Between Idealism and Realism: Critical Peace Education in Divided Post-Conf

Basma Hajir, May 14, 2018

Being from Syria, a country scarred by continuous war, I started navigating the field of peace education fascinated by its philosophical attractiveness and transformative potential but paused halfway through with a troublesome sense of suspicion and a diverse array of questions. Despite enjoying a philosophy of love and nonviolence, the field of peace education is laden with criticisms that target its lack of criticality. These oppose teaching peace studies in schools and universities and believe that peace education lacked the intellectual rigour and manipulated young people’s political thinking. They also assert that peace educators do not present problems of violence objectively but rather try to convince students of the correctness of one side.

In a response to such criticisms, the concept of Critical Peace Education (CPE) emerged in the field. Proponents of CPE seek to empower individuals, to enable voices and boost the participation and agency of the marginalised. They promote taking the other’s perspective and recognising other historical narratives as important requirements to develop students’ critical consciousness, to enable them to explore contradictions in their social, political and economic realm, and prepare them to act against such contradictions.

Reflecting on CPE, I find exploring the implementation of such practices interesting, especially phrases such as ‘contested narratives’, ‘recognition’ and ‘criticality’. I find such words tricky. They have a theoretical aura and an emancipatory promise but an attempt at proceeding to praxis is fraught with challenges. With regards to this reflection in the context of my own home, the three main challenges that CPE initiatives are most likely to face are: the power of the victor, identity accentuation, and social transformation.

The Power of the Victor

A closer look at how the conflict is unfolding in Syria shows that one of powers seems to be prevailing. While this outcome might not seem to be relevant to peace education at first glance, the Syrian case represents many other post-conflict contexts where a winning power is in a position to impose its conditions on any peace or power sharing agreement. This situation is usually accompanied by monitoring integral social institutions such as education, where peace education programmes are delivered the most. Official post-conflict narratives usually define the past according to the interests of those in power, who usually choose to silence alternative discourses. An interesting example of this occurred in Rwanda. Educational projects that were working to reintroduce teaching history into Rwandan schools reported significant failures to include content that would enable students to engage critically with past violence. Such failures are justified by the wider political context where the Rwandan government wanted to abolish ethnic identities and accordingly presented a national narrative that denied the existence of ethnic rivalries before the Belgian colonialism. Any account of the genocide other than the official one is a criminal offence, which was added to Rwanda’s penal code in 2002 and is legally prosecuted. The Rwandan example suggests that applying CPE in such contexts is not possible, practically.

Identity Accentuation

Let us assume that the winning power in Syria would want students to reach informed and balanced conclusions of what happened in the past, would accordingly allow engaging Syrians critically in the conflict and were open to teaching opposing narratives. Building on results reported from similar approaches to education, such as intergroup contact in Palestine, students would most likely end up accentuating their identities and further identifying and recognising their narratives. The questions here is: wouldn’t such a CPE initiative be pointless and rather counterproductive if those in power are unwilling to address structural inequalities? Isn’t it highly probable that members who further accentuated their identities would resort to violence and regenerate the conflict to stand up to the macro socio-political reality and other aspects of power imbalance?

Social Transformation: ‘Individual’ or ‘Structural Asymmetry’?

CPE relies on a bottom up theory of how transformation occurs. It connects social transformation to the individual rather than structural inequities or social policies. Phillip L. Hammack (2009) assimilates this with the American Dream myth where individuals are deceived into thinking that they have an equal chance to succeed. The truth is that undeniable structural inequality disenfranchises minorities from opportunities for advancement. CPE might successfully achieve the sought-after transformation in individuals without making an impact at scale. The question that arises is, how can we amplify any impact on the individuals so that it affects the wider context?

Moving Forward

Thinking of the inevitable challenges that lie ahead of CPE implementation in a context with dynamics like the Syrian one, it is justifiable to conclude that current CPE theoretical grounds seem to be too idealistic. Building on the three challenges presented above, I suggest that one way of pushing the field toward the realistic end of the spectrum could be to conceptualise it in a three-dimensional way:

  • Practicality: The parameter of ‘practicality’ acknowledges the complexity of CPE implementation and the particularity of different post-conflict contexts. Therefore, it facilitates the advancement of a context-specific, location-sensitive CPE that is based on a true understanding of local socio-political climates. The field might benefit from enlisting some prerequisites to its application.

  • Sustainability: The parameter of ‘sustainability’ acknowledges that CPE can serve as a factor of sustainable long term change only when an equitable social structure and reality provide a background for it.

  • Scalability: The parameter of ‘scalability’ has a modest vision of the scale at which CPE can effectively operate. It also decides on targeting CPE efforts based on answers to the question: ‘How effective is individual agency in the face of structural asymmetry in this particular context’?

The Syrian context is in a bad need for peace education interventions. Reflecting on the challenges it faces, for CPE to operate in such a complex context, the field needs to be reoriented towards a more realistic view of what it can achieve and how it can achieve it. It needs to engage in questions like: does CPE need to define more modest goals? Does it need to reconsider its target, sort out its priorities or just manage its expectations of what it can and cannot achieve?

Basma is an MPhil student in Education, Globalisation and International Development at the University of Cambridge. A member of St Johns College, she is currently interested in the role of education in post-conflict transformation, social reconstruction and peace-building. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.


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