The myth that education is the magic bullet to solve the problems that plague the modern world is one that is rooted in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, which pivoted away from economic redistribution policies towards viewing education as the panacea to income inequality. While education empowers individuals and provides them access to more opportunities, and that in this respect, it is indeed a key tool and the answer to some of the many challenges which we face today, it cannot stand alone or solve all problems. Given the complexity of the issues and its inherent flaws and limitations, education alone cannot solve all the issues within our world today.


At first glance, it appears that education can catalyse positive social change through enlightening and empowering individuals and by broadening their horizons. Through formal education, individuals gain a better understanding of the world around them and their place in the world. Besides enlightening individuals, an education can empower one to improve one’s community, or to surmount one’s unique challenges. For instance, with respect to gender inequality, studies have revealed that women in developing countries who have been educated are half as likely to undergo harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, and four times more likely to protect their daughters from it. Educated women are put in a better position to realize that they have the right to speak up and defend themselves from any abuse or harm. Besides empowering individual victims of gender inequality, education also ensures that whole communities are enlightened, and are able to solve social issues together. International efforts to combat racism and intolerance in schools have been introduced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This project, titled ‘Teaching Respect for All’ was designed to develop curriculum for use across the globe to promote tolerance and respect for all people. It is evident that education is one of the most effective ways to help individuals adopt new mindsets and perspectives, in order to efficiently solve problems. 


In addition, education levels the playing field of the disadvantaged by providing them access to opportunities to improve their standard of living and overcome the problems their communities might face. It does so by equipping people with the necessary knowledge and skills which are needed to seek employment. This understanding underpins many humanitarian projects such as the Thailand Hilltribe Education Project (THEP), which provides scholarships to needy students from Thailand’s relatively impoverished hilltribes. One of their beneficiaries is a living testament to the effectiveness of education in lifting individuals out of poverty; a recipient of the THEP scholarship, Ms Kanokwan, who was born into a family of farmers, managed to attain her bachelor’s degree in English, and is now a teacher and a contributor to their sponsorship programme. Besides uplifting individuals and their families, societies which benefit from formal education seem to enjoy higher standards of living. According to the Education Transforms booklet released by the EFA Global Monitoring Report, this is because an educated populace is also a more productive populace, and productivity gains fuel economic development, which collectively raises the standard of living for a society. Hence, it can be argued that with education, people are more likely to enjoy a better life and hence, education is indeed the key to solving problems like poverty.


Yet, notwithstanding the fact that education has been effective in solving problems like discrimination and poverty, education should not be seen as a panacea to all problems. This is because there are many obstacles and aggravating factors which might limit the effectiveness of education. Education can only begin to tackle a problem if education is possible in the first place, for instance. The poor and impoverished cannot afford tuition fees, much less other learning tools and resources. Besides tangible barriers, intangible barriers include attitudinal factors: for many living in rural areas, education is sometimes seen as unnecessary or secondary, and comes at a higher opportunity cost as children are unable to help out as manual labour or farm help. A survey conducted by the child labour showed that 75% of the parents in Bangaladesh are unwilling to send their children to school because school expenses are a heavy burden. If the masses are unable to access education due to poverty and destitution, children will continue to be deprived of education, rendering it ineffective in solving problems. 


In addition, there are certain problems which education would be unable to resolve alone. Although environmentalist movements like the Youth for Climate movement have been gaining traction in recent years, the United Nations noted that in 2018, carbon dioxide emissions were on the rise for the first time in four years. A report released by the United Nations Environment Programme indicates that a tipping point has already been reached in the Artic and Greenland, where permafrost has started melting more than 70 years before it was expected to. Even as Canada announces a ‘climate emergency’, its political leaders approved of a new pipeline deal for natural gas. This is because of the sheer complexity of problems like climate change and environmental degradation; most of the time, the education of consumers alone is inadequate and ineffective in halting environmental destruction that has been ongoing for decades. In such cases, strong political will and corporate-sector leadership will be more effective. Siemens, the world’s largest manufacturer, has devoted more than 100 million euros to reducing its carbon emissions by half by 2030. Morocco, for instance, has introduced – and is set to meet – ambitious goals, such as targeting to have 42% of installed electricity production capacity from renewable energy by 2020. These examples illustrate the fact that political will and leadership would be more effective in mitigating climate change, especially because domestic energy consumption forms a remarkably negligible percentage of carbon emissions. Some of the problems which we face require a multidimensional and a multi-pronged approach, in which education can only form one pillar.


Finally, education has its own inherent limitations, which may render it ineffective and even counterproductive in solving social problems. On the surface, it may seem that education is a social leveller that empowers individuals and improves lives. This, however, does not seem to hold true in increasingly stratified developed countries, where the presence of generational wealth is a critical determinant of academic success. In Singapore, which claims to uphold meritocracy, children from more affluent family backgrounds grossly outperform those who come from humbler backgrounds, primarily because affluent parents pass on advantages such as better learning resources and additional help like enrichment classes to their offspring. A research study conducted in 2016 found that nearly 41% of students in schools which offer the prestigious Integrated Programme were from families with a monthly household income of at least $10,000. Conversely, only 7% had similar backgrounds in government schools which did not offer the programme.  Students in the Integrated Programme enjoy opportunities and resources which their peers in government schools do not have access to, such as leadership programmes and education and career guidance mentorship. Given that the education system ultimately feeds into the job market, particularly in Singapore, the differences in access to educational opportunities since young inevitably result in severely hampered social mobility. 


In summary, education can act as a catalyst to solve problems like poverty and discrimination. However, education is not the panacea to all the problems of the modern world because of the fact that there are people who cannot afford education; because of the multi-dimensional and multi-faceted nature of today’s challenges; and the inherent limitations unique to education. Ultimately, education can make the hopeless image of our future more vibrant and colourful, but that image will still be left incomplete if other aspects of society do not reform and complement education.