Seeking a common language

Education in Divided Societies
September 2, 2005

Every society relies on formal and informal education to consolidate and reproduce itself. When its traditional institutions decline and no longer play an integrative role, formal education becomes vital in shaping and holding together its fragmented members. It is hardly surprising that the rise of the modern nation-state has put formal education at the centre of the public agenda and generated a considerable discussion on its nature, structure, processes and goals. It came to be widely argued that the primary purpose of education was to facilitate social integration by helping pupils acquire social skills and initiating them into a national culture. This required the state to plan and control education and make it compulsory in the child's formative years.

Such a view of education as state-sponsored socialisation runs into obvious difficulties in ethnically, religiously and culturally divided societies.

Different ethnic communities are often anxious to preserve their identities and they expect educational institutions to help them do so. Imposing the majority culture and assimilating them into it denies them equality of treatment and risks provoking disorder and social disintegration.

Tony Gallagher's central concern is to explore how divided societies have sought to cope with this problem and how it might be overcome. As he argues, many have opted for separate schools for different communities.

Although such schools are often condemned, they should not be homogenised and decontextualised. Sometimes they are imposed by the government and used to ghettoise and dominate communities as in apartheid South Africa and rightly deserve to be condemned. Sometimes they result from understandable minority choices, and have something to be said for them. In other societies, separate schools form part of a well-considered and largely egalitarian strategy of social integration - as with the Dutch system of "pillarisation" - and rest on consensus.

Separate schools have advantages. They are embedded in the lives of their communities, which therefore feel a sense of ownership and commitment to them. They also sustain communities, build up a vital social capital, foster important values and ensure intergenerational continuity.

As Gallagher admits, his view is heavily influenced by his experiences in Northern Ireland, where, despite the hostilities, the two major communities share ethnicity and language. In linguistically and ethnically divided societies where significant commonalities are missing, common schools can be difficult to design and run. Since each community has bitter historical memories of the other, the idea of giving recognition to marginalised identities is anathema, assuming the communities can even agree on which of them meets the "marginalised" description.

Gallagher argues that while separate schools are understandable in such contexts, their disadvantages are obvious and often outweigh the advantages. Although they bond a community, they also separate it from the rest of society and fail to develop common citizenship. They often feed inherited prejudices and remain sources of tension.

Other things being equal, common schools should be the preferred option in divided societies, Gallagher argues. It is not enough that they include pupils of diverse backgrounds, for they might only reproduce the divisions of the wider society. If they are to ensure social integration and realise the full potential of their pupils, they should respect the diversity of identities and build them into their structure and ethos. They should give particularly "robust recognition" to identities that have long been marginalised and whose public standing needs to be raised. This involves fostering respect for differences, promoting intercultural understanding, building cross-communal bonds, getting pupils to appreciate that the national story can be told in different ways and encouraging them to challenge, negotiate and reconstruct such stories. Common schools should both respect the diversity of identities and foster a critical dialogue.

As Gallagher observes, common schools are not easy to sustain in divided societies. They require properly trained and inter-culturally oriented teachers - who are often hard to find. The same difficulty bedevils textbooks. Often the separate schools have long been in existence and are generally preferred over common schools: in Northern Ireland, 4 per cent of Catholics and 5 per cent of Protestants opt for integrated schools.

Attempts to dismantle separate schools are often vigorously resisted, raising the question of how we are to move towards multicultural schools.

Gallagher argues that we should proceed slowly. We should set up common schools and hope parents will find them attractive - if necessary, with suitable public persuasion and encouragement. We might also require separate schools to accommodate different points of view, give them an equal hearing and become less parochial. It also helps to establish interschool links, introduce a common curriculum and so on, as has now been done in Northern Ireland. In these and other ways, we can transform separate schools from within and bring them closer to intercultural common schools.

No educational structure guarantees a positive outcome and can be held up as a universal model. However none is likely to work in a divided society unless it avoids the extremes of assimilation and ghettoisation. Although schools can play an independent and transformative role, they are ultimately constrained by the ethos and structure of the wider society. As long as deep divisions persist, the schools remain a site of confrontation between forces they can never control. A theory of education in divided societies cannot be discussed in isolation from a wider political theory.

Lord Parekh is professor in the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Westminster University.

Education in Divided Societies

Author - Tony Gallagher
Publisher - Palgrave
Pages - 173
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 333 67708 0

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