Education: a proven path to peace

Professor Asha Kanwar

Education plays a vital role in expanding understanding between and among diverse groups. “The biggest gains in shaping shared narratives across potential divides will most likely come from investment in, and rethinking of, education.” So concludes the Commonwealth Commission on Respect and Understanding in its report, ‘Civil Paths to Peace’. Its findings outline the importance of non-sectarian, non-parochial education in expanding the reach of understanding and reason – and reducing the threat of violence and terrorism. 

The report explores the issues of terrorism, extremism, conflict and violence, and calls for “new thinking about the conflicts of the world”. ‘Civil Paths to Peace’ explains that when people come together based on multiple identities (for instance, as women, as young people or as citizens of a state), relationships based on mutual understanding develop, violence is eschewed and interactions are characterised by respect. “A lot of violence in the world today is related to a targeting of one group by another,” said Professor Amartya Sen, the Commission’s chair. “People tend to define themselves by having only one identity – maybe their religion, maybe their nationality – and then you end up having a war.” 

One way of advancing reconciliation is by using education to break down the barriers that give rise to negative attitudes. In Sri Lanka, for example, Tamil teachers are being taught to teach the Sinhala language and Sinhala teachers are being taught to teach Tamil. In addition, there are plans to introduce a curriculum focused specifically on peace education. 

Forging connections through a common language could also help promote understanding and respect among South Africa’s diverse ethnic groups. While English tends to be the dominant language, in a country with 11 official languages, increasing the English proficiency of teachers remains a key challenge for the South African education system. ‘Civil Paths to Peace’ cites Canada’s bilingual policies as an example of education that prepares young people to live and cope effectively in a multicultural society. 

Education related to world history can lead to cosmopolitan identities, says the report. Teaching children about the value and purpose of social cohesion based on mutual equality is also important. “At its most effective, education can be used to… gain a better understanding of conflict itself, insofar as knowledge can be conveyed in a way that shows that every major conflict involves an interaction between economic, political, historical and cultural factors, and that in many cases, group mobilisation occurs along lines of ethnic, religious or ideological identity, which destroys ties of respect and understanding and replaces them with fear and mistrust.” 

About the author:

Professor Asha Kanwar is the Vice President of the Commonwealth of Learning


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