Re-orienting education towards peace

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Source: Schools That Care Conference 2017, The Teacher Foundation, Bangalore

(This blog post first appeared on the website of the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, New Delhi, on the occasion of International Youth Day 2017. It was commissioned by Piyali Sarkar, Associate Project Officer at MGIEP, for the ‘Youth Voices’ series curated by the YESPeace Network.)

Do you buy the argument that children and youth are inherently peaceful, and that it is only the adult world that rewires them to be violent? I used to believe in this line of thought, and imagined that education for peace should focus on transforming the biased attitudes of adults instead of working with school and college students. I can now see how simplistic that approach was, especially with the regular stream of news reports about young people engaging in acts of murder and rape.

The National Focus Group Position Paper on Education For Peace, published by India’s National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in 2006 mentions that 18 per cent of the children interviewed for that paper were “found to take pleasure in various acts of violence…they enjoyed stoning little pups and kittens, breaking flower buds off plants, holding butterflies between their fingers, older children engaged in eve-teasing and ragging to the extent that it sometimes became fatal.”

This description is a clear departure from images of children as innocent, uncorrupted and angelic. What is it that prompts young people to resort to this kind of everyday violence? The NCERT paper mentioned earlier states, “Faith in violence as a quick-fix problem-solver is an emerging epidemic.” I think that is an apt articulation of the challenge that faces our society. With the power to communicate easily via social media, knee-jerk responses are even more commonplace.

People are easily offended by the content of films, the food on someone else’s plate, the books that are being written, and much else. Instead of expressing themselves in a civil manner, they seek refuge in hate speech. Words are sometimes more powerful than weapons, and are known to instigate violence against individuals and communities. This is why education for peace has becoming increasingly important.

One cannot afford to emphasise only the knowledge of traditional school subjects or the soft skills currently in vogue. There is a need to reorient education in a way that it empowers young people to learn what it means to be in someone else’s shoes, to connect with peers across the divisions created by caste, gender identities, sexual preference, class, ethnicity, language, and the other markers that individuals use to define or describe themselves. At the individual level, this is possible only when we begin to look within, and work with our own prejudices.

What can be done at the systemic level, in a pragmatic way, beyond the niceties of lip service? Since the Indian education system revolves mainly around the textbook, which almost has a scripture-like status in the classroom, that might be the perfect place to begin. I had the opportunity to work on Textbooks for Sustainable Development: A Guide To Embedding published by the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development in 2017. It is a guidebook for writers and publishers of school textbooks, and the focus is on four subjects: Language, Mathematics, Science, and Geography.

As mentioned in the guidebook, “Embedding is not about inserting new thematic content into an already overcrowded curriculum, which would make it impractical — both time and content wise — for the teacher and textbook author. Nor is it about removing or minimizing the importance of academic content. Instead, it is about reorienting subjects into serving a more socially and globally relevant purpose: that of contributing to a sustainable, just and peaceful world, with young people motivated, prepared and empowered to address persistent and emerging local and global challenges.”

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