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SIDIC Periodical XXXIII - 2000/1
Transformation. Through. Dialogue. (Pages 19-21)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Peace Or Hate? Education For A New Millennium


In the past year, the war in Kosovo as well as the Los Angeles killings have brought home to us again the horrifying and painful consequences of human hatred when it is mobilized around ethnic and national divisions. In a world awash with such hate-filled social conflicts, what might it mean to talk about an education that attempts to teach a more peaceful, less violent civic and global culture? Breaking the cycle of violence, hatred, and injustice depends on some kind of politics of negotiation and reconciliation. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is more than empty cant.

Yet this is a time when we can see more clearly than ever that peaceful understanding and coexistence between human beings depends on something more than the deal-making between political leaders. It requires a transformative process more deeply rooted; a profound change in our cultural attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, indeed in the psychological dispositions that shape how human beings react and relate to the others who share our world. The overriding challenge of the next millennium will be to learn from our own century’s extraordinary barbarism the lessons we need to construct an education for our children that might lead them away from its endemic violence, dangerous stereotypes, and conformity to intolerant behavior.

More than ever we need a critical education that will address why we make wars, destroy lives, brutalize and devalue others, and follow those who lead us into the blind rage of ethnocentrism or other forms of social hatred. At the very least, globalization – which has increased, not lessened social animosity – will require a more balanced vision of education for our children. Such an education would concern itself not just with the capacity to work in the postindustrial economy but also the ability and will to contribute to the making of a pluralistic culture (a multiculturalism, if you will) in which there is tolerance and respect for difference, and where conflicts are resolved through democratic means. Most of all, in the new world order of both growing global integration and intensifying communal strife, educating for social justice – for the creation of a world that is more peaceful because it is more fair – must be seen as an urgent priority of public policy.

What might such an education look like? Forty years after Hannah Arendt described what she called the “banality of evil,” we continue to be reminded of the power unquestioning conformity to authority has to make human beings willing to commit atrocities against others. Again and again we see young men (it is usually men) recruited to become part of armies or paramilitary organizations trained to unthinkingly obey orders to humiliate, terrorize, and kill those designated as the enemy. Again and again we hear the voices of those who have maimed and murdered plead that they did no more than follow the orders given to them. Whether in Nazi Germany or Bosnia, My Lai or Serbia, South Africa or Israel, we are witness to the effects of teaching individuals that the meaning of being good citizens or soldiers is to unreflexively accept the decisions and commands of others. Yet educators (and generals) know that acting without consciousness or conscience is a taught response. Brought up and educated in democratic environments, individuals can just as surely respond to authority with critical attitudes and a readiness to resist inhuman commands. Those who commit hemselves to teaching for freedom know the liberating consequences of schools and classrooms where there is a constant emphasis on the development of a “critical imagination” – classrooms where kids are constantly encouraged to question assumptions, challenge what is “taken for granted,” and approach knowledge and truth as the stuff of human invention.

If a more peaceful world is necessarily a more just one, then it is certainly easy to see the importance of cultural changes that give dignity and recognition to all those hitherto suppressed or invalidated human voices. Despite those who would sneeringly deride such changes with comments about “political correctness,” the multicultural movement in our schools is an expression of hope and celebration. Multiculturalism gives voice to all those identities that have been denied, effaced, or despised by those whose visibility and acceptance is underscored by their economic and political power. It means an education in which the history and experience of those who have been marginalized or ignored because of their language, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, race, age, disability, or nationality becomes part of all our awareness and understanding.

What is, however, ultimately at issue in our classrooms is the question of social justice. An education concerned with peace must teach students how societies create hierarchies that privilege the experience, culture, and humanity of some, and devalue that of others. Through this pedagogy of justice students begin to grasp how much of the bitterness and violence in the world is the stored-up frustration of those who have been deprived of both dignity and opportunity. We know from psychological experiments that even creating relatively simple hierarchies – like dividing young children into groups of privileged “blue yes” and despised “brown eyes” – can powerfully evoke a sense of anger and frustration in those condemned to a lesser category. And the effects of such lessons can be lifelong.

Unfortunately, it is still the case that struggles for justice are dealt with in schools only in the most sanitized and blandest of ways. Studies of textbooks typically used in American classrooms show just how watered-down such historical experience becomes, leaving little sense of the passion, commitment, and courage needed to battle systems of oppression and inequality, or of the capacity and willingness of ordinary people to challenge these worlds of pain. Worse than this, historians such as James Loewen have demonstrated just now badly distorted and misrepresented are the stories we tell in school about social injustice. Such accounts too often occlude the full horror and suffering perpetrated against the many who have been enslaved, exploited, deprived of jobs, homes, or dignity, or even killed. No education interested in the possibility of constructing a more peaceful world can omit an honest telling of this history. Only by making real to students the awful legacy, and the current reality, of the lives of so many of those who share our world can sense be made of the rage that surrounds us.

