Education: A Tool that Makes or Breaks Democracies

What crosses your mind when you hear someone discuss the strategic importance of education and its role in shaping our future? At best, perhaps, you might nod. But more realistically, you might take it as a cue to gently zone out. In Norway, these words can come across as toothless: people know they are true, but most don’t have a very strong feeling about it, one way or the other. In fact, this calm mindset is one of the many privileges of living in a stable democracy.

Anna Novosad, Former Minister of Education and Science, Ukraine

Ana Perona-Fjeldstad, Executive Director, The European Wergeland Centre (EWC), Norway

In Ukraine, however, the strategic role of education remains as critical as ever. After the Maidan uprising in 2013-2014, the country launched ambitious educational reforms. They entailed changes to the very fabric of Ukraine’s society: the way its children are brought up. It has taken time and a lot of work for Ukrainians to tackle the massive task of transforming an old Soviet-style school system into a European, liberal, value-based education nationwide. We believe that this transformation is one of the multitude of ways Ukraine has managed to fortify itself against the ferocious attack by the Russian Federation – to the surprise of many observers worldwide, who remain in awe of this fierce resistance.

Among other transformations, Ukraine’s reforms saw a decentralization of power, with education becoming a national priority. The new guidelines focus on fostering democratic culture and inclusion, as well as the development of civic competences. Over time, these reforms have modernized pedagogic approaches, strengthened student participation, and recognized parents as equal partners in the education process. In this and other ways, the country has been taking confident steps in fostering democracy and human rights.

Now, the war unfolding next door to us goes beyond a clash of two neighboring countries. It is a clash of two competing value systems. Those of us who believe in democracy stand much to lose if Ukraine’s valiant efforts meet a demise. Countless lives are at stake, but beliefs are at stake, too. These beliefs – in freedom, in the rule of law, in national self-determination, among others – are the principles we share with Ukraine. All of us have a vested interest in seeing it triumph over authoritarianism, asserting its right to national self-determination.

National self-determination, which may come across like a generic term at first, involves the right to choose a destiny for yourself and your children – including one different from what they might be offered across the border. This kind of autonomous future is the one Ukraine has been trying to build all along. The country stands at the forefront of defending and nurturing democracy, including through education reforms. It’s been a long road, and not too many people around the world have been following these endeavors closely. But when Ukraine stood up in defiance of the Russian invasion, the world suddenly began to see it in full color – the way we have seen it all along.

Suddenly, though this darkest storm, this has become evident to a much wider group of observers. The battle for democracy is on Ukraine’s shoulders now. This battle began much earlier than 24 February 2022. It is painfully real, not merely rhetorical, and it’s close to us both geographically and culturally. Right next door, we are witnessing the enormous costs of dictatorships. In the Russian Federation, the potent world of education is being used as a powerful tool – albeit of a very different kind than the one Nelson Mandela had in mind.

Mandela’s famous words, calling education “the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,” referred to fighting oppression. Indeed, we tend to think of education as a great means of promoting democracy and human rights. But it can also be a potent instrument for authoritarian regimes to oppress their population and stay in power – something we are observing in the Russian Federation today. Russia’s education minister, Sergey Kravtsov, has described the country’s school system as central to Moscow’s fight to “win the information and psychological war” against the West.

The use of education as a tool to manipulate and mislead can also be seen in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia since 2014. Here, schools have experienced a truly Orwellian transformation. Ukraine as a nation has been removed from textbooks, and its language disappeared from the curriculum. Teachers who resist the official doctrine face great dangers. Children are educated into a system that thrives on having an enemy, and students are essentially taught to oppose their own country.

In the newly occupied territories, too, schools have become a priority target for information warfare, underscoring their inherent function as a powerful means of influence. The occupied cities lack food and medicine, and people struggle to survive without electricity. Nevertheless, the occupying forces prioritize the forced reopening of schools, kidnapping Ukrainian teachers and installing Russian ones. Well aware of the decisive role of education, they have weaponized it in the ongoing war.

At this time, with a renewed sense of urgency, we uphold the importance of instilling democratic values from an early age. This drives the change that powers a citizen’s ability to think independently, stand up and resist injustice. All children can be empowered to become active citizens who do not hesitate to demand accountability from figures of power. These citizens have trust in democracy. They uphold freedom of speech and the rule of law. They ask critical questions and explore diverse perspectives on difficult issues, engaging to generate solutions.

Education has become a highly charged political issue. It concerns the future directly, not theoretically. It is essential that all children have access to high-quality schooling – not least, children traumatized by warfare. This is not the time for international donors to cut funding for education.

Ukrainians wanted change and are fighting for that change as we speak. It is up to the rest of the democratic world to help them in their struggle. The stakes are too high to step down now.