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For societal change through kindness, youth has to be given agency: UNESCO director

Mahatma Gandhi 150th Birth Anniversary: Dr Anantha Duraiappah, director, UNESCO MGIEP mentions that the present education systems need to build emotional intelligence in order to embrace Gandhi's principles.

Written by Jayashree Narayanan | New Delhi |
Updated: October 2, 2019 10:08:23 am
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As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatama Gandhi, the pertinent question is how can we move beyond simply advocating or instructing his ideas – especially for the 21st-century youth who are diverse, tech-savvy, aware of their rights and demanding agency and change? “For a real societal change, Gandhi’s learnings need to be imbibed into our education systems and exemplified in our daily lives,” says Dr Anantha Duraiappah, Director, UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP).

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In an exclusive interaction with, Duraiappah, who was recently elected as a fellow for The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), a merit-based academy focused on the advancement of science in developing countries, speaks on the upcoming fourth Ahinsa dialogue at Paris on October 1 which will see a life-size 3D hologram of Gandhi addressing the audience, relevance of Gandhian values and how the youth can lead by example.

Why is there a need to re-look at Mahatma’s values?

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Skills such as empathy, mindfulness, impulse control, kindness and criticality can be built through constant experimentation and experience — the same key pathways that Gandhi himself deployed to build and ultimately embody them. For example, educators need to take into account that youth transitioning from childhood have greater social exposure leading to awareness and mental maturity as well as vulnerabilities such as an appetite for risk and novelty and a search for meaning and purpose. Studies have also shown that youth are better at developing several cognitive empathetic skills such as sensing other’s needs and concerns, understanding complex social dynamics and situations, and voluntarily performing prosocial acts. In short, adolescence, the time when neuroplasticity is at its peak, is a significant time to create a long-lasting positive impact among the youth.

Fortunately, science has improved considerably and unlike a century ago, we now understand the neurobiological basis of learning; and an education that explicitly builds social and emotional competencies is possible. These advances in neuroscience have helped establish a clear neural basis for competencies such as critical inquiry – the adherence to reason, empathy – the general capacity to resonate with other people’s emotional states, compassion and kindness.

Live Updates: India remembers Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary

Advances in neuroscience have helped establish a clear neural basis for competencies such as critical inquiry – the adherence to reason, empathy – the general capacity to resonate with other people’s emotional states, compassion and kindness. There is also an understanding that to act – non-violently and with kindness – to solve contemporary societal problems requires emotional resonance. Like Gandhi, it is an arduous journey of self for society. A constant meticulous process of criticality, self-reflection, self-compassion, impulse control, and emotional regulation; of first becoming the change that one wishes to see in the world, of finding peace within self before expecting and effecting it in the world. It has to be this way – else, it is futile for a self at war to search for peace in the world.

Gandhi jayanti, gandhi 150 years, Kannada writer Devanoora Mahadeva Dr Anantha Duraippa on why Mahatma Gandhi’s principles are still relevant for the youth. (Source: Express Archives)

How are youth being motivated to learn from the various teachings of the Mahatma?

The world today is home to 1.8 billion young people — they are the largest generation of youth in history. So any discussion of Agenda 2030 is futile if we keep the youth on the sidelines. But, in spite of their sheer size and inspiring work on the ground, young men and women continue to be marginalised and ‘often’ projected as ‘leaders of tomorrow’. A closer look at the ground reality gives a different picture. Young people are making a difference and are the true foot soldiers of SDGs. Through their innovation and creativity, they are making a dent. The world today is full of these unsung heroes. To inspire societal change through the power of kindness, there is a need to give agency to the youth.

UNESCO MGIEP believes that youth are key agents for change and need to be empowered and provided with the right platforms to express their opinions and inducted in the decision-making process to develop more peaceful and sustainable societies.

Kindness is one area of special focus to sensitise youth and we have two initiatives to promote the concept: #KindnessMatters campaign and World Youth Conference on Kindness.

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For a lot of people, the principles of Mahatma are good in the books, but practically not achievable. What more do you think could be done to actually practically put the principles of ahinsa, critical enquiry, kindness into our daily lives?

The youth today are a lot more cognizant of being kinder to their surroundings and are redefining their choices, very much in sync with the values that Mahatma embodied. As science proves, we are wired for kindness and through our goodness we need to appeal throughout the human circuit. For a better future, we must not just focus on an education that only builds human capital but also ‘human flourish’ by providing the next generation a cognitive and social-emotional experience of the Gandhian values of Ahinsa (non-violence) and Satya (truth). In this way, we can equip our youth to wage peace and sustainability. Unless our present education systems embrace building emotional intelligence, we might end up in a world of highly literate people who are lacking in empathy and only concerned with their own well-being. This is not sustainable and will not build peaceful societies.

Focusing on the future of education, this year’s Ahinsa dialogue on October 1 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris will feature a discussion with the hologram of Gandhi. Could you tell us more?

The Ahinsa Lecture was introduced in the year 2016 and is a part of UNESCO’s Distinguished Lecture Series to inspire a larger international dialogue on a more peaceful and sustainable world, built through better education, inclusive spaces, and global citizenship. The Ahinsa dialogue combines modern holographic technology with the power of Gandhian ideas to highlight the importance of building stronger educational systems.

Through holography, a standing hologram of Mahatma Gandhi will speak for a total of 15 minutes to set the tone for the panel discussion.

The holographic avatar of Mahatma Gandhi was created using photo-mapped images from 1930-1940. Advanced contouring software 3D printing was used to create a life size wire-frame of the Mahatma. Digital sculpting tools helped add colour and texture to produce a real-life image of Mahatma Gandhi. The image was then animated and the voice lip synced to produce a colour hologram with advanced reprographic techniques. Early attempts to use Artificial Intelligence techniques to reproduce the voice of Gandhi failed because of the poor quality of the audio recordings of Gandhi’s speeches.

The Mahatma’s idea of Independent India was achieved but he also wanted an India free of discrimination including caste, colour and gender. Is India anywhere close to achieve it?

Discrimination of all forms needs to be eradicated, not only in India but around the world. The only way towards meeting this goal is to re-imagine our educational systems.

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