Skip to main content
Education Plus Development

Could Pope Francis Be the World’s Most Important Education Advocate?

Last week I found myself in the Vatican, taking part in a series of meetings on education, global citizenship, and peaceful co-existence. As a non-Catholic, this was new territory for me. Prior to the meeting, the little I knew about the Catholic Church could be captured on a flashcard, a mini, cliff-notes version of history. It all started in the first century A.D. during the Roman Empire when Jesus appointed Saint Peter as the church’s leader (the first pope), many centuries of expansion and conflict followed, the Protestant reformation then occurred in the 1500s, a strong tradition of education among the Jesuits contributed to schooling expansion globally, and today divisive debates rage around abortion and the role of women. I knew similarly little about the Church’s teachings. And the protocol materials sent prior to the meetings, while helpful because at least I knew what was expected, only served to reinforce the sound bites about the Church that you hear on the news. Women are to wear “pants and skirts below the knees, colorless nails, hair up and neat, without cleavage, shoulders covered, no tight clothes, dark colors.” 

Two Communities, One Human Family

Given my limited knowledge, I decided I should prepare for the meeting and luckily happened upon several articles about Catholic social teaching. In those pages, I discovered a very different Church than what usually makes the media headlines. The concepts of human dignity, human equality, the right of all people to fully participate in society, and hence the call to provide special protection to the poor and vulnerable and to act in the common good were all present. In many ways the principles and focus of Catholic social teaching are similar to those in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, perhaps the one document that has inspired me the most to work on issues related to global poverty. In both cases, there is the powerful idea that all people are part of one human family—no matter who you are, where you are from, what gender you are, or how rich or how poor. The origins of this idea are different, of course, with one relying on the belief that each person is created in the image of God (and hence we must treat everyone as we would treat the Lord) and the other skipping the divine altogether and starting with the belief in the inherent dignity of all people (and hence “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”).  Here was, in my view, one of the best-kept secrets of the Catholic Church. 

The ideas in Catholic social teaching were essential in giving me a frame of reference for my discussions at the Vatican. The meetings last week were convened by Scholas Occurentes, an Argentinian non-profit founded by Pope Francis when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and dedicated to connecting schools around the world in an effort to foster inter-cultural dialogue. Now, with Pope Francis sitting in Rome, the organization is seeking to broaden its scope, become more global, and take an ecumenical approach to the issues around global citizenship that Pope Francis has stated he wishes to continue to champion. Supporting the poor and vulnerable, focusing on human dignity and equality, ensuring everyone is part of and fully participating in society, were all principles strongly reflected in this work, as with much of the pope’s actions throughout his life, and in Pope Francis’s message at the meeting.  “We will not change the world, if we do not change education,” said the pope. Teachers must be honored, he went on, for carrying the burden of educating our children virtually alone, but it is time that all members of society actively lend their support to this important responsibility. Ultimately, he laid out a social vision based on harmony (both within society and within oneself) to which the education of the world’s young people should contribute. 

If my trip to the Vatican taught me one thing it is that there is far more common ground between the religious and global education communities than first meets the eye. But how can Pope Francis and his team translate the core values we share into practical solutions for children and youth in developing countries? Here are my five recommendations:

1. Become a global education advocate. Global education, namely the focus on formal and non-formal learning opportunities in countries around the world, has been missing champions at the most senior level. This has been especially visible in the last 15 years as the global education community coalesced around trying to put all children in the world into primary school, the core of the education component of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As colleagues in the global health sector, an equally important area of work, mobilized Bill Gates, a host of celebrities, multiple U.N. special envoys, and billions of dollars in additional financing to meet the health-related MDGs, progress in global education was made mainly on the backs of the poorest countries in the world—many of whom extended considerable effort to do whatever they could in the face of difficult constraints to improve education for their children. Not surprisingly, today corporations give 16 times more to global health than to global education, and the health-focused global fund in its last replenishment campaign raised $12 billion while the education-focused global fund raised less than $2 billion. 

Only within the last two years has there been a growing global profile to the world’s education issues with, among others, the appointment of former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown as the first U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education, the First Lady of Qatar Sheika Moza’s global initiative to put 10 million children into school, and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s new role as the chair of the board of the Global Partnership for Education. 

Additional voices are certainly needed—to call on governments both rich and poor alike to do more, to encourage civil society and the private sector to include education as a priority for their service and giving, and to remind people that it is not just any education that will do but one that promotes the values of global citizenship. This last point, in particular, needs more attention. In what could serve as an excellent starting point for Pope Francis’s global education messages, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon recently issued a framework for education action that has three global priorities: 1) put every child into school, 2) improve quality learning, and 3) foster global citizenship.  In all of this Pope Francis could have an important role to play, as a leader who can pick up the phone to talk with any other heads of state, as an ethical voice in the debate, and as someone who can inspire people to act.  

