirement in current and future classrooms.

The International Court of Justice

Future diplomats and civil servants now in school can surely benefit from basic exposure to the types of cases that appear before the International Court of Justice and the rulings it has handed down. Even those who may not share such career ambitions need some awareness of why and how Member States may turn to the World Court to adjudicate disputes between them.

The Trusteeship Council

Although its primary task has been basically fulfilled, the history of the Trusteeship Council and its post-World War II oversight and development of nearly a dozen territories in Africa and the Pacific Ocean offers students important lessons in the achievement of self-government. Depriving students of these and similar lessons related to the United Nations would be unfortunate.

Keeping up with all that transpires within the United Nations will surely become more challenging in the years ahead. Since many events, decisions and activities of the world body will in some way affect the daily lives of us all, who can argue responsibly against the need to teach young people about the United Nations now and in the future? And for those whose hopes and dreams will take them into new and exciting realms of our global village, this early acquaintance with the United Nations must be available.

Like all human institutions, the United Nations sometimes stumbles from its imperfections and education efforts should, therefore, not only highlight its successes but also acknowledge the limitations and weaknesses that affect its performance. Without such candor, students will be handicapped when forming their personal perspectives of the world body.

While the overwhelming majority of students may lack the interest or skills to pursue careers in such fields as government, international affairs or the UN System, they will migrate into business, service industries, technology, agriculture and other essential vocations. How they perceive the United Nations and global issues should never be dismissed lightly since their views will most likely influence the way their local, regional and national leaders address societal challenges.

Well-rounded perspectives of the United Nations are even more critical for those who will be filling positions both in and out of government as tomorrow’s leaders. Their influence will impact the highest levels of civil society, and that influence will ultimately shape the effectiveness of the United Nations both directly and indirectly. With a solid foundation in the history, functions and capabilities of the United Nations, they will be better equipped to discover ways to achieve positive and practical goals that have eluded the world body in the past.

The question then is not whether it’s still necessary to teach about the United Nations, but how such teaching can be improved and expanded to those parts of the world where it is not being done or done poorly or in a negative light.

Major credit is certainly due to such United Nations programmes as Cyberschoolbus as well as the rich library of UN resources available through the Internet and other social media such as Facebook and YouTube. Websites of many of the individual agencies and programmes of the UN System provide uniquely valuable material for education and civil society.

The United Nations Academic Impact, a global initiative that aligns institutions of higher education with the United Nations, is yet another major contribution to basic educational principles. Launched just three years ago, participating institutions have committed to use education as an engine to address global issues such as human rights, literacy, sustainable development and conflict resolution.

A leader in curriculum for educators is the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA), a branch of the United Nations Foundation. Best known for its materials on Model UN, since 2000 it has also offered a Global Classroom Curriculum for teachers. In describing its materials, the UNA-USA website explains that each unit focuses on specific issues that have been in the forefront of important debates in global affairs. At the heart of the curriculum are units dealing with the economies of globalization, peacekeeping,  sustainable development and human rights.

The organization I chair, the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations (CTAUN)1, presents annual conferences at UN Headquarters. These together with a number of other conferences in Atlanta, Austin, Dallas and Indianapolis have all featured in-depth examination of a contemporary or emerging global issue or related issues. Designed for educators, administrators, community leaders and other interested citizens, CTAUN symposiums offer the insights of UN System specialists and others from academia and civil society.

These meetings not only feature Info Fairs coordinated with conference themes, they also encourage the sub- mission of new and creative classroom instruction or student activities based on the previous year’s conference as entries for Best Practices awards. For conference reports and other relevant details see www.teachun.org.

Coupled with the ongoing, universal need to teach about the United Nations and the existing and emerg- ing issues that engage the world body is the imperative to keep abreast of ever-changing developments. From new technologies to new resources to new and daunting challenges there is much for us to learn as well.

Notes

1    A committee composed of representatives from non-governmental organizations and civil society.