(This article first appeared in the April-June 2018 issue of iMPACT, a magazine published by the Asia Society for Social Improvement and Sustainable Transformation. It has benefited from Swarna Rajagopalan’s feedback. We work together on the Education for Peace Initiative run by the Prajnya Trust in Chennai.)
Have you noticed that education is widely believed to be an uncontested indicator of development, whether you are talking to a policy wonk, a vegetable vendor, or a social entrepreneur? Unfortunately, the conversation about education is often too dominated by issues of access to make way for a rigorous consideration of quality.
We cannot afford to ignore the reality that skills in literacy and numeracy do not equip a person with the knowledge and disposition required to live peacefully in a globally connected world that is struggling with violent extremism. Going to school or completing a university education does not necessarily make a person appreciative of cultural diversity, or free of prejudices based on race and religion. It is not uncommon to read about people with college degrees being recruited to carry out terror attacks that result in mass murder.
This is where ‘peace education’ comes into the picture. Though it seems like a new-fangled concept, it shares continuities with the work that families, communities, educational institutions, social movements and spiritual traditions have been doing since a long time. The National Focus Group Position Paper on Education for Peace published by India’s National Council for Educational Research and Training in 2006 spells out that peace education involves “nurturing in students the social skills and outlook needed to live together in harmony,” “reinforcing social justice,” and “education as a catalyst for activating a democratic culture.”
These objectives seem beautifully aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that lay out guidelines and targets to be adopted by all countries of the world by 2030. The SDGs emphasize quality education as well as peace, justice and strong institutions. They expect signatories to focus on education that promotes a culture of peace and non-violence, human rights, gender equality, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity. They call for an end to all forms of violence against children including abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and torture. They also uphold the rule of law and protection of fundamental freedoms, apart from advocating for capacity building to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime.
How can these seemingly lofty ideals be brought into the classroom? It would be unrealistic to expect all schools to carve out a separate slot in their timetable for ‘peace education’. A more pragmatic approach would be to integrate them into the culture of the educational institution itself by encouraging respectful communication between all individuals, rewarding behaviour that stands up against discrimination, and creating opportunities to address contemporary issues that are polarizing in nature. It is also possible to approach subject content through the lens of the values outlined above so that students can engage with them in context.
Peace education cannot manifest into reality without pre-service teacher training and in-service professional development that begin with an introduction to peace education, followed by a deep dive into topics such as stereotyping, conflict resolution and non-violent communication. It is equally important to focus on the pedagogical approaches that foster creativity and invite participants to embrace challenge. Peace education would be terribly boring if done through the lecture method. What makes it come alive is a mix of hands-on activities, games, theatre exercises, and audio-visual learning experiences that are followed by reflection and discussion.
Teachers are experts on their own classrooms, so it is disrespectful to talk down to them. What they need is some support in building a critical awareness of their own context and teaching practice, and thinking of ways in which they can model compassion, nurture dialogue, facilitate co-operation, draw in multiple perspectives, allow for democratic decision-making, include the excluded, and offer alternatives to violence.
Peace education is not the responsibility of classroom teachers alone but also includes workshop facilitators, librarians, community workers, development professionals, policy makers, parents, and others who engage closely with children and young people in formal and informal learning spaces. They can learn from each other, share resources, collaborate, and grow stronger from being nourished by a community. Development can take place only if we invest time and energy into being better allies for a peaceful world.