Terrorism, Tolerance, and Teaching

Published on Thursday, 11 February 2016
Terrorism, Tolerance, and Teaching Penn State via flickr

Terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Beirut, Paris, Tunisia, Burkina Faso and many other countries are the continuation of a destructive process that has lasted for many years. The attacks are damaging, not only to the victims and to their families, but to our societies.

The damage also takes the form of misguided reactions to the terror, including the politics of fear; emotional, irresponsible, politically motivated attacks on migrants and refugees; many of whom have already been victims of terrorism and war. Our responses must be consistent with the very values that we seek to protect.

In the world of education, terrorism is not abstract. It strikes down teachers and other education personnel and our students, from Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Nigeria, to Syria, to France.

I recall vividly the situation of two young men; one, a 26-year-old American from the state of Indiana [Abdul-Rahman (Peter Kassig)], a humanitarian aid worker in Syria whose father is an active member of an affiliate of Education international, the National Education Association (NEA), and who was decapitated on camera in November of 2014 by another young man; a French citizen, 22-years-old, from Normandy [Maxime Hauchard], who joined the Islamic State. ‘An ordinary Catholic boy,’ I heard a neighbour of his explain on French television. ‘He used to help me around the garden.’

Think of these two men: one, an innocent victim; the other, a cruel executioner; both born Christians; both converted to Islam; both ordinary youngsters; and both, not so long ago, still attending our classes in the US and in France.

There are many factors that may have contributed to this dramatic confrontation. Why are so many thousands of young men and women quitting Western countries to join ISIS.

Is there a link between this phenomenon and the deficient capacity, constraints, and wayward courses of many of our school systems?

Too much “reform” has focused on applying inappropriate market “values” and approaches and destructive systems of measurement to education. The context for that drift is the real and ideological influence of a market that promotes individualisation, atomisation, and consumerism. Society itself and its unifying values (the glue that holds society together) seem to have become fragile and brittle under that pressure.

Will lifeless, test-driven education, “untouched by human hands”, build understanding, tolerance, listening, free discussion and debate, independent thinking and all the other values necessary for coherent societies and functioning democracies. Will it help to counter and erode all forms of extremism and obscurantism? Of course not.

What is needed, instead, are professional teachers with the capacity to listen and analyse and be creative. And, it will entail healthy collaboration among teachers and other school personnel. Only teachers; valued, qualified, motivated, and autonomous can respond to this radically changed social environment.
The mission of education is not to churn out products for the economy. It is, rather, to educate human beings.

William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. A hundred years later, how do we light that fire? How can we be catalysts for that passion while, at the same time, restoring a sense of community and a sharing of values, particularly for those who have been left, by life, on the side of the road?

Last modified on Thursday, 11 February 2016

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Fred van Leeuwen

Fred van Leeuwen is the General Secretary of Education International. Education International represents organisations of teachers and other education employees across the globe.
It is the world’s largest federation of unions, representing 30 million education employees in about 400 organisations in 170 countries and territories, across the globe.

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