Learning to live togetherViolence all too often dominates life in the contemporary world, forming a depressing contrast with the hope which some people have been able to place in human progress. Human history has constantly been scarred by conflicts, but the risk is heightened by two new elements. Firstly, there is the extraordinary potential for self- destruction created by humans in the twentieth century. Then, we have the ability of the new media to provide the entire world with information and unverifiable reports on ongoing conflicts. Public opinion becomes a helpless observer or even a hostage of those who initiate or keep up the conflicts. Until now education has been unable to do much to mitigate this situation. Can we do better? Can we educate ourselves to avoid conflict or peacefully resolve it?
While the idea of teaching non-violence in schools is certainly praiseworthy, it seems quite inadequate if we look at what is really involved. The challenge is a difficult one since people have a natural tendency to overestimate their own abilities or those of the group to which they belong and to entertain prejudices against other people. Moreover, the general climate of competition that prevails in both domestic and international economies tends to turn competitiveness and personal success into modern values. In fact, this competitiveness is nowadays translated into a relentless economic war and a tension between rich and poor that breaks apart nations and the world and exacerbates historic rivalries. Regrettably, with its incorrect interpretation of what is meant by competition, education sometimes helps to sustain this state of affairs.
How can we do better? Experience shows that it is not enough to set up contacts and communication between people who are liable to come into conflict to reduce this risk (for example, in inter-racial or inter-denominational schools). If the different groups are rivals or if they do not have the same status in the same geographical area, such contact may have the opposite effect to that desired - it may bring out hidden tensions and degenerate into an opportunity for conflict. If, on the other hand, this kind of contact is organized in an egalitarian setting and common aims and projects are pursued, the prejudices and latent hostility may give way to a more relaxed form of co-operation, or even friendship.
The conclusion would seem to be that education should adopt two complementary approaches. From early childhood, it should focus on the discovery of other people in the first stage of education. In the second stage of education and in lifelong education, it should encourage involvement in common projects. This seems to be an effective way of avoiding conflict or resolving latent conflicts.Discovering other people
One of education's tasks is both to teach pupils and students about human diversity and to instil in them an awareness of the similarities and interdependence of all people. From early childhood, the school should seize every opportunity to pursue this two-pronged approach. Some subjects lend themselves to this - human geography in basic education, foreign languages and literature later on.
Moreover, whether education is provided by the family, the community or the school, children should be taught to understand other people's reactions by looking at things from their point of view. Where this spirit of empathy is encouraged in schools, it has a positive effect on young persons' social behaviour for the rest of their lives. For example, teaching youngsters to look at the world through the eyes of other ethnic or religious groups is a way of avoiding some of the misunderstandings that give rise to hatred and violence among adults. Thus, teaching the history of religions or customs can provide a useful reference tool for moulding future behaviour.
Lastly, recognition of the rights of other people should not be jeopardized by the way children and young people are taught. Teachers who are so dogmatic that they stifle curiosity or healthy criticism instead of teaching their pupils how to engage in lively debate can do more harm than good. Forgetting that they are putting themselves across as models, they may, because of their attitude, inflict lifelong harm on their pupils in terms of the latter's openness to other people and their ability to face up to the inevitable tensions between individuals, groups and nations. One of the essential tools for education in the twenty-first century will be a suitable forum for dialogue and discussion.Towards common goals
When people work together on exciting projects which involve them in unaccustomed forms of action, differences and even conflicts between individuals tend to pale and sometimes disappear. A new form of identity is created by these projects which enable people to transcend the routines of their personal lives and attach value to what they have in common as against what divides them. In sport, for example, the tensions between social classes or nationalities can eventually be welded into a spirit of solidarity by the commitment to a common cause. In the world of work, too, so many achievements would not have been possible if people had not successfully moved beyond the conflicts that generally arise in hierarchical organizations through their involvement in a common project.
Formal education should therefore set aside sufficient time and opportunity in its curricula to introduce young people to collaborative projects from an early age as part of their sports or cultural activities. But this approach should also get them involved in social activities: the renovation of slum areas, help for disadvantaged people, humanitarian action, senior citizen help schemes and so on. Other educational organizations should take over these activities from the schools. Another point is that, in everyday school life, the involvement of teachers and pupils in common projects can help to teach a method for resolving conflicts and provide a valuable source of reference for pupils in later life.
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