Nelson Mandela once said that ‘education is the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world.’ And powerful it is, in creating a more equitable society and pushing for social change in – both of which contribute to making the world a better place. Yet, education is merely an instrument that when put in the hands of those who use it for the wrong purposes, can stifle creativity in a generation, and even be used as a weapon against others. As such, education is one of the most powerful tools with which one can change the world by moulding one young mind at a time – for the greater good or to the detriment of society.

Education is often hailed as the great social leveller for those who are less privileged by birth or circumstance. Education allows those who possess the right aptitude and attitude to achieve social mobility no matter their status at birth. Such a concept is summed up in the idea of meritocracy, that progress in society should be solely based on one’s ability and effort. Education does this by providing equal opportunities to all, by equipping all students with the same cognitive skills. How each student chooses to use them is up to them, and will determine their success in school or in life. The effect of higher education is exemplified in a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, which found that children born into households from the poorest fifth of the income distribution are six times more likely to reach the top fifth if they graduated from college. The Finnish education system, often lauded as one of the best in the world, emphasises equality and developing every child’s potential, by abolishing standardized testing and curricula. This prevents schools from being ranked, making it harder for wealthy parents to send their children to ‘better’ schools. Aside from promoting social equality through mobility, education can also help with gender equality. It achieves this by teaching girls about their rights and family planning, whilst equipping them with skills for the workforce. The results are definitely tangible too, as a United Nations study found that child marriages would fall by two-thirds and infant mortality reduced by half, if all girls went to secondary school. Every additional year of schooling can also raise women’s wages by 12%, thus reducing poverty. In this way, education is certainly capable of making the world a better place, by lifting those disadvantaged by society to achieve greater equality for all. Yet, while education has the capacity in theory to promote equality, in practice, it may only lift yachts and not all boats. A host of other complex factors are critical in ensuring that education meets its goal of equality. Some of these include poverty which prevents children from going to school, socio-political upheaval that disrupts schooling, as well as under-equipped schools with underpaid teachers. Thus, the potential for education to bring us closer to equality, and a better world in general, should be calibrated against these other factors. 

Education is also able to effect social change by equipping youth with the knowledge and galvanising them into action for the good of society. Education empowers citizens to hold authorities accountable and demand their rights when necessary. On an individual level, education teaches students to analyse a problem and tap on available resources to solve it. It is for this reason that education can bring about social change. One major incident of social change brought about through education is the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China, with an assembly of 1 million students in the square. Led by student demonstrators from universities all over the country, they gathered at various locations across some 400 Chinese cities calling for democracy, freedom of press, freedom of speech and greater accountability within the Communist Party. While not all of their goals were achieved, it is widely considered to be a watershed event, setting the boundaries on political expression in China till today. The student protesters, through education, were equipped to assert their rights and demand political change in the government and were able to achieve moderate success in the direction of their goals. In more recent times, the #NeverAgain protests against gun violence in America following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was set up by a student-led political action committee comprising students from the school. Their goal was to influence the 2018 midterm elections, encouraging young people to register to vote, demanding legislative action to prevent similar tragedies from occurring again. They were known through their Twitter hashtags and even embarked on a multi-city bus tour to promote their cause. Education undeniably helped these student activists organise and articulate their cause, empowering them to stand up to politicians and legislation that put them at risk of similar school shootings. In this case, they achieved considerable success as the law was amended to increase funding for school security and raising the legal age for buying a gun from 18 to 21. As such, education provides citizens with the necessary skills to hold their governments accountable and to demand their rights, safeguarding society against bad leadership. Detractors of this argument may, however, point out that it is the youthful idealism fuelling these student-led demonstrations that is spearheading social change, not education. The optimism, or naivety to put it bluntly, galvanises the youth to vocalise their opinions and lead the change, unafraid of the possible consequences or setbacks along the way, though education is certainly an enabler. 

On the flipside, education has the capacity to make the world a worse place than it already is, especially in the aspect of stifling creativity in students and limiting the potential for innovation in the real world. Many educators have called out schools for killing creativity. Sir Ken Robinson, an educator, spoke at a TED conference in 2006 with his now-famous talk titled ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’ which has gone on to be the most watched speaker in TED history. In his speech, he highlights how schools today fail to nurture creativity in students and even smother the creativity out of young hopeful students. An education system built upon industrial-age values is to blame. With rote memorisation and strict schedules to follow, students are treated more like factory workers at best, and prisoners at worst. Curricula tend to be geared towards the development of cognitive abilities within traditional subjects like language and arithmetic, allowing key skills valuable to life in the 21st century such as problem-solving, creativity and collaboration to fall to the wayside. Tristram Hunt, the former secretary of state  for education in the UK sums it up succinctly as a ‘Fordist model of mass education’ that fails to prepare our young for the dramatic socio-economic demands of the digital age. Indeed, we have moved way beyond the First Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and are at the Fourth one currently, with the rise of the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence amongst many technological breakthroughs. Yet, the inertia of education results in schools stuck with systems so firmly rooted in outdated curricula. This is important as the generations passing through the education system could be educated out of creativity, which could drastically impact society. Economically, an education system that fails to produce workers that meet the economy’s demands for creativity, critical thinking and complex problem-solving could see the economy operating at below its potential output. Those who were educated out of creativity could face difficulties in finding jobs as paper qualifications begin to lose their value, making way for other skills valued by employers. On a higher level, stifling creativity in our young may stunt the development of the young Mark Zuckerburg’s, Steve Jobs and Jack Ma’s of our generation. The gap between the economy’s demand and what the school produces is a cause for concern and one way in which education is not helping in making the world more innovative. 

Education can even be used as a weapon to control people, especially by those in power. The great ability of education to mould a generation of impressionable young minds is not lost on those with malicious intentions. The limitless potential of decades of brainwashing and indoctrination through education to control others’ thoughts and actions is particularly important to those who yearn for absolute power over people. ‘Juche’ ideology authored by the President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il Sung, is one example of education used for brainwashing. Juche ideology emphasises the individual, the nation state and its sovereignty, and has been codified into a set of principles for the government to justify its policy decisions. In actuality, it is an excuse for the hermit kingdom’s isolation and oppression of its own. It promotes Korean ethnic nationalism by hailing the Kim family as ‘saviours’ with a godlike status following the Korean war and popularized the personality cult surrounding them. ‘Juche’ is taught in every North Korean classroom and is effectively etched into the mind of every North Korean that has gone through the education system. The effects of this brainwashing are so significant that even defectors were emotionally affected upon receiving news of Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011. With such ideology so deeply entrenched in the North Korean psyche, the political stability of the regime is ensured by preventing uprisings. Juche also excuses the extreme oppression the state imposes on its own citizens in labour camps. This is not unlike Nazi Germany, which was one of the most well-educated countries in the world yet had curricula that ingrained racial ideas of Nazism and Aryan wife and motherhood for girls in the minds of the young. Academic subjects were downgraded with biology and history rewritten to reflect Germany’s ‘greatness’, Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitism. This would eventually lead to the Holocaust with the ethnic cleansing and genocide of European Jews, amounting to 6 million deaths. The Holocaust could not have been possible without the soldiers who had been indoctrinated into the ideology through education, proving that education was undoubtedly an instrument in committing such heinous crimes against humanity. 

In summary, while education is a powerful tool capable of bringing us closer to a better world through greater equality and social change, it is but a tool. It can be used for the wrong purposes if in the wrong hands, can limit innovation in our world that desperately needs it and even allow the oppression of people. It is also limited in that the cost of education may inhibit its ability to bring about greater equality for all. What is most important is for those who wield it to be aware of its potential for social change and use it wisely for good.