Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Can a classroom prevent a genocide?

Given that people from vastly different cultures naturally will have differing ideas on what “counts” as a human right, is it possible to foster enough consensus that collaboration for human rights across cultures is possible?  I would argue yes, it is possible, and I would go even further.  I say building this consensus around human rights in the 21st century is necessary because the realities of travel and communications technology, as well as an increasingly globalized economy, mean that the “global village” just continues to get smaller.  I am passionate about how peace education can help facilitate this reality and call for peace education in every classroom worldwide.  We cannot fully achieve the protection of human rights without peace education.  I believe, in fact, that a classroom can stop a genocide. 
How can we then build a culture of peace which would, by its nature, protect and value human rights?  Much of the discussion about how to protect human rights, from World War II on, has spoken of the “right to have rights”.  Human rights scholars from Hannah Arendt (writing about the Holocaust just after World War II) to recent work by Seyla Behabib (2011) use this lens of the “right to have rights” to understand how we can best actually realize human rights for all.  This is because often the first struggle for a group whose human rights have been collectively abused is that most basic recognition that this particular community does in fact exist and therefore they have a right to demand participation, protection and dignity.  Think of, for example, the continued invisibility of Native Americans or indeed indigenous peoples the world over.  Their historical invisibility is no metaphor—in some instances government map surveyors reported that plots of land were not inhabited when in fact this was not true (Duckworth, 2011). 
What then can peace education offer, even in the face of some of history’s worst atrocities? One, peace educators can and must teach students to recognize, deconstruct and challenge so-called war narratives, narratives which position the Other as dangerous, evil and subhuman.  Such narratives are an early warning sign of genocide. (Think of the Nazis depicting Jews as rats for example.)  But this alone isn’t enough to build a true culture of peace, a culture where human rights for all are embraced.  Especially in a post-conflict context, the collaborative problem solving, cross cultural communication skills, self-awareness and empathy developed when a diverse group of students come together to address shared challenges lays the foundation for a culture of peace. 
Further, peace education develops within students a sense of personal empowerment human dignity.  That is, it inspires the sense that all human beings have the “right to have rights”.  Peace education is centered around a collaborative, cooperative pedagogy where the voice and value of each diverse community member is recognized.  Through the collective problem solving which peace education involves, students build empathy, critical and creative thinking skills, the ability to be critically self-aware of the biases of one’s own culture and perhaps most importantly, a sense of personal agency and dignity which enables us to believe to begin with that we do have the power to impact the world around us.  Such education is a vital aspect of building a culture of peace and human rights, where citizens will not only feel the sense of empowerment and responsibility to speak up for human rights, but will also have the necessary skills to do so effectively.   This is why I can make the rather audacious claim that peace education can possibly prevent a genocide. 

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