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.