Words against weapons

October 19, 2001

Teaching students about tolerance and understanding is all the more difficult since the war on terrorism, writes D. J. Chandler.

How much harder it has become to teach peace and tolerance on American soil since the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the subsequent war on terrorism. For those who believe that peace-making, conflict resolution and tolerance should be part of every classroom's daily discourse, teaching is not only more complicated but uncomfortable and even alienating at times.

As an education professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, my classes with trainee teachers typically focus on the historic and cultural background of inequities, immigration and school violence, ranging from civil-rights cases to the Columbine High School murders. When introducing the notion of oppression, I continually struggle with how to offer undergraduates examples of globalisation and postmodern or post-colonial thought in relation to local schooling.

As an unwavering advocate of cross-cultural experiences and knowledge exchanges, I encourage students to read widely about current events; to broaden their horizons through foreign films or literature; and to seek out education-abroad experiences. Diversity in itself does not necessitate tolerance, recognition, community or peace.

Coming from Los Angeles to Tampa has made me realise how segregation often makes groups and their ideas invisible to one another. Of course, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have brought tragic meaning to such observations. Without future teachers open to the idea of peace, how can we talk of peace in classrooms?

However, teaching peace has become a challenge as this "war on terrorism" escalates and patriotism takes precedence over global responsibilities and understandings. It is as if we have taken a giant step backward. "Don't get me wrong," I tell my upper-division students at the University of South Florida, "I am not anti-American. I am not pro-terrorist."

I taught a social foundations of education course in Sarasota on the Wednesday after the attacks. The students seemed shell-shocked and raw. I passed around an eloquent message from our provost, David Stamps. It spoke about valuing and respecting others because it was our duty and responsibility as educators to "set an example of calm and reasoned response, assisting our students to maintain a climate that values open dialogue and rational discussion". I took it to mean peace and global friendship.

Later, we discussed a chapter in the cultural foundations textbook about the history of education in the US with an introduction about the treatment of immigrants, indigenous peoples and speakers of languages other than English. One student said she was appalled but previously unaware of how unjustly non-whites had been treated in schools. When I brought up racism and cruelty, a student confronted me about "judging" Americans in the past and how it might be that someone in the future will judge us in the same light. My point exactly. I responded by asking: "How have things changed in our schools? What is the purpose of schooling?" Perhaps it was too much to ask the day after the nightmare for them to respond to such a question. Although they read the provost's statement to mean peace, they interpreted that peace as patriotism and a way of helping the victims of the attacks and unifying Americans in war against the terrorists - the non-Christian others.

Those same students seemed less scared and a bit more engaged these past weeks, but they are still far from acknowledging the connections between what is taught and how knowledge, teaching and learning relate to nationalism, globalisation and peace or war.

One student asked me after class: "Since there is only one God and whoever prays to God is a Christian, why can't we have prayer in public schools?" I am not sure this student really knew or meant what she was saying, but it reveals how little some Americans know of the histories or cultures of Islam - let alone those of anyone other than themselves.

Addressing Congress nine days after the attacks, President George W. Bush said there were only two sides for people of the world in this war, the American side or the terrorists. The Taliban, now terrorists who harbour Osama bin Laden, ask the pertinent question: "Where is the proof?" The American people should ask the same question, but, for the most part, they seemingly do not.

Teaching peace is about struggling to understand how relationships and consequences happen in a particular cultural logic, even horrendous acts of crime, and demonstrating that solutions come through dialogues and procedures. Peace is ultimately a question of ethics. How can we value the life of a Sudanese, Iraqi or Afghan any less than we value our own? How can we teach our young students to stop and negotiate before hitting?

I do not expect my students to think like me. What I want them to learn is that there are many different ways to think, not just mine or their own.

D. J. Chandler is assistant professor of education at the University of South Florida, Tampa, US.

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