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Opinion
Education Commentary

War, Education, and Peace

By Fernando Reimers — December 11, 2002 8 min read

Fernando Reimers is an associate professor of international education policy at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, in Cambridge, Mass.

Earlier this fall, President Bush announced that the United States would return to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, after an 18-year absence. (“Bush Decision to Rejoin UNESCO Applauded,” Sept. 25, 2002.) While this is a wise decision, it will only make a difference to global peace and security if the organization can rekindle its original mission: to focus attention on what is taught in schools throughout the world. This will require significant internal dialogue on the organization’s commitment to this moral purpose, greater participation of American educators, and more vigorous intellectual collaboration between UNESCO and universities in the United States.

UNESCO’s early goals grew out of the devastation and pain of World War II, when a group of nations had the good judgment to articulate one of the most remarkable ideas of our times: that each and every person on the planet had certain basic, inalienable rights, including the right to be educated.

The United Nations created UNESCO to facilitate the achievement of this right. As a result of these ideas, and UNESCO’s leadership in implementing them, the world experienced the most dramatic rise in access to education in recent history. The number of children enrolled in school worldwide, from kindergarten through college, skyrocketed. In 1950, 206 million children attended elementary school; by 1997, that number was 668 million. At the secondary level, enrollments increased from 40 million to 398 million, and at the college level, the growth is even more staggering: Enrollments jumped from 6.5 million to 88.2 million during the same period.

We are just beginning to understand the implications of this transformation. That today many children around the world have exceeded the education levels of their parents is a testament to the success of that vision. On the other hand, the fact that parental education continues to be one of the most important predictors of educational attainment and achievement throughout the world is a reminder of how much we still have to accomplish to ensure equal educational opportunities.

But UNESCO’s early vision was not just about promoting education for all; it was a political vision that dealt squarely with the purposes of schooling. Fresh memories of the Holocaust and the realization that the Nazis had used schools for political indoctrination made it easy to see why this growing number of schoolchildren needed to learn in an environment that fostered peace and international understanding. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects a moral clarity about the necessary commitment to solidarity and peace that was absent in successive declarative and operational activities of UNESCO or the U.N. family. The authors of this declaration considered this moral component of education part of the basic right of education, and included it in the document: “It shall promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.” Out of the rubble of World War II, the urgency to expand access to education was perceived as the same thing as focusing on the moral purposes of schooling for all children of the human race.

Despite decades of workshops, conferences, and meetings that have addressed this moral issue, the outcomes are clearly insufficient as measured by today’s challenges to peace and global stability. In 1946, UNESCO first invited member states to review history and civics textbooks to ensure that they indeed fostered international tolerance and understanding. The organization continues to sponsor seminars on whether textbooks foster international understanding.

Unfortunately, these conferences have not been sufficiently effective, as evidenced by the fact that there are still government-sanctioned textbooks in use that teach students to hate people of other cultures. To this day, some history textbooks distort accounts of crimes against humanity. These are powerful reminders of how much work remains before UNESCO achieves its mission, as stated in the first line of its constitution: “That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

The assassins that smashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing thousands of people from all over the world not engaged in combat, had received many educational opportunities. By global standards, they were highly schooled. Where did their education fail them? What did their textbooks fail to teach them? The seeds to the genocide in Kosovo were planted and cultivated in the images presented in textbooks and classrooms for decades. It was only after thousands of innocent citizens were murdered that the international community finally acted by producing books that discussed peace and tolerance.

UNESCO's early vision was not just about promoting education for all; it was a political vision that dealt squarely with the purposes of schooling.

Much work remains to be done to align the textbooks in the Palestinian Authority with a long-term commitment to peaceful coexistence with Israel. History textbooks in Japan do not mention the government’s atrocities of war against the people of Korea, depriving students of the opportunity to develop a moral awareness that will make such violence less likely. And only three years ago, textbooks on civic and military instruction produced in Venezuela— with government approval—presented Venezuelan adolescents with negative stereotypes of immigrants and blamed them for the country’s ills, planting the seeds of hatred and creating the conditions for future political violence.

Over the last 20 years, many nations have seen their schools give up their moral purposes. Under attack by politicians and activists who believe the principal function of schools is to produce workers who can compete in the world economy, rather than citizens and people of good judgment committed to universal human values, school budgets have declined, and their curricula have been diluted. The past two decades of failed reforms have left us with children and young adults who cannot read with understanding and, worse yet, are morally illiterate. It should not surprise us that we begin the 21st century with global instability and with a peace that is fragile and uncertain.

If we want schools to teach peace, we need comprehensive approaches that support the reduction of poverty and social exclusion. In expanding educational opportunities to include the most overlooked groups, we also need to focus on how policies are defined and implemented, by holding policymakers accountable to children and their parents, particularly to the most impoverished and overlooked groups.

We need to focus on attracting the most imaginative, talented, and hardworking people of each generation into the classroom. And finally, we need to focus especially on classroom-management practices, on the curriculum, and on how the social composition of classrooms and children’s experiences in school enable them to develop an appreciation for diversity and the ability to trust and engage in collective action with others, especially those whose cultural background differs from their own.

To teach peace and understanding is to attend not just to the images and contents presented in textbooks, but to the very way education systems are organized and managed, to how students of different backgrounds are integrated (or not) in schools, and to how students and teachers spend their time together.

The United States’ return to UNESCO is an important step in the long journey of constructing lasting peace and security. This must be followed by increasing significantly the numbers of highly skilled American educators working in and collaborating with the organization. Today, only 23 people out of a staff of 2,000 are American.

To teach peace and understanding is to attend not just to the images and contents presented in textbooks, but to the very way education systems are organized and managed.

UNESCO also needs to intensify its relationship with American colleges that do the best work on how children should be taught to understand, appreciate, and collaborate with people from other cultures, and who can help to update ideas about how to teach for peace from a sole emphasis on textbook content to more comprehensive and effective approaches. It should enable American educators to learn from what goes on in schools around the world, from how children are taught, and from what they are taught.

Finally, UNESCO should use current telecommunication technologies to facilitate exchanges between teachers and students throughout the world, all the while knowing that this will be resisted by governments who fear the freedom of their people to think for themselves and act independently. As a supranational organization, it cannot depend exclusively on the will of national states to implement international covenants and treaties, particularly its mandate to advance universal human rights and promote international understanding and peace.

This new era of educational dialogue will enable the full integration of American educators into the world community. This will achieve two goals. It will demonstrate to a large number of teachers throughout the world that Americans truly believe that all people are created equal and are ready to join in the struggles of those who labor to make societies open and just for all. More importantly, it will contribute intellectual resources to UNESCO’s yet-unachieved goal: to build the defenses of peace in the minds of people, making sure that our children—indeed, all children—learn to understand our interdependence.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we are living in treacherous times that call for moral clarity. The means of destruction available to nations, groups, and individuals have grown in horrific ways, but they are not greater than our means to mobilize persons of goodwill in making the peaceful coexistence of all people a reality.

It is high time to push aside the corrosive effects of cynicism, moral relativism, and corrupt authoritarianism and go forth in a renewal of the purposes of schools, so that they empower all of us to be free, to have equal options in life, and to be able to live in peace with one another.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2002 edition of Education Week as War, Education, and Peace

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