Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

The Urgent Call to Replace Fear With Curiosity

By Maya Soetoro-Ng & Alison Milofsky — March 22, 2016 6 min read

In an earlier installment of the blockbuster “Star Wars” film series, the Jedi master Yoda delivers another of his classic rhetorical gems that connect to the real-life strife darkening so much of our planet today. “Fear is the path to the dark side,” Yoda reasons. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

It’s a simple observation that captures a common and destructive phenomenon: the individual’s fear of the unknown “other.” In the name of cultural or physical survival, it can be manipulated to fuel tensions that can spiral into cycles of violence. Taken to extremes, the results are evident—from sectarian divisions in Iraq and Syria, to religious divides in Nigeria or Myanmar. Tensions still threaten in Bosnia-Herzegovina more than 20 years after the end of that crushing war. Fear also contributes heat to the political debates about terrorism and refugees in the U.S. presidential campaign.

BRIC ARCHIVE

While political leaders struggle to quell the fires of today’s global violence, communities in the United States and elsewhere could take steps to avert another generation of destruction. They must nurture the world’s young people toward a more peaceful future. More than half the global population is under the age of 30, and more than two-thirds of them are concentrated in Africa and the Middle East—two regions rocked by violent conflict.

The essential role of young people in preventing and resolving violent conflict received powerful validation recently: The U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2250, on youth, peace, and security, with the unanimous support of the United Nations’ 193 member states. The resolution calls for involving young people in decisions at the local, national, regional, and international levels, even in peace processes and dispute resolutions.

Local leaders, schools, and families can contribute to this goal. There must be a more concerted effort to help youths develop the habits of mind and the practical skills necessary to engage with people different from themselves and to approach conflict in ways that lead to constructive change. The result could help address the fears that often contribute to cycles of violence.

Schools already are taking basic steps on a small scale, including incorporating lessons into a range of curricula and introducing peer mediation in high school. International Baccalaureate K-12 programs encourage a global mindset rooted in empathy and compassion for the “other.” But more support is needed and on a greater scale, with a diversity of approaches. Schools are in a crucial position to help inculcate a more complex and nuanced sense of identity; an understanding of multiple perspectives; and the skills to engage in open dialogue, rather than just debate.

A strong sense of identity contributes to self-esteem and self-worth, which, in turn, help people comprehend and accept other opinions and visions. Research, such as a 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science, has long established that individuals who have low self-esteem are more likely to show bias toward people who are different from them.

By helping children practice from an early age how to critically examine their own needs and identities and understand those of others, we could better ensure that, as adults, they have the ability to engage in disputes without turning to violence. Students could, for example, create oral histories to explore facets of their identity. They could write letters, diaries, poetry, and speeches from the perspective of peers thousands of miles away in order to practice relating to the lives of others.

Schools are in a crucial position to help inculcate a more complex and nuanced sense of identity."

Lessons in culture and history should be global and multicultural. The tendency and desire to identify with just one language or just one culture endangers community harmony. Instead, we need to encourage global competence—communicating problems and perspectives across borders, even when we acknowledge that some ideas are better than others.

Root causes of conflict can be moderated with discussion that engenders curiosity about other perspectives, builds empathy, and makes complexity a friend rather than a foe. As some schools are already demonstrating, opportunities abound for incorporating these kinds of lessons into the standard curriculum.

In one New York City history class, one of us—Maya Soetoro-Ng—conducted a yearlong exercise in empathy. Students analyzed the standard curriculum readings—including books and articles—identifying underrepresented voices. Using index cards, students would then write a poem, letter, journal entry, or pulpit speech from the perspective of that individual or group. Taped to the wall, the cards formed a paper bridge which, by the end of the school year, was full of different points of view and histories, connecting past to present, and the world of the classroom to the world outside. Exercises like this give learners a chance to develop a more profound potential for empathy.

Another example is a paper-folding activity we use with young people and adults the world over that was adapted from an exercise by Jules N. Pretty in Participatory Learning and Action: A Trainer’s Guide. All participants receive a blank piece of paper and are asked to close their eyes and follow verbal instructions for folding and tearing the sheet. Inevitably, the results vary greatly: Some papers have holes in the middle, some have none. Some papers have corners ripped, and some are ripped into four pieces.

The exercise illustrates how the same message can be interpreted in multiple ways, in the same way that people involved in a conflict can see a disagreement differently.

One approach to considering multiple perspectives is the process of dialogue—a method of increasing understanding through open-ended questions and careful listening. The purpose is not to “win,” but to engage in an alternative form of communication. In conflict situations, people tend to become entrenched in their positions, sticking firmly to assumptions and narrow beliefs, trying to persuade others that they are correct.

Through dialogue, people come to recognize that not all situations have one right answer, and they seek to know others’ perspectives rather than try to dismantle their arguments.

Already, young people the world over are taking the initiative to pursue constructive action that bridges divides and counters hate. In Afghanistan, youths successfully used street art, theater, and a host of other techniques to encourage peaceful elections in 2014.

In Uganda, two young men formed an organization called the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum to prevent the recruitment of marginalized youths into militant groups like Al-Shabab and the self-styled Islamic State. The group trains young people in leadership and conflict management and conducts a course for imams on communications skills to counter extremist messages more effectively.

In the United States, a group of friends established a website called I Am Your Protector to promote stories of people who defend each other from vitriol or outright physical violence across typical barriers such as race, class, gender, or belief.

But young people need help acquiring the skills necessary to fulfill their potential as agents of constructive change. There is an urgent call to create learning opportunities for the next generation. If we do not answer it, we may be destined to live in a world terminally divided by what we assume people to be, rather than what they really are.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2016 edition of Education Week as To Avert the Next Generation of Violent Conflict, Replace Fear With Curiosity

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