We have to admit that the relationship between an education that acknowledges and celebrates cultural identities and the possibility for a less violent, more peaceful world is not a simple one. The opportunity to vigorously assert one’s identity is often a two-edged sword, allowing those who have been condemned to a prison house of silence to finally speak but also permitting us to see just how much we define ourselves through the negation of others. It is easy to see how the freedom to assert one’s identity becomes not the road to less violence and more peace, but the vehicle for all kinds of hate-filled intolerance. It is certainly possible to understand the wariness of Zygmunt Bauman towards the new politics of identity in which, he says, the “imagined communities” of nation and ethnicity provide the language for all kinds of intolerance, chauvinism, and separatism. These “neo-tribes,” as he calls them, offer the possibility of escape from the anxiety and uncertainty of modern existence, with their promise of reassuring traditions and secure identity. Yet they do so at a steep price, for they are frequently a flight into parochialism and authoritarianism.

Yet there is surely more to these communities than simply intolerance and absolutism. Historically rooted communities often provide the moral commitments and creative vision that fuel struggles for justice and human dignity. Such movements frequently draw on communal cultures with their “dangerous memories” that speak to enduring struggles for survival and justice. In these narratives of history and identity are found those well-springs of courage for surviving the despair of the present moment, and the hope, possibility, and courage that galvanize the quest for transforming the world.
Educators can both acknowledge Bauman’s criticisms and yet draw on the socially beneficial power of identity by creating educational spaces where there is a commitment to bridge differences, to create compassionate connections among people, in spite of the divisiveness and separations. The educational philosopher Jane Roland Martin has written eloquently about the need for schools and classrooms to be places not simply where the “productive” values of achievement and mastery are taught, but where the “reproductive” values of connection, relationship, and caring are emphasized. When schools are so much about success and “getting ahead” it is hard to imagine creating the kind of compassionate and caring communities in which individuals learn to really struggle with the painful issues of difference and injustice in a pluralistic culture. Unlike the hollow institutional integration typically practiced around race or disability or language, where students “coexist” but remain largely strangers to one another, real educational communities would make possible human encounters with genuine dialogue and interaction. Such places would enable individuals to learn how to face and deal with issues of anger, distrust, and intolerance.

The effort to recognize and value our differences, however, is only half the story. Educating for peace means also teaching about that which connects us across cultural borders – our shared humanity. While there are those who are dismissive of the more transcendent vision of our “humanness,” it is hard to see how we can live without some version of that profound quality that connects and unites human beings. Whether we understand humanity as a philosophical invention or the ineffable expression of God’s creation, it is hard to deny just how powerful and transformative is the notion of the precious and unique quality of human life. It drives the extraordinary and expanding movement for human rights throughout the world. It nurtures the deep sense that human life is something sacred, a matter of incalculable value. It unleashes the radical vision that only loving communities can truly and fully honor the infinite worth and dignity of each person.

Such profound notions not only offer inspiring possibilities, but also revolutionary critiques of the world we live in. To see in every person the “face” of God, as the French Jewish Philosopher Emanuel Levinas has described it, is to grasp just how ethically desensitized we become when this face is turned into the “other.” The latter is the dehumanized being of our world that we can now exploit, violate, dominate, or murder. In our grossly desensitized world this is, indeed, the everyday reality for so many human beings. Educating for peace means, I believe, teaching students to recognize this precious or sacred quality of life, and its inseparability from the loving communities that are needed to nourish and develop it. It means, too, teaching our students just how much the values that drive our society, and increasingly our world, are antithetical to our human-ness. The terrible confluence of masculinity and capitalism, with their relentless emphasis on competition, control, aggression, separation, and domination over nature, thwarts and destroys our ability to see the sacred faces of all who share our world.

A pedagogy for peace does not in itself produce peace, but it does encourage what Herbert Marcuse called “immanent critique”: a deeper appreciation of the contradiction between this world of so much unnecessary suffering and the ageless dream of a mutually caring and just human community. If only for the short time we are together with our students, the classroom might become a place where we name this intolerable schism.


* Dr. Svi Shapiro is director of the PhD program in education and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has recently edited “Strangers in the Land: Pedagogy, Modernity, and Jewish Identity.” With their kind permission, this article has been reprinted from TIKKUN: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society, January/February 2000, “For the Millennium: Prophetic Visions”.


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