Universal Education: Can It Change the World?

Education, a form of enlightenment, can transform us. Widespread education changes society by enlightening it with a sense of the greater good and the promotion of peace and prosperity. 

Education, if not widely available or if very limited to a single class or gender or racial group, cannot work this magic, or otherwise effect this alchemical transmutation of the individual mind and heart, as well as our collective mindset and societal sense of purpose. Education acts as an elixir that can convert the copper of base appetites into the gold of altruistic aspirations. Education promotes a progressive civilization. If you’re reading this, no doubt you already know this truth.

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In one of the most majestic and empowering passages in the Baha’i writings, Baha’u’llah effectively and emphatically employed evocative metaphors of talismans and precious gems to accentuate the importance of education:

Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being; by one word more he was guided to recognize the Source of his education; by yet another word his station and destiny were safeguarded. The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom. … If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty, and discover the secret of undisturbed peace and absolute composure. 

The Baha’i teachings call for universal compulsory education for every child. Here, Baha’u’llah presents education not only as a progressive principle, but also as a prophecy. 

The principle shows the purpose, while the prophecy affirms the promise and confirms the ultimate outcome over time – thereby demonstrating the end in the beginning, the blossom in the bud, the tree and the seed. 

Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’u’llah’s son and successor, referred to this universal compulsory education teaching of Baha’u’llah’s as “new” and “distinctive” in the history of religion. Does this claim withstand scrutiny? Can fact-checking verify it? I encourage each and every one of you to check this out, and investigate this intriguing assertion for yourself. Although Abdu’l-Baha’s claim that Baha’u’llah’s principle, proclamation, and promotion of “universal education” may not be absolutely new, it is certainly relatively new in the history of religions. In his First Tablet to The Hague, Abdu’l-Baha writes

And among the teachings of Baha’u’llah is the promotion of education. Every child must be instructed in sciences as much as is necessary. If the parents are able to provide the expenses of this education, it is well, otherwise the community must provide the means for the teaching of that child.

Several key subsidiary Baha’i teachings connect with this overarching principle of universal education. For instance, although education must be universal, the education of women has priority over the education of men, since women are the first educators of their children. Abdu’l-Baha said

Baha’u’llah declares the education of woman to be of more importance than that of man. If the mother be ignorant, even if the father have great knowledge, the child’s education will be at fault, for education begins with the milk. A child at the breast is like a tender branch that the gardener can train as he wills. 

Also, if the parents of a son and daughter can only afford to send one of them to school, they must prefer the daughter over the son. Baha’u’llah, in his Most Holy Book, wrote: “Unto every father hath been enjoined the instruction of his son and daughter in the art of reading and writing.” An explanatory note adds that 

… Abdu’l-Baha, in His Tablets, not only calls attention to the responsibility of parents to educate all their children, but He also clearly specifies that the “training and culture of daughters is more necessary than that of sons,” for girls will one day be mothers, and mothers are the first educators of the new generation. If it is not possible, therefore, for a family to educate all the children, preference is to be accorded to daughters since, through educated mothers, the benefits of knowledge can be most effectively and rapidly diffused throughout society. 

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Let’s hope that such a situation becomes hypothetical only, since the greater Baha’i ideal is equal access to education for all. As for the importance and influence of education, in his book Some Answered Questions Abdu’l-Baha stated

As to the differences of character arising from education, they are great indeed, for education exerts an enormous influence. Through education the ignorant become learned, the cowardly become courageous, the crooked branch becomes straight, the acrid and bitter fruit of the mountains and woods becomes sweet and succulent, and the five-petalled flower puts forth a hundred petals. Through education barbarous nations become civilized and even animals take on human-like manners. Education must be accorded the greatest importance; for just as diseases are highly communicable in the world of bodies, so is character highly communicable in the realm of hearts and spirits. The differences caused by education are enormous and exert a major influence. 

In one of his tablets Abdu’l-Baha wrote about the important future impact of this essential social ethic and ideal. Here’s the premise and the promise, the purpose and the payoff, the provision and the prevision, the principle and the prophecy:

Baha’u’llah hath proclaimed the universality of education, which is essential to the unity of mankind, that one and all may be equally educated, whether girls or boys, and receive the same education. When education is universalized in all schools, perfect communication between the members of the human race will be established. When all receive the same kind of education the foundations of war and contention will be utterly destroyed. 

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