Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Speaking on PRESSedent, discussing peace education and human rights

Thanks to Matt for the great discussion.  "Between fight and flight, there is peace" is the best tagline since good night and good luck! 

Here's a link to PRESSedent. 

Here's the video!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Peace Economics and #occupywallstreet

Everyone’s got a theory of why they believe the #occupytogether protests have sparked, and indeed now gone global.  I don’t believe we need to over-think it:  people have solid evidence that they’ve been robbed.  I thought I’d bring a bit of what we can call “peace economics” theory to the conversation to keep the conversation moving forward and hopefully focused on where to head next.  What’s most important is putting in place systems, values, laws and maybe even institutions (I suggested Warren’s Financial Consumer Protection Bureau in my last blog) that can make it likely that we won’t end up here again.  One compelling feature of the field of conflict resolution, in fact, is precisely that it is based in “systems thinking”—that is, seeing the larger picture of how cultural assumptions and values, political regimes, economic systems and historical forces all interact to produce what we actually see on the ground.  Or in Zuccotti Park. 

Peace economics, as a relatively new school of thought, is somewhat undefined and still rather invisible.  But the Occupy movement suggests it is an idea whose time has come.  Perhaps its most important insight is that markets depend on a certain level of social trust and cohesion.  This itself is not a new idea.  Remember, Adam Smith himself (terminally misused and misunderstood in my view) referred to himself not as an economist but as a moral philosopher.  So lesson one of peace economics theory:  markets depend on a basic level of social trust and cohesion.  It’s clear this has broken down in the US.  I hear it not just in the rage at Wall Street banks who broke the economy with fraudulent mortgage securities.  I hear it in the everyday suspicion that seems to float around that other people can’t be trusted to do an honest job without threat of being fired, or who seem convinced that the housing crisis was caused solely by greedy middle classers who just had to have a McMansion they couldn’t afford.  The data doesn’t support that view, as a new CBO report recently confirmed. (Think #occupy is going away?  Ask yourself when was the last time a CBO report went viral!) I hear it from too many GOP candidates who, seemingly without having grasped that we have 9% unemployment, suggest that folks who are struggling get a job. We can’t rebuild markets that work without some basic level of social trust.

Gandhi, not someone usually associated with economics, I think gives us our next couple of principles of “peace economics”.  He taught that “wealth without work” and “power without principle” would decay and ultimately destroy a society.  Regarding wealth without work, some peace economics theorists have noted, for example, how important it is to distinguish between productive and unproductive parts of the economy.  I hear echoes of this idea when people concerned about economic inequality note that the financial institutions most implicated in mortgage-securities fraud make money essentially by moving money around.  Indeed one primary concern of #occupy has been the explosion of the financial products industry without investment in sectors that would enable the real economy to grow.  Hence the disconnect between Wall St and the real economy, and hence our market recovery while we’re still struggling with 9% unemployment. 

A further principle as we move towards some sort of more formal theory of peace economics might be a serious scrutiny of a concept that has only recently been challenged:  the idea of the “economic man”.  Science and economics are increasingly showing “homo economicus” to be false, and this is peace economics theory building block number four.  Of course this is the idea, often associated with Adam Smith, that people are completely (or at least primarily) driven by self-interest and will behave rationally in pursuit of what is best for them.  Certainly people act in their own interest but to put this forward as an unproblematic, uncomplicated truth is misleading.  To act in our own interest, we need solid information.  An increasing amount of research also suggests that our cultural identity and emotions influence our decision making far more than especially those of us in the “rational” West might be comfortable admitting.  Consider for example Lakoff’s The Political Mind, which argues that we are shaped and motivated by images, framing and symbols that if not quite ‘irrational’ are certainly super-rational.  Along similar lines, Rifkin presented voluminous research in his The Empathic Civilization that the human mind is wired for empathy, connection and collaboration at least as much as it is wired for aggression.  In their (our) exemplification of solidarity and local, participatory, collaborative democratic processes, OWS demonstrates this reality (at least so far). 

