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Just as a gardener sows the seeds and watches carefully over their sprouting, looks after their growth and progression—so also a teacher must watch over the education of the children and inculcate in their young lives the highest ideals of truth and justice. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 144.
Today, lots of people have reached the conclusion that religion only offers idealism for children and consolation for the elderly. Baha’is see religion differently—as a dynamic, unifying force that applies across the whole human lifespan.
In every stage of our lives, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age, we all need what true religion offers us: a sense of connection to a higher reality, peace of mind, spiritual sustenance and moral guidance. But just as important, every human being needs noble and lofty aspirations. We need goals that empower us to consider others before we consider ourselves. We need meaning and purpose. Those needs differ from one stage of life to the next, but educators and child development experts agree that each of them depends on our early training as young children:
The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six. - Maria Montessori
In early childhood you may lay the foundation of poverty or riches, industry or idleness, good or evil, by the habits to which you train your children. Teach them right habits then, and their future life is safe. - Lydia Sigourney
Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Kids deserve the right to think that they can change the world. - Lois Lowry
From a Baha'i perspective, every child needs an early education that teaches not just facts but ideals:
Children are even as a branch that is fresh and green; they will grow up in whatever way ye train them. Take the utmost care to give them high ideals and goals, so that once they come of age, they will cast their beams like brilliant candles on the world, and will not be defiled by lusts and passions in the way of animals, heedless and unaware, but instead will set their hearts on achieving everlasting honour and acquiring all the excellences of humankind. - Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 136.
When you inspire small children with high ideals and goals, they learn to reach for “all the excellences of humankind,” as Abdu’l-Baha put it. Since children are natural idealists, they absorb the early goals and ideals around them. If they have parents and teachers with high ideals, they will naturally want to model their lives and behavior on those examples. If they encounter the opposite—role models without noble aspirations or lofty goals—they will often follow that path.
That’s why the Baha'i teachings emphasize three cardinal ideals and principles of service in education:
First: Whole-hearted service to the cause of education, the unfolding of the mysteries of nature, the extension of the boundaries of pure science, the elimination of the causes of ignorance and social evils, a standard universal system of instruction, and the diffusion of the lights of knowledge and reality.
Second: Service to the cause of morality, raising the moral tone of the students, inspiring them with the sublimest ideals of ethical refinement, teaching them altruism, inculcating in their lives the beauty of holiness and the excellency of virtue and animating them with the excellences and perfections of the religion of God.
Third: Service to the oneness of the world of humanity; so that each student may consciously realize that he is a brother to all mankind, irrespective of religion or race. The thoughts of universal peace must be instilled into the minds of all the scholars, in order that they may become the armies of peace, the real servants of the body politic-the world. God is the Father of all. Mankind are His children. This globe is one home. Nations are the members of one family. The mothers in their homes, the teachers in the schools, the professors in the college, the presidents in the universities, must teach these ideals to the young from the cradle up to the age of manhood. - Abdu'l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 98.
Many of our contemporary schools teach one or two of these three categories, but Baha’is believe all three combined together will help bring a new sense of idealism to children all around the world. Teaching these idealistic values in every school will ultimately raise our civilizations up to a new standard of human life:
…the exaltation of man resides primarily in such virtues and attainments as are the adornments of the human reality. These consist in divine blessings, heavenly bounties, heartfelt emotions, the love and knowledge of God, the education of the people, the perceptions of the mind, and the discoveries of science. They consist in justice and equity, truthfulness and benevolence, inner courage and innate humanity, safeguarding the rights of others and preserving the sanctity of covenants and agreements. They consist in rectitude of conduct under all circumstances, love of truth under all conditions, self-abnegation for the good of all people, kindness and compassion for all nations, obedience to the teachings of God, service to the heavenly Kingdom, guidance for all mankind, and education for all races and nations. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 90.