Apart from being the anniversary of the very first United Nations General Assembly resolution, as we recalled last week, this past Sunday, January 24, was also the date established by the General Assembly, in a much more recent resolution, as the “International Day of Education.” There does not appear to be any specific significance to the choice of that particular date, although it will have a resonance for the many of us who see it as the start of the last week in January, a week that for almost twenty years was marked by the ebullient annual conference of CTAUN the Committee for Teaching About the United Nations, which completes a quarter century of continuity in crusading of cause  this year.

Founded in 1996, by Sally Swing Shelley, a senior officer in the United Nations Department of Public Information, and Barbara M. Walker, an educator at the Washington International School, to offer support for educators and promote teaching about the United Nations, CTAUN came into being in a year when United States Republican Senator Jesse Helms wrote, in Foreign Affairs that “as it currently operates, the United Nations does not deserve continued American support. Its bureaucracy is proliferating, its costs are spiralling, and its mission is constantly expanding beyond its mandate -- and beyond its capabilities. Worse, with the steady growth in the size and scope of its activities, the United Nations is being transformed from an institution of sovereign nations into a quasi-sovereign entity in itself.” It was also the year when the United States administration of Democrat President Bill Clinton made clear it would not support renewing United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a second term. It would not have seemed the most propitious of times to think and plan for “teaching about the United Nations”, but a group of determined educators was clear that it was.

The next year, 1997, Anne-Marie Carlson of The Delta Kappa Gamma Society International assembled a team of volunteer experts to develop new and better ways of teaching about the United Nations and its civil society partners. It was, at least subliminally I like to think, a response to the call by incoming Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to the nations of the world, with whose students and teachers CTAUN planned to work, to “applaud us when we prevail; correct us when we fail; but, above all, not let this indispensable, irreplaceable institution wither, languish or perish as a result of Member State indifference, inattention or financial starvation.”

I was privileged to be in an engaged and energetic audience at the first CTAUN conference at the United Nations in 2002, marking a half way point unrealized at the time, ten years after the 1992 Rio conference on the environment and development and ten years before what was to be “Rio+20” and the start of a new movement of sustainable development that was to culminate, three years later, in the definition of its Goals. Sustainable development was to be theme of the 2002 Johannesburg summit conference eight months later and, with the clairvoyance and clarity that have been its hallmarks, CTAUN chose as theme for its own meeting “Environment, Education and the United Nations Working Towards Sustainable Development.”

Looking back at that first conference, it is instructive to note how many organizations who participated at a very fledgling level have grown even as have the magnitude and awareness of the issues they address; Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE)  comes to immediate mind; now in its 25th year it described itself then as “a “hands on,” school-based programme used both nationally and internationally with 16,000 GLOBE teachers internationally and the aim to “preserve the past, respect the present, preserve the future,” an aim which could well sum up the idea of sustainable development itself.

Just last month, as part of GLOBE, students from Gozo Middle School in Malta joined their peers in Turkey, Italy, and Spain – as well the general public – to investigate marine litter with the goal of understanding its causes. Gathering on a sandy beach in Gozo, students measured various weather elements, observed and reported cloud cover, and recorded sea water conditions and, with a digital microscope, sampled sand for microplastics and carried out a litter survey, making sure, as Malta Deputy Coordinator Ramona Mercieca noted, that their visit ended with a clean-up activity.”

Or the 2004 conference on “poverty-partnerships-peace; the role of educators in the 21st century” (again a harbinger of the intricately interconnected SDGs) which introduced us to South Africa based “Shared Interest” and its founder and CEO, Donna Katzin, who took us into the originally lonely world of one woman who was helped to take up a beekeeping business, a spur to an array of unexpected partnerships; mining companies allowed beekeepers to enter their fenced-off land, farmers sought bees to pollinate their crops, the University of Pretoria (now UNAI’s hub  for the “zero hunger” SDG) launched research on new medicines that utilize bee by-products to tackle drug-resistant tuberculosis. Today,17 years later, Shared Interest works in Malawi with women entrepreneurs and smallholder farmers to produce climate - resilient seeds that help Malawian farmers harmonize prudence with productivity.