A fifth, and our final, principle of any developing peace economics theory must be sustainability.  Bluntly if it were up to the whaling industry (to pick one example) there would be no whaling industry as the population of whales would be extinct.  There is a difference between what is profitable or in the economic interests of one company and what is in the interest of an industry as a whole.  This to say if economies are to be considered peaceful, they must be sustainable.  As peace economics theory continues to develop, it can usefully build on the indigenous wisdom that, “Only when the last tree has been cut down, only when the last river has been poisoned, only when the last fish has been caught;  only then will you find that money can’t be eaten”.  So-called “locavores” (those who advocate eating locally grown food) and environmentalists have been singing this song for some time.  In hyper-developed, post-industrial countries like mine, it can be amazingly easy to lose sight of how real our dependence on nature is.  When researching the indigenous land rights movement in Paraguay, as I did some food shopping at a market near the room I was renting, wandering past fruits and vegetables from the seller’s own yard and meat slaughtered only that morning, I was viscerally reminded that everything we eat comes from something plant or animal.  Such an obvious statement--only someone from the rich world would be surprised by such a reminder!  Synergy and partnership just last week between Occupy Miami and a large demonstration of environmental activists suggest this could be a useful collaboration, and further suggests that as a whole, #occupy is seeking more economic transformation than just a drop in the unemployment rate. With the world’s attention and growing momentum now, maybe OWS is becoming a movement which can push forward a global transformation towards economies that enable human security and peace. 

Interested in more?  This article on Twenty Questions for Peace Economics:  A Research Agenda from 2002 is a great start. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ten Things the Occupy Movement Can Demand

1.       Stop all “robo-signing” of home foreclosures immediately.
2.       Allow students to declare student loan bankruptcy. 
3.       Reinstate “Glass-Steagall”, which separated consumer banking from investment banking.
4.       Investigation of the major investment banks who were involved in the subprime mess.
5.       Investigation of Fanny, Freddy and the ratings agencies like S&P who gave banks AAA ratings which were false.
6.       Implementation of Elizabeth Warren’s Financial Consumer Protection Bureau. 
7.       Overturning Citizens United.  Money is not speech.  It’s one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote.
8.       Passage of Obama’s Jobs Act and/or implementation of a WPA-inspired jobs-emergency program. The WPA was a Depression-area government employment program.
9.       Similar to #8, an immediate halt to the laying off of public sector workers, especially at the state and local level.  Consumers create jobs, and we can’t afford to keep squelching demand. 
10.   Break up the banks that are (say it with me) Too Big to Fail.  Such a move is not anti-capitalist, it’s pro-capitalist.  You can’t have capitalism without the possibility of failure for poor investment decisions. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


"The enemy of the black is not the white. The enemy of capitalist is not communist, the enemy of homosexual is not heterosexual, the enemy of Jew is not Arab, the enemy of youth is not the old, the enemy of hip is not redneck, the enemy of Chicano is not gringo and the enemy of women is not men. We all have the same enemy: The enemy is the tyranny of the dull mind. The enemy is every expert who practices technocratic manipulation, the enemy is every proponent of standardization and the enemy is every victim who is so dull and lazy and weak as to allow himself to be manipulated and standardized." ~Tom Robbins

"Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities..." ~Voltaire

“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”   ~Malcolm X

The connections between peace, critical thinking skills and a good old fashioned (young fashioned? Pretty young protestors out there) sense of civic duty have not ever been more clear to me. I wrote elsewhere once a few years ago that fascism, or totalitarianism in general if you prefer, is more of a mindset than a government. This was in the context of a discussion a few years back (Obama was not yet president) of a Florida college kid who was tazed by a campus security officer at a Kerry campaign speech. Discussion erupted about whether the kid had deserved it; apparently he’d been going on and on at the mic during the Q and A and someone even mentioned that he had spoiled Harry Potter! And there was the inevitable argument that the security guys did what they had to do. After all, how did they know he wasn’t a threat? I found myself pointing out repeatedly that that wasn’t relevant. In a democracy that’s working, of course, the burden of proof was on the law enforcement. This is because they have greater physical and legal coercive power, and people just don’t handle power well unless it’s constantly checked. That the kid was rude and arrogant was never the point, no matter how true. That he’d spoiled Harry Potter was not the point (though one does sympathize). I was stunned to find myself hearing such arguments by those who say they believe in democracy in support of law enforcement being able to inflict pain essentially to correct public manners—to teach the kid a lesson.

