Seven complex lessons in education for the future

(Reposted from UNESDOC Digital Library. 2001)

Morin, E. (2001). Seven complex lessons in education for the future. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

By Edgar Morin
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When we look to the future we confront many uncertainties about the world our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will live in. But we can be certain of at least one thing: if we want this earth to provide for the needs of its inhabitants, human society must undergo a transformation. The world of tomorrow must be fundamentally different from the world we know as we step into the twenty-first century and the new millennium. We must strive to build a ‘sustainable future’. Democracy, equity, social justice, peace and harmony with our natural environment should be the watchwords of this world to come. We must make sure to place the notion of ‘durability’ at the base of our way of living, of governing our nations and communities, of interacting on a global scale.

Education, in the broadest sense of the term, plays a preponderant role in this development aimed at fundamental changes in our ways of living and behaving. Education is the ‘force for the future’ because it is one of the most powerful instruments of change. One of the greatest problems we face is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world. We must rethink our way of organizing knowledge. This means breaking down the traditional barriers between disciplines and conceiving new ways to reconnect that which has been torn apart. We have to redesign our educational policies and programmes. And as we put these reforms into effect we have to keep our sights on the long term and honour our tremendous responsibility for future generations.

Education is the ‘force for the future’ because it is one of the most powerful instruments of change. One of the greatest problems we face is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world.

UNESCO has made an intense effort to rethink education in terms of durability, notably in the context of our function as guiding force of the International Work Programme on Education, Public Awareness and Training for Sustainability launched in 1996 by the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development. This project articulates priorities approved by Member States and calls on those states, together with NGOs, business, industry, and the academic community, the United Nations system and international financial institutions, to swiftly take measures to implement, through significant reform of national educational policies and programmes, the new concept of education for a sustainable future. UNESCO has been called upon to propel and mobilize international action in this crucial endeavour.

To this end, UNESCO invited Edgar Morin to express his ideas on the essentials of education for the future as viewed in terms of his conception of ‘complex thought’. The essay published here by UNESCO is an important contribution to international debate on ways of reorienting education towards durable development. Edgar Morin sets forth seven key principles that he considers essential for education of the future. Our greatest wish is that his ideas will stimulate debate and help educators and officials to clarify their own thoughts on this vital problem.

We deeply appreciate the generous participation of Edgar Morin in agreeing, together with UNESCO, to stimulate a reflection that enlightens and orients debate within the ‘Educating for a Sustainable Future’ transdisciplinary project. And we would like to thank the international experts whose remarks and suggestions were an important contribution to this essay, with particular thanks to Nelson Vallejo-Gómez. The commitment and wisdom of eminent thinkers like Edgar Morin is a priceless contribution to UNESCO’s ongoing efforts to promote the profound changes in ways of thinking which are indispensable to the preparation for the future.


This text stands prior to any suggested educational guide or curriculum. It is not meant to cover the totality of subjects that are or should be taught. The intention is simply to identify fundamental problems that are overlooked or neglected in education, and should be taught in the future.

These ‘seven lessons’, or seven facets of essential knowledge, should be covered, without exclusivity or exclusion, in education for the future in all societies in every culture, according to the means and rules appropriate to those societies and cultures.

The scientific knowledge on which we rely here to support our vision of the human condition is provisional and open-ended; it leaves us with the profound mysteries of the universe, life, the birth of human beings. Science opens onto undecidables where philosophical options and religious beliefs come into play through cultures and civilizations.

Seven complex lessons

Chapter 1: Detecting error and illusion

  • The purpose of education is to transmit knowledge, and yeteducation is blind to the realities of human knowledge, itssystems, infirmities, difficulties, and its propensity to error andillusion. Education does not bother to teach what knowledge is.
  • Knowledge cannot be handled like a ready-made tool that can be used without studying its nature. Knowing about knowledge should figure as a primary requirement to prepare the mind to confront the constant threat of error and illusion that parasitize the human mind. It is a question of arming minds in the vital combat for lucidity.
  • We must introduce and develop the study of the cultural, intellectual and cerebral properties of human knowledge, its processes and modalities and the psychological and cultural dispositions which make us vulnerable to error and illusion.
Chapter 2: Principles of pertinent knowledge
  • Here is a major problem that is always misunderstood: how to encourage a way of learning that is able to grasp general, fundamental problems and insert partial, circumscribed knowledge within them.
  • The predominance of fragmented learning divided up into disciplines often makes us unable to connect parts and wholes; it should be replaced by learning that can grasp subjects within their context, their complex, their totality.
  • We should develop the natural aptitude of the human mind to place all information within a context and an entity. We should teach methods of grasping mutual relations and reciprocal influences between parts and the whole in a complex world.

