Education is an essential part of the foundation of an open and just society. It deserves to be a priority in a nation’s life, and the Putin government has wisely designated education as one of Russia’s “national projects.” What’s needed now is action and commitment to improve and enhance Russia’s educational system. The Russian government is currently spending 1% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) on education, which is substantially below that of the European Union (2%) and the United States (3%). But spending more money on education is only a small part of the answer.
Problems that arise in modern societies can usually be attributed to one of two things: one is when individuals drift apart from each other, or collide with one another and cause damage. The other is when things go wrong inside an individual and that person becomes confused, discouraged or disoriented. C. S. Lewis, the famous 20th century British writer, described it this way: “You can get the idea plain if you think of us as a fleet of ships sailing in formation. The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you can not have either of these two things without the other.”
But Lewis pointed out one more thing to take into account: Where is the fleet going? The ships may be sailing well and in formation, but the voyage will ultimately be a failure if the goal is Vladivostok and the ships arrive in Magadan.
Morality is concerned with three things. First, fairness and cooperation between people; second, happiness and well-being inside each person; and third, the general purpose of life as a whole. This third aspect, to again use the illustration of the ships, refers to the course of the fleet.
Education must address all three of these dimensions of life. Training for technical competence or simply to prepare people to play a role in the economy is not enough. Moral training is particularly important, since the basis of a free and just society is grounded in the virtuous character of its citizens. A society with no moral foundation quickly becomes a battleground of the powerful against the powerless, of interest groups struggling to protect their privileges, of injustice and poverty for most while the elite prosper.
History has shown that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make a society work well. You cannot make people good by law, and without good people you cannot have a good society. This is why teaching about fairness and cooperation between people, while very important, is only the beginning. We must also teach about morality inside individuals — about character development.
But we cannot stop there either. As C. S. Lewis suggested, the deeper issues of what course we are on must also be integrated into subjects taught in every classroom. What values do Russians cherish for their society? What kind of country do Russians desire for their children? Dealing with these essential questions should lie at the heart of an educator’s role. They are questions in which deep spiritual and moral values are at stake, and Russian literature, philosophy and theology offer great insight on these subjects. The freedom to discuss these issues and to teach moral values must be granted and protected for Russia’s future to be promising. Different religious traditions and philosophical perspectives must be respected, since freedom of conscience is the most basic of all human rights.
Identifying education as one of four “national projects” is a good start. Investing in Russia’s extraordinary wealth in “human capital” is important – more important, in my judgment, than investment in the country’s natural resources. But the development of character – teaching Russian young people to be men and women of integrity, of compassion, of commitment – is the necessary foundation in the building of a healthy society. The same, of course, is true in the European Union and the United States. This is a challenge that all societies face, and a challenge that, if ignored, costs us everything.