Education as a Security Issue
07 May 2015
The use of education as both tool and target of religious extremists globally is perhaps one of the most important generational challenges we face today. To ensure that the next generation is open to a more pluralistic world we must ensure that their education equips them to safely encounter the 'Other'. This not only means improving knowledge, understanding and interaction, but also critically requires investment in developing essential soft skills that can ensure these are properly employed, writes Ian Jamison for our Global Perspectives Series.
By Dr. Ian Jamison
When deliberating the role of education in countering extremism, it is imperative to stand back from the minutiae of our own situations to focus on general principles about the nature of the challenges that we face today. This is not easy. For those actively engaged in education systems it is always hard to think beyond the theory and practice that one is used to; and for those who are not, it is hard to think beyond one's own experience at school. Yet without grasping the nature of these challenges, and the implications for our policy choices, we severely limit our ability to generate practical solutions.
One of the greatest generational challenges we currently face is that there are those who actively seek to create educational cultures that inculcate divisive and violent religious worldviews and positively encourage violent extremism. While it is important to recognise that the potential for the discourse of extremism exists in all religions and amongst all communities, the extremists, though frequently appearing to the outsider to be anchored within traditions, are extreme distortions of them. Their voices are repudiated by the vast majority of practitioners of those traditions, who are viewed by the extremists as targets to be conquered rather than fellows to be engaged. Ordinary adherents become the most frequent victims of the violence of these groups. New forms of religious extremism are persistent, united and investing enormous personnel, finance and intellectual resources into their efforts. Much of this investment deliberately targets youth. Ultimately, for extremists, the purpose of education and socialisation is to close, rather than open, the minds of those with whom they come in contact.
Thus, when Gearon questions the purpose of education, I think it is naïve to suggest that education exists in some kind of policy vacuum. All education systems in the world are driven by some kind of policy. There is always a purpose to education over and above the cultivation of knowledge and understanding and human flourishing, whether it is that of promoting a particular brand of religious ideology, to increase market competiveness or to build better citizens. The experience for students in the classroom is mediated through a bricolage of competing purposes.
It is precisely because education always serves a purpose, because it is always instrumentalised, that it is vital to question what might be the best purposes. In our experience, the challenge of countering extremism is not about education per se, but about the kind of education that can make the most difference. Gearon's inclusion of 'the transcendent' should be viewed in this context; it can form part of the bricolage, and may arguably be a critical dimension for schools with a specifically religious character. But it does not necessarily address the challenges of fostering more inclusive and respectful approaches to religious diversity within education systems themselves.
Effective education should not merely stand by and assert that 'such issues are outside our purview', but should actively seek to oppose these extreme viewpoints. It should form part of a coherent counter-narrative, build resilience to radicalisation and give students the knowledge and skills that they need not merely to ignore, but also to stand up to these voices.
Unfortunately, reluctance to engage is the norm. Both Jackson and Gearon write as experts within the field of 'Religious Education', but it is significant to reflect that around the world the exclusion of religion from the classroom altogether, or abrogation of responsibility to religious believers to provide education, is far more common than formalised study of religion. Neither of these predominant responses is well adapted to providing the kind of broad understanding of religion that will form resilient students able to play a full role in a globalised world marked by complex forms of cultural and religious diversity.
Jackson elucidates some of the critical components of the kind of education that can be most effective in addressing the challenge of extremism. His suggestion that increased understanding of religions and direct interaction with peers of different backgrounds are important contributions education can make to addressing radicalisation and extremism, matches our experience. I would, however, add the cultivation of appropriate skills for open-mindedness.
Without these skills, efforts to increase knowledge, understanding and interaction will fail to adequately equip students to grapple with the challenging and complex nature of the globalised world for which education is preparing them. This stance is grounded in our experience of running Face to Faith over the last five years, providing students in over 30 countries with opportunities to learn about other faith and belief traditions through direct encounters with their global peers. The most significant part of this is the preparation students undergo for their dialogical encounters through the use of a robust and adaptable pedagogy of dialogue. This helps them to move into meaningful discussions that allow them to explore, challenge and understand better one another's cultures, beliefs and values. For more information about Face to Faith and its Pedagogy of Dialogue, visit the Tony Blair Faith Foundation website [ http://tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/projects/supporting-next-generation].
It is this pedagogy of dialogue that inculcates a number of critical skills that enable students to go beyond simply learning about the 'Other', to experiencing each other. That is, beyond a superficial and stereotypical list of things that they 'know' about the 'Others', to a more profound and nuanced understanding of the 'Other's' life and the ideas, beliefs and values that are important therein. Students need to develop skills of active listening, reflection and questioning; global awareness, communication and co-operation; leadership and religious literacy. For more on the critical soft skills see the Tony Blair Faith Foundation website [ http://tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/projects/supporting-next-generation/.... Students also need to be critical consumers of information, questioning provenance, reliability, audience, motive and purpose. This is increasingly vital now that so much misinformation on religion and even violent radicalisation is occurring via the Internet. I would also highlight the importance of developing skills that empower students to critically engage the media. It is much harder for teachers to cultivate tolerant attitudes in their students when they are constantly bombarded with the opposing message. Keeping students safe therefore means giving them the skills to make critical and informed judgements about whom they can trust and the kinds of information that they will accept. The core skill that can arm students against the narratives of extremism is an attitude of openness to others: a willingness to understand before making judgements and, ultimately, not to be afraid of difference.
This pedagogy of dialogue is the critical element that I would add to Jackson's description of a 'positive educational response' to religious extremism when seeking to develop practical policy solutions. In our evolving project we have seen how global peer dialogue empowers young people by giving them the sense that their voice is being heard by, is of interest to and is taken seriously by their peers around the world. Moreover, research indicates that these students are going out into their communities spreading messages of tolerance and respect, even informing and educating their parents. More information on the impact of Face to Faith can be found by visiting the Tony Blair Faith Foundation website [ http://tonyblairfaithfoundation.org/projects/supporting-next-generation/....
Around the world more and more education systems are moving towards more and more rigorous centralised testing regimes. At the same time, amongst educationalists, employers, parents and academics there is a much broader recognition of the importance of 'soft skills' in preparing students for the globalised world of the 21st century. Just as education policy makers take it as axiomatic that one should include skill sets to support students to develop literacy and numeracy; so they should include the skill set of effective dialogue between those of different countries, cultures, beliefs and values, as part of a palette of soft skills to ensure students are more tolerant, respectful citizens. This is critically important if education is going to play a meaningful role in empowering students to resist and combat those forms of religious extremism that target them.
This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.