Chapter 3: Teaching the human condition

  • Humans are physical, biological, psychological, cultural, social, historical beings. This complex unity of human nature has been so thoroughly disintegrated by education divided into disciplines that we can no longer learn what being human means. This soluble connection between the unityand the diversity of all that is human.

Chapter 4: Earth identity

  • The future of the human genre is now situated on a planetary scale. This is another essential reality neglected by education that should become a major subject. Knowledge of current planetary developments that will undoubtedly accelerate in the twenty-first century, and recognition of our earth citizenship, will be indispensable for all of us.
  • The history of the planetary era should be taught from its beginnings in the sixteenth century, when communication was established between all five continents. Without obscuring the ravages of oppression and domination in the past and present, we should show how all parts of the world have become interdependent.
  • The complex configuration of planetary crisis in the twentieth century should be elucidated to show how all human beings now face the same life-and-death problems and share the same fate.

Mutual understanding among human beings, whether near or far, is henceforth a vital necessity to carry human relations past the barbarian stage of misunderstanding.

Chapter 5: Confronting uncertainties
  • We have acquired many certainties through science, but twentieth-century science has also revealed many areas of uncertainty. Education should include the study of uncertainties that have emerged in the physical sciences (microphysics, thermodynamics, cosmology), the sciences of biological evolution, the historical sciences.
  • We should teach strategic principles for dealing with chance, the unexpected and uncertain, and ways to modify these strategies in response to continuing acquisition of new information. We should learn to navigate on a sea of uncertainties, sailing in and around islands of certainty.
  • ‘The gods give us many surprises: the expected does not occur and they open the door to the unexpected.’ These lines, composed more than twenty-five centuries ago by the Greek poet Euripides, are more than ever relevant. Determinist conceptions of human history that claimed to predict our future have been forsaken, the study of major events and accidents of our century shows how unexpected they were, the course of the human adventure is unpredictable: this should incite us to prepare our minds to expect the unexpected and confront it. Every person who takes on educational responsibilities must be ready to go to the forward posts of uncertainty in our times.

Chapter 6: Understanding each other

  • Understanding is both a means and an end of human communication. And yet we do not teach understanding. Our planet calls for mutual understanding in all directions. Given the importance of teaching understanding on all educational levels at all ages, the development of this quality requires a reform of mentalities. This should be the task of education for the future.
  • Mutual understanding among human beings, whether near or far, is henceforth a vital necessity to carry human relations past the barbarian stage of misunderstanding.
  • Therefore, misunderstanding must be studied in its sources, modalities and effects. This is all the more necessary in that it bears on the causes instead of the symptoms of racism, xenophobia, discrimination. And improved understanding would form a solid base for the education-for-peace to which we are attached by foundation and vocation.

Chapter 7: Ethics for the human genre

  • Education should lead to an ‘anthropo-ethics’ through recognition of the ternary quality of the human condition: a human being is an individual ↔ society ↔ species. In this sense, individual/species ethics requires control of society by the individual and control of the individual by society; in other words, democracy. And individual↔species ethics calls for world citizenship in the twenty-first century.
  • Ethics cannot be taught by moral lessons. It must take shape in people’s minds through awareness that a human being is at one and the same time an individual, a member of a society, a member of a species. Every individual carries this triple reality within himself. All truly human development must include joint development of individual autonomy, community participation and awareness of belonging to the human species.
  • From this point, the two great ethical/political finalities of the new millennium take shape: establishment of a relationship of mutual control between society and individuals by way of democracy, fulfilment of humanity as a planetary community. Education should not only contribute to an awareness of our Earth-Homeland, it should help this awareness find expression in the will to realize our earth citizenship.
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