The over-identification with authority and with the elites, in my view, explains such reactions. It explains the need to see the kid put down or even the need to mention Potter-spoiling at all. It also helps explain how so many of our essential institutions seem to have slipped out of our control. This kind of over-identification with authority is damaging to a democracy just as surely as an Al Qaeda or corporate media ownership. Yet it’s so hard to talk about because so personal and intangible. But understanding this dynamic is essential to being a citizen in a democracy because fascism, again, is not so much a regime as a mindset. A mindset that says, “They know best”. A habit that fails to take personal responsibility for being informed and forming one’s own opinions. Our own minds are the real last line of defense against totalitarianism. This is, as others have also said, why regimes even bother targeting academics, journalists and artists.

What’s the relevance to the unrest and peaceful uprisings that we’re seeing now, especially the Occupy movement? Finally enough people across the US—across the world—have begun seeing and saying out loud that we insist on our own voices being heard and the social contract continuing to work for at least most of us. Apathy and cynicism, of course both servants of the status quo, appear to be disintegrating. This is one reason that the “agenda” media folks seem to be demanding (they are of course elites too, deeply implicated in shaping what’s worst about our current status quo) isn’t crystal clear yet though themes of economic justice, jobs, addressing corruption and peace are clearly observable. Because the reality is that a number of institutions and cultural systems (media, political, financial) are seen to have all failed us, the problem is just probably not going to fit into one white paper. Wherever this ends, it must start with citizens doing their fair share of governing if we are to remain a government BY the people. Before we can #occupywallstreet, we must #occupyourown minds.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Straight Outta Tottenham: Anger, Dignity and Austerity

"To be wholly overlooked and to know it are intolerable” ~John Adams

A clear thread is woven through the fabric of the many different, and often differently expressed, social upheavals that we have been experiencing throughout the year, and that thread is the challenge of global neoliberalism to dignity. Perhaps indeed some late 21st century Barbara Tuchman will tell the story of how 2011 was 1848 or 1937. What’s important now is that we understand how our systems—social, cultural, economic and political—are failing us on a large scale and what needs to be done to begin transforming them.

• London (unemployed youth riots)

•Ohio (union bargaining rights)

• Chile (student demonstrations over access to education)

• Wisconsin (union bargaining rights)

• The U.S. Tea Party (shrinking the welfare state)

• Israel (affordable housing—or as my colleague Aziz Abu Sarah memorably put it, “In Israel, the Rent Is Too Damn High”)

• The Arab Spring/Revolutions

But this goes even further back. Remember those uprisings in Paris a few years ago? Or the spate of anti-immigrant violence in Australia? How about pre-revolution food-price riots in Cairo? What about even the “Battle in Seattle” when the WTO was in town?

Why do I suggest that such different protests as the above all share a common impulse? Without ignoring local specifics, I see current the unrest as an extension of a larger trend that may have been developing throughout the 21st century so far as economic globalization and democracy expand and contract in response to what I believe are tectonic shifts of the global socio-political landscape. A root-bottom driver of the above is the relationship between entrenched neo-liberalism worldwide—which has accelerated to austerity as after-shocks of the Great Recession continue—and social dignity.

