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How Education Can Be a Force for Good

06/22/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

The following is an excerpt from Daniel Goleman's new book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World.

The Dalai Lama had come to John Oliver High School for an in-person session on Educating Hearts and Minds. Several hundred students were packed into the school gym for the event, which was live-streamed as well to thirty-three thousand others across the province.

There he told the young crowd,

I'm quite old, about eighty. My life is now mostly completed. But yours are just beginning. It's up to you whether you lead a happy life, whether you make a positive contribution for the well-being of humanity. I've had the opportunity to meet lots of different kinds of people -- leaders, beggars, respected scientists, and spiritual practitioners. I'm convinced a happy life is not dependent on being wealthy, or even having a good family.

"I always listen to BBC every day. The news tells me there's lots of pain in our world, lots of problems and violence. These problems are man-made." Yet the people causing them are often smart.

That, he added, shows that today's education does not bring inner peace or moral principles. We can't change this by force, and a religious sermon cannot reach all the billions of us on the planet, let alone non-believers. The only way is through an education that aims for a universal good: Everyone wants to be happy.

A thousand years ago in the West, the education systems of the world were the domain of the Church, he observed. As the hold of religion on education waned over the centuries, so did the reach of teachings about caring and responsibility. Applied ethics took a backseat, particularly as science and technology developed over the last century. And today the foundations of education are for the most part materialistic.

"People who grow up in this system don't learn the importance of inner values but rather tend to think that progress, money, and material values are more important," he said. "So how can we bring balance to this?"

Rather than base an education on blind belief in values like compassion, he pointed to the new science showing how peace of mind and a healthy body are related to a concern for others. With that grounding, he said, such values can be brought back into education.

The Dalai Lama has a conviction that we are born with a predisposition toward kindness. "When children are very young, this is quite alive," he said, but this part of their nature can remain undeveloped. "In the existing system of education, there's not much emphasis on that."

Instead, children are exposed to influences that breed distrust, anger -- the opposite side of their nature. "We need an education for the positive in them. Otherwise, it lies dormant. We need an education that brings out this positive side."

There's the slogan "healthy body, healthy mind," he said, but then pointed out that the modern education system neglects the part about a healthy mind.

He sees an urgent need for refocusing education. Today's system of modern education, from his point of view, is lacking in moral education, ethics, and what he calls "the oneness of humanity"--the sense of a single human family, all equal in our quest for happiness. "What's missing are moral principles."

While in ancient times a tribal notion of the separateness of peoples ruled, in today's interconnected world we need to use reason to extend our compassion beyond just our own group to a sense of concern for everyone. The Dalai Lama turns to education as a tool for extending our biological instinct for compassion toward our loved ones outward, toward everyone.

Many students study business and economics with the aim to become rich, he continued. So they work "tirelessly, without sufficient sleep, always busy, busy, busy. But there's no compassion in that -- it's just for themselves.

"If you only want to make a profit, if the thing that matters is money, then there's this growing gap between rich and poor. Whether you call it compassion or just a sense of responsibility, if humanity suffers, if there's too much violence, then there is huge suffering. So it's in your own interest to help the world."

Reinventing how children are schooled has been a theme the Dalai Lama returns to in outlining virtually every aspect of his vision of a force for good.

"Everyone's future depends on dealing with these problems. So then there's the question, What to do? Then show the method," he told me.

"The method?" I asked.

"Education," he answered, adding, "But if our educational system pays little attention to the problems we face, they will increase. Nobody wants that."

It's not enough for just a few people on the margins to talk about the changes needed, he says. He calls for a movement, "a revolution in modern education," based on new ideas and new thinking.

From A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama's Vision for Our World. Copyright 2015. Daniel Goleman. Reprinted with permission from Penquin Random House.

The audiobook for A Force for Good is available from More Than Sound.