The UN Academic Impact and Universal Values

My father was the principal of a high school in Osaka in western Japan. That might not sound like the hippest job for a parent. But in Japan, as in many other countries, professors and teachers get a lot of respect and even reverence. I learned early on that teachers are only human. But I saw the dedication and commitment my father and his colleagues brought to their work, every day.

Education has been very much on my mind recently. The United Nations Department of Public Information has just launched a new initiative to promote links between the UN and academic institutions. The initiative is called the United Nations Academic Impact; you can check out our website on Facebook. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, spoke at the launch.

Before the launch in New York, I attended a conference in Shanghai where we discussed the 10 principles behind the Academic Impact. We heard different voices, different languages, different accents and, yes, different perspectives. But the integrity and conviction that underlay the arguments was clear. I believe this integrity and conviction come from values that are not personal, or societal, or national, but universal.

The idea of universal human values goes back millennia and is present in many different cultures, including the "great harmony" of Confucianism. These values are, of course, enshrined in the United Nations' founding documents, including the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But not everyone agrees on the importance of universal values. Over the past thirty years, for example, we have heard a great deal about "Asian values." It's worth examining this idea a little more closely.

The economic transformation of Asia is one of the most phenomenal developments of the 20th century. More than 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty by China alone since the 1980s.

"Asian values" were frequently evoked to explain this. These values were associated with self-effacement, self-discipline and personal sacrifice for the greater good. The economic success of my own country, Japan, was linked with patriotism, discipline, good work ethics, competent management and, especially, close cooperation between the government and the private sector. In Japan in the 1980s, many argued passionately that "Asian values" would become the future gold standard for managing the global economy and global growth.

But then came the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. People stopped talking about the "Asian miracle." Japan suffered a decade of recession and deflation. If Asian values were evoked at all, they were used to explain how the region had got into this mess, rather than as any kind of universal prescription.

Now, more than 10 years since the Asian financial crisis, most countries have restructured their economies and reversed the painful declines that caused so much suffering. Along with China, India looks set to take its place among the economic powerhouses of Asia. And people have dusted off the idea of Asian values and are even talking about an "Asia-Pacific century."

So this time around, what kind of values do they mean? The same Asian values that have been evoked both as the cause of economic success, and as the roots of economic decline?

I believe we should consider both the source and the logic of the arguments used to defend ideas of indigenous values. Some of the thought, belief and faith that are essentially Asian, or African, are of course indigenous. But equally, many beliefs and practices evolved in response, or retaliation, to ideas and doctrines that were imposed by foreign powers, sometimes harboring territorial ambitions. There may be little that is inherently indigenous about them.

I also believe an important starting point is for academics and institutions not to try -- once again -- to globalize idiosyncratic "Asian values," but, rather, to embrace and promote the universal values of freedom, tolerance, dignity, and respect for human rights.

The United Nations Academic Impact is based on truly universal principles, which, at the same time, remain intensely personal. It aims to unleash minds and their potential by asserting the right to inquire and the right to challenge every dogma -- even if it happens to be the only dogma around. It relies on the liberty to express views and opinions -- and the responsibility to substantiate them.

We are encouraging the universities that join the Impact to undertake joint research projects and papers on the global issues that concern us most, from climate change and development to global governance. Waseda University in Japan, for example, is planning to bring together top Asian and American universities to conduct joint research on the links between energy security, environmental protection and economic growth.

The United Nations, professors, academics and students have started on a journey that I believe will be filled with creative ideas and productive endeavors. We have built solid foundations, and we have a clear idea of what we want to achieve.

But one question still bothers me. Why didn't we think of this sooner?