Dignity is what allows people to have faith in the social contract. So even if someone else has more materially, a young man or woman can still feel that

1. Others perceive him or her to be a part of society

2. Her role in society has some sort of meaning for her

3. She can have some sort of control over her future, especially as it relates to being able to provide for basic survival

Some excellent research has been done about the socio-political negotiation of social contracts and a community or nation’s security (see for example Beverly Crawford’s work on the “myth of ethnic conflict”). Essentially this is the agreement, sometimes spoken or written, sometimes not, that underlies how a society’s resources are divided up and what will constitute the CONSTRUCTED concept of legitimacy in a society—who gets to hold power, how and why. What we’re seeing in each of the cases above, I would argue, is a demand for renegotiating the social contract.

To my mind this implies the need for a global social contract. What rights can indeed a citizen demand? To what is he entitled? What does a citizen of Country X “look like” and/or believe? These are fundamental underlying questions being struggled over. The more interconnected our economies become, and the more migration continues throughout the 21st century, the truer this will be.

As I’ve written in my book on indigenous communities and austerity in Paraguay (Land and Dignity in Paraguay), when you take away someone’s ability to control their future, you take away their dignity. More than a set of mere economic policy prescriptions, neoliberalism is also a set of social norms and assumptions about human nature. This is where austerity, and Ha Joon Chang’s concept of “kicking away the ladder”, comes into play. The idea is that as one group climbs up the socio-economic ladder, benefitting from public spending on infrastructure, health, education, research/development and so on, they then begin to call for those supports to be chipped away.

I don’t think high rates of unemployment alone would have resulted in the riots we’re seeing in the UK. As a number of interviews with some of the rioters and protestors have shown, the ideas of power and economic injustices have been resonant. As part of austerity, youth services in Tottenham were cut by 75%! Don’t forget that historic Tunisian man who immolated himself in front of a municipal building after the confiscation of his vendor’s cart. It’s not just being unemployed—it’s being invisible!

An under-appreciated movie, “Dirty Pretty Things”, has a scene which captures the importance of “mere” visibility as a first step towards dignity. Several immigrants from various places encounter one another in some of London’s seedier sections. A few grisly scenes suggest that they have gotten caught up in the black market of organ smuggling. Having discovered it, they are soon blackmailed and threatened with deportation. Toward the end of the movie, a security man asks the Nigerian immigrant, “How come I haven’t seen you?” The immigrant replies, “We are the people you don’t see”. In all of the above cases, whatever distinct and valid differences they might also have from one another, the protestors are demanding to be accounted for—to be seen!—in the social contract.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Towards a Mindful Foreign Policy?

First, a disclaimer. I’m no expert on mindfulness or Zen. I’m (slowly) learning to meditate and, as a peace educator, have been considering some of the connections between inner peace and social, political (dare I even say economic?) peace. Our talk during meditation class recently was focused on “paying attention to your intentions”. Of course this is a lifelong personal journey, but does the idea have relevance for nations as well? Can a country be mindful? If so, will international politics be more peaceful?

On one hand, I am frankly skeptical. The “causes” of war are numerous and complex, rooted in inadequate bureaucracies, autocratic regimes, resource depletion, patriarchy, economic markets, and what’s been called the “heavy hand of history”. In that “heavy hand of history” is there a possible connection between mindfulness and preventing war?

It is possible. What if not just political leaders but a nation’s citizenry “paid attention to their intentions”? As I’ve been writing here and elsewhere, I think a key outcome of peace education, especially any peace education that wants to engage or claims to be inspired by, critical theory must help students be able to deconstruct the causes of war. Part of this means being able to identify—to articulate!—the national narratives that tell the story of who we think we are as Americans (Brits, Irish, Iranians, Mexicans…). How do we explain what we stand for? How do we talk about our role in the world? And does that then lead us to war or peace?

I raise these questions of course because they have everything to do with how we understand—or misunderstand—our intentions in choosing war. Does an unexamined (or even unconscious) assumption about the goodness, the righteousness, of our national intentions lead us naively into conflicts we don’t understand? Surely a more rigorous examination—a more mindful one, you might say—of our interests and intentions in armed interventions is urgent, given that we have in the past decade ended up in at least two wars most Americans do not want (Iraq and Afghanistan).