That “work” in Malawi was, in its purest sense, “teaching”, the sharing of interest and knowledge which is at the core of SDG 4.7 and the CTAUN mission. At the 2004 conference, Catherine Bertini, earlier the head of the World Food Programme, spoke of how, in Afghanistan, she worked to make it possible for widows, who were not allowed under the Taliban to leave home, to start their own bakeries. The teaching of trade. Or, as Brandon Cosby, Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy Principal in Indianapolis, suggested at the 2010 CTAUN conference in his city, allowing students to learn that “No Justice, No Peace,” should be heard as “Know Justice, Know Peace.” The teaching through phonetics. Or where the learner discovers, learns and educates, as high school student David Kashi did when he identified mosquitoes as harbingers of cholera in water and came to the 2006 conference as a winner of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize. The teaching through experiment.

Today’s CTAUN, with the committed and compelling leadership of Chair Anne-Marie Carlson, Vice-Chairs Grace Murphy and Connie Rensink, Executive Director Elisabeth Shuman, Secretary Lochie Muss, Treasurer Ruth Nielsen, Advisory Council Chair Dr. Kathryn DeLawter and Directors-at-Large Peter Brosnan, Toni Giangrande, Eileen Venezia and Emeritus Director Dorothy Farley (and certainly not to forget the ever agile photographic and videographic chronicler of events and memories, Don Carlson), rallies educators, and the educated, at a time when, in António Guterres’s phrase, it is possible to turn things around and make change happen in this still new and raw year.

As Elisabeth has said, “many people know the UN as this big building in New York that you visit on a field trip, but there is so much more to what the UN does and how many aspects of our lives the UN is involved in”, an analogy Lochie takes a few steps further as  “after  passing through the UN Security Tent, a visitor steps onto an open plaza then into a large lobby where there is a gallery devoted to global issues. This Fall the focus was on Earth. Pictures taken from satellite cameras showed what is happening around the world both good and not so good,” happenings that inspire CTAUN, as Ruth has phrased it , to “provide educators worldwide with opportunities to learn about the work of the United Nations and to incorporate this global awareness into curricula and school activities at all levels.”

That awareness comes with the patience of CTAUN’s mission, “one doesn’t wake up one day globally competent,” as Connie notes, “it is a journey of growth. And global competencies aren’t a set of ‘soft skills’ that are nice to have.  They are essential skills that need to be named and cultivated as rigorously as academic content.” A journey of imparting and, in a sense, giving back. Grace had a teacher in college “who once said, 'From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded”, a phrase from the New Testament. In the giving and the accepting, the demands and their realization, comes what Kathryn has described as “ a process called collective reflection...self-conscious engagement with another for the purpose of mutual understanding, whether in class or with a research partner, and to the interaction between people who view being together as time to learn with and from each other.” 

Collective reflection and realization animate Eileen’s freelance work with the Mayor’s office in New York ‘s Division of Early Childhood, work that attests that lifelong learning implies not just that it is never too late to learn, it is never too early too; a truth Peter too had given voice in his leadership of community service programmes focused on literacy education for children and high school students in New York. Looking at what CTAUN’s leadership has accomplished within the Committee and outside attests to a quote from Margaret Mead with which Toni, the indefatigable editor of its conference proceedings, once prefaced a report ; “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I have, in my not uncommon moments of cleverness, suggested alternative expansions for CTAUN, including the Committee for Taking Action for the United Nations or, to return to the fragilities of ‘96, the Committee for Transforming Attitudes about the United Nations. But those were more persiflage than perceptiveness and “teaching” remains central to the mission with which CTAUN began and to the mission the United Nations seeks continually, and especially at this time, realize. As Anne-Marie wrote in the UN Chronicle, “coupled  with the ongoing, universal need to teach about the United Nations and the existing and emerging issues that engage the world body is the imperative to keep abreast of ever-changing developments. From new technologies to new resources to new and daunting challenges there is much for us to learn as well.” Words that could well have been spoken on January 24, 1946, with Resolution 1/1 that was inspired by the many critical components of that soaring sentence.

As I write this, the gray of a winter evening matching the grayness of global mood, I think of this day, January 28, in 1754 when author Horace Walpole coined the word “serendipity” referring to the Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip who, as he wrote to a friend, were "always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of." Education leads us to those discoveries we are compelled to make today, to address what we are in quest of, a world that is caring on a planet that is cared for. True, some may be serendipitous, but all must be informed by the sense of solidarity, possibility and purpose that has always made what we do worthwhile. As we teach. And, as we learn.


Ramu Damodaran
Chief, United Nations Academic Impact