2. Focus on the most marginalized. The commitment to the poor and the vulnerable takes on new meaning when moving from an Argentinian (or even Latin American) context to a global perspective. Virtually all children in Latin America have access to school, although the dropout rate at secondary school level is alarmingly high in some countries.  However, this is not the case globally.  There are 120 million children in the world who have no access to primary or junior secondary school at all, the majority of them are living in severe poverty in rural areas or unlucky enough to live in countries plagued by armed conflict.  There are also 130 million children around the world who are in schools of such poor quality that they are learning virtually nothing—after four years in school they have not mastered the very basics of reading, writing and math and are therefore at high risk of dropping out before the end of primary school.  While you will certainly find some of these children in Latin America, you will find many more spread across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. 

These children and youth are the poorest of the poor globally and are in desperate need of programs, attention, and advocates on their behalf. Like their peers everywhere, they deserve an education that not only equips them with academic and workforce skills but also imparts a sense of community and a set of values reflecting global citizenship. To reach these young people, we cannot rely on the preferred approach used to date by the Scholas initiative of connecting students through computers in their classrooms (so many have no classrooms, and those that do certainly don’t have access to the Internet or computers).  Rather, we need to focus on policies, programs, and interventions that bring learning to these young people, such as traveling teachers, homes and community centers doubling as schools for refugee children, and distance learning via mobile phones. Pope Francis and his team at Scholas have an important role to play in shining a spotlight on the needs of these forgotten children and driving action on their behalf. Any global citizenship initiative that does not include them in some way would seem to fly in the face of the basic principles in Catholic social teaching.    

3. Promote global citizenship within education systems. The competencies important for global citizenship—empathy, critical thinking, collaborating with others, respecting diversity, understanding inter-connectedness—can be fostered in numerous ways. One important way to help young people develop these competencies is through school systems. It is, after all, much easier to use policy and programs to try to affect change through the levers that education systems have—curriculum, teaching, text books, classroom environment—than through, for example, trying to change behavior inside the family.

There has been much work over the years by educators and social activists who seek to cultivate global citizenship competencies through education.  From this work, we know that extra-curricular activities around global citizenship issues (e.g., a school club, a community service project, a day of awareness) are important and can be useful avenues to engage young people. However, if these after-school activities give different messages than what the schools themselves give, their impact is greatly diminished. For example, if children spend all day in a school where the curriculum has explicit messages about the inferiority of women to men, teachers regularly call on boys over girls, and female teachers are the only ones responsible for cleaning the school grounds, then an afterschool activity on gender equality will likely not deliver major results.  Ensuring that education systems both embody the values of global citizenship in their core business of teaching and learning as well as promote engagement in extra-curricular activities on the topic is an important avenue for social change.  Colombia, Scotland, Korea, and Kenya are all countries that are actively prioritizing this work in their education systems. Building on, amplifying and spreading these existing efforts to new countries could be an important role for Pope Francis and his team.

4. Mobilize multiple voices in society. In addition to using the levers of change available in education systems, influential figures in society have an important role to play in spreading the message about global citizenship.  From music stars and sports celebrities to CEOs and politicians—all have a sphere of influence that can be leveraged towards the values of global citizenship. Role models in society can have powerful influence over young people and having them engage in activities that demonstrate global citizenship competencies can be equally as influential as having them speak about the issues. This is an area in which the Pope and his team at Scholas are already heavily engaged and it certainly is an area of comparative advantage given the celebrity of Pope Francis himself.  

5. Lean-in on the Catholic education tradition.  In many parts of the world, and especially in developing countries, Catholic schools have made a significant contribution to expanding mass education and giving some of the poorest communities access to a quality education. The large network of Catholic schools is an important player—particularly in areas where neither governments nor the Church alone can solve the education problems. These networks, and the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, are an important asset in the effort to cultivate global citizenship competencies. They can be encouraged not only to continue their work but also to reach out to the non-Catholic community on issues of global citizenship and the support of public education systems writ large. 

For those who care about these issues, and particularly for those who have spent years working on education and advancing notions of global citizenship, the idea that Pope Francis and his team at Scholas Occurentes may play a more globally active role in this movement will be welcome news indeed. Regardless of one’s spiritual persuasion, global citizenship is something we can all get behind.


Get daily updates from Brookings