Peace education, I think, can make at least two contributions to this. One, the systems thinking inherent in peace education can introduce students to thinking critically about the connection between interpersonal systems, communities, nations and the world system. Perhaps such students-as-citizens will be more willing, able and empowered to ask difficult questions about why a particular war is really necessary. Secondly, peace education, when it is effective, engenders in students a sense of themselves as part of a whole. Such a citizen is probably more likely to reject the view (a dangerous one in my opinion) that we can sensibly talk about U.S. national security separately from global, human security. That’s no longer possible in the hyper-connected, interdependent 21st century.

Honestly I can’t say that I’m sold on my own premise here. Again, I’m no expert but mindfulness seems to be such a personal, individual experience that I wonder if that can translate to the socio-national level. Yet clearly groups can act out aggressions, impulses and unconscious “scripts” as individuals do. I have more questions than answers but it sure seemed a question worth asking.

Monday, June 20, 2011

You Might Already Be Teaching Peace If....

If you've taught K-12, you've been there. A new mandate to plan for. A new test to scantron. Another inservice that may or may not be led by someone who has taught K-12 in the past decade. (Those who run these teacher trainings who have not taught run the risk of getting eaten alive.)

And they want us to "teach peace" too? They want us to seriously be responsible for the moral, social development of students we see 45 minutes a day on a good week? A week without fights, assemblies, tornado drills, fire drills, bomb scares, parent conferences, special ed conferences, state tests to proctor, open houses....

Sometimes, because of the reality I note above, it's almost impossible for teachers today to imagine adding one more thing to that list. So in that spirit, I say take heart! For exhausted, besieged teachers everywhere who would love to "teach peace" if there were only five spare seconds in the day, did you know you are probably already doing it?

It's closer than you think!

You might already be teaching peace if….

1.If you read works like To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men with your students because you want them to understand the seeds of hate and prejudice.

2.If you read works like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 so they know how important it is to think for themselves.

3.If your students know the words “doublethink” and/or “scapegoat”.

4.If you’ve ever told a kid that “it gets better”.

5.If you’ve encouraged a kid to power off and reconnect with nature.

6.If you’ve called a parent to tell her how great her kid is.

7.If you’ve invited a kid to write or speak about struggles s/he’s facing.

8.If you’ve taken a group overseas so they understand other kids better.

9.If you’ve involved kids in making the rules of the classroom.

10.If you’ve formed a partnership with a community organization.

If you're already doing those things or many more, you may already be teaching peace! You're already "being the change".

Got other suggestions of things teachers are already doing to "teach peace"? I invite you to leave them in the comments.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On the Doug Noll Show!

Many thanks to Doug for a fun and important conversation! We had a great talk about Egypt, global citizenship, power and hierarchy in schools and more. Enjoy!

Here's the link!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Talk: Hedge's War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

Sometimes you come across a book that really matters. I’d like to thank Chris Hedges for writing one of those books, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Hardly new anymore, but perhaps more timely than ever.

Hedge’s thesis here is that there is in human nature a void, a need for meaning and purpose. This need can be, and too often is, filled by what he frankly describes as the excitement and illusory heroism of war—“war usually starts with a collective euphoria”. His work, I think, helps us link the personal with the political, the micro with the macro. In the natural human longing to matter, the lure of war can be irresistible and here is the power of war lords and ethnic cleansers. Especially in the chaos of major political or economic upheaval, many people experience themselves as powerless and seek war as a way to feel secure or powerful. This is possible because, Hedges argues, of the “collective amnesia” which national myths “ignite” in a society during a conflict.

This amnesia is facilitated, sometimes even engineered, by State destruction of both its own culture (which of course includes human, tolerant and free values in some aspect) and that of the enemy. This is the first step of the dehumanization of the enemy which HAS to precede the destruction of the enemy. Otherwise the safeguards and civilized behaviors that make society work cannot be overcome. This is why such wide spread abuse, to include torture and rape, even perpetrated by “peace keepers”, is so common. Once the mores of civilization are degraded, what’s unleashed is nearly impossible to control. Hedges notes, for example, that porn is sometimes used as a way to begin stripping away social taboos and/or to “divert a society that was collapsing”, as in former Yugoslavia. Once this dynamic is in motion, the worst aspects of human nature are exposed, rendering us nearly incapable of talking about what happened to understand it or heal.

Belying the notion that “ancient ethnic hatreds” are natural, Hedges documents the labor that must go into deconstructing and reconstructing national/ethno-national identities. He describes destruction of old monuments (for example) which might contradict the new desired state narrative, co-opting of art and culture, targeting of artists and intellectuals who do not “read from the script”, targeting of anyone else who does not “read from the script”, rewriting of school curriculum, forced migration, mandated apartment swaps to ensure ethnic cleansing, and years of radio and TV broadcasts deploying state propaganda to foment ethnic hatred. (I’m especially struck that it apparently took Milosevic four years of propaganda to finally foment the violence he needed to accomplish ethnic cleansing.) This selective, rewriting of history, as well as direct propaganda, helps to heighten the “narcissism of small differences” (32) that Freud spoke of. The myth, usually but not always nationalist, masks the lies and contradictions that would probably in peace time be obvious to most citizens. Writes Hedges, “War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially critical thought” (10).

He notes that language itself is “drafted” into the Total War effort, in a very Orwellian sense (34). War becomes peace. Language becomes reduced to a national (or religious or ethnic) script—the “reduction of language to code” (72); if you are not reading from that script, you are a dangerous dissident. Wars, he writes, “feed off martyrs”, whose memory “shuts all arguments for compromise or tolerance…It is the dead who rule. They speak from beyond the grave urging a nation onward to revenge” (94).

I would also observe that Hedges’ work helps us connect, from an interdisciplinary perspective, the humanities with the social and political sciences. He reminds us that the realm of myth, the emotional and super-rational, are as important to understanding human behavior as economic data or public opinion surveys. Men (and it is usually, though not always, men) who fight war do so for reasons they at least tell themselves are eternal. This is why the destruction of real art and culture are so important to war-making; the humanities do indeed humanize.

More than anything else, he argues, as one who has observed war after war firsthand that
1. Wars are fought based on illusion and the actual experience is horrific in a manner only comprehended by those who have experienced it. The experience of war, he argues, exposes the lie of what especially soldiers were told it would be.
2. War is fought essentially based on myths and lies that many willingly believe.
3. Secretly and often with guilt, some who have experienced or participated in war long for the intensity it offered. (See The Hurt Locker.)
4. Nearly every group in history involved in perpetuating violence has believed itself to be a victim, in fact THE victim, and this plants the seeds of what I call “war thinking”—that we are not just good but Goodness and they are not just bad but Evil. This is what makes patriotism “a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship” (10). Hence the enemy’s destruction is holy. As Hedges notes, echoing others, this “makes communication impossible” (69). I would extend this to add that such communication is, of course, central to ending, as well as mitigating and preventing, wars. Violence itself becomes the language through which societies communicate (ala McNamara).
5. He emphasizes the role of fear, guilt (since at heart and soul we know we’re buying lies, hence the extreme defensiveness) and extension of COMPLICITY to all citizens involved. This extension of complicity is a key social mechanism in perpetuating the war and its underlying myth since the shared complicity keeps everyone in guilty silence.
6. He also emphasizes the role of industrial and post-industrial technology in war which makes mass killing so much easier, less personal, more efficient; “men in modern warfare are in service to technology.” Of course this makes understanding war, and how to prevent it, more urgent than ever.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Phenomenological Reflection on Ethnic Conflict

Editor's Note: It is my pleasure to publish this important and honest reflection from one of my Qualitative Methods students. The personal is the professional.

By: Safeer Tariq Bhatti

Growing up in America, one of the biggest difficulties I had was trying to be like the population I embraced every day. But, exclusion and the definition that I was not one of them was paramount. On the school bus, there was not segregation against black and white, but segregation against difference. My difference was my normalcy in many things, my difference in color, my simple clothing, my simple English and my simple habits. I wanted to be the best simply, but I was not the best in many things. I never knew what challenge was until I received it-until given the opportunity to be better than those who made me an outcast in every way possible. Once I achieved beyond the norm, my acceptance gained prominence.

Throughout my experiences, I could not understand why my ethnicity- why ME, was not accepted here in America. I thought going to my birth place, to a place that looks like me, acts like me and feels like me would accept, but they did not too. I had no identity. My identity was disputed. My territory was disputed. One day, when I was very young, I went to the Beach and I was sitting in the water and the sun gazed on our brown backs. In the water, they were many people that all looked like me. But, as I got closer, everyone had their own groups. Each group was speaking their own language and their own culture. This culture and that language were all different. People prided on their languages and their cultures. As you got closer to each group, each group would say that they are better than anyone- better than all the groups. One nation was so different. They were all Pakistani, but they all said we were different from each other. They all said we are better from each other. Why?

Why were they different in a country which makes them not? Why I was still not accepted? There is exclusivity in a homogeneous population and this exclusivity causes conflict.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Youth Development Is Security: Cairo Edition

Youth development, as I’ve developed a habit of saying, is security. As we have all watched unrest, riots and protests throughout Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordon, and previously in Iran, I continue to believe this truth.

Numerous analysts have noted how young “the Arab world” (we’ll set aside the fuzziness of that term for now) is. Stanford reports that 37% of Tunisia’s population is young (defined as 15-29). The median age in Yemen, according to the CIA Factbook, is 17. A full 50% of the country is of “working age”—25- 64. For context, the literacy rate in this country, in which the US has been using predator drones, is 50%. Nearby in Egypt, where tanks have been rolling onto the streets as I type, the median age is 24! 63% of the population are between 15-64. (It’s worth noting that Egypt’s literacy rate, at 71%, is significantly higher, which will matter greatly for Egypt’s future.) All of these countries grapple with high unemployment which may well be connected to the global financial crisis (at least in Egypt).

(Click here to watch Frontline’s Egypt: Middle East, Inc. which features a youth development effort.)

I rehearse this data, of course, because it so powerfully underlines an insight that I think is key to understanding the urgency of peace education, which again is precisely that “youth development is security”. Elsewhere I’ve written that I think there is great potential in peace education to “inoculate” young people against extremist views, whether it might be the mercenary violence of an MS13 or the more ideologically-driven terrorism of Al-Qaeda. So what then should we as peace educators be doing now? How can US educators help American students to understand what is unfolding? And how can teachers and schools in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere, equip their students for a rapidly changing future in an increasingly armed and global world?

US educators might begin by opening discussions with their high school students (who are almost certain to be excited to begin driving) about where our oil comes from and the role it has played in shaping our foreign policy. The might also note that, as numerous media outlets have reported, the tear-gas cannons fired in Cairo at the protestors were made in the USA. Do today’s students feel this is right? What about the military aid we’ve given to Mubarak? This is also an exquisitely teachable moment regarding civil liberties and the rights to assemble, to peacefully protest and to petition one’s government, which every human being should have.

I won’t presume to explain to teachers or educational leaders in the Arab world what to do with this teachable moment. But there is some general wisdom from some of the founders of peace education, such as Freire and Montessori, that may be of use here. One insight is that schools too often are instruments of the state. Naturally this is even more the case when regimes are repressive and so use schools as instruments of repression. I would imagine some educators in these schools observe this daily. This use of schools as mechanisms of autocracy can often occur, for example, through plain censorship of what’s taught to encouraging one-sided views of history, lionizing accepted leaders, demonizing the opposition or (more subtly but crucially) shaping curriculum that encourages rote memorization, discourages critical and creative thinking and fosters individualism over community and collaboration. If democracy, or even “mere” good governance in any society is to be fostered or maintained, such an oppressive approach to education must be peacefully revolutionized.