Formulating a Deep Educational Response to Tragedy: Reflections on the Eve of 9-11
Director of Education, National Peace Academy
(*Originally published in the Global Campaign for Peace Education newsletter #87, September 2011)
The 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks invites solemn reflection on the lives lost, the presumed path of justice pursued for most of a decade, and the lessons that remain to be learned. These reflections are almost always with me as my life as a professional peace educator has coincidentally intersected with 9-11. Just a few weeks before the tragic event I had accepted a new position as the Coordinator of the Peace Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University and I began working at the Center in the days that followed. My first experience on the job consisted of fielding calls from teachers, principals and activists, asking how peace education could "fix" or "respond" to the tragedy. My reflections, 10 years later, return to the role education can play in responding to 9-11 and other violent tragedies.
Following the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech I was asked similar questions when I was invited, amongst others, to author an educational response to that particular episode of violence for the Harvard Educational Review. I called for both a quick and deep response: a quick response to catalyze the social healing process and a deep response to get to the underlying social issues that made such a tragedy possible. Such violent tragedies I described as "the unimaginable," largely because the possibility of such events are generally obscured by the protective shield of a worldview that informs us that "tragedies like these simply don't happen to us." I provided the following rationale for formulating the deep response:
"Our quickest responses are those that use the least of our imagination and are framed in unquestioned and familiar ways of looking at the world. Human tragedy and suffering will always be shocking, but the increasing frequency with which these violent events occur is evidence that our responses have not gone deep enough."
Articulating further what I mean by a "deep" response is where I return today in my reflections about 9-11. "Going deep" is a provocative metaphor. In ecological terms we talk about digging deep below the surface to reveal the roots. While we may see and appreciate a tree from the trunk up, we know that it cannot survive without the root system that delivers water and nutrients to each leaf and branch. Belief, cultural, political and institutional systems operate similarly: there are often ideas, principles and values at the core of these systems that are poorly examined and invisible to the naked eye.
Facilitating learning that capacitates citizens to see and feel deep below and inside is one of the roles education can play in responding to tragedy. Providing opportunities that engage learners in processes of reflection, relating, re-conceptualizing, futures thinking, and rebuilding should be at the heart of that deep response. While not exhaustive, these processes are the building blocks of a transformative educational response to tragedy.
Reflection is an essential peace-building and moral capacity that is at the heart of all transformative learning processes. Reflective inquiry invites learners into processes of critical introspection, analysis and assessment, helping to reveal how tragedies can be connected to internal problems of societies, and inviting us to ask: what oppressive societal factors might have lead to such action? How could the health of a community or individual get so bad? What roles did individuals, institutions, or economics play? While reflection may indeed reveal nuances of the problematic, it is also a holistic process. It draws forth from our positive visions and values about the world we wish to see. It is both outward looking and introspective: internal reflection helps us to examine our own values and principles and aids us in living with integrity with our self.
Reflective introspection also opens a pathway for examining how we relate to others: How are others interpreting this same experience? How might I be contributing to the problem? How might I engage in worldview differences with others? How we relate to others is at the core of the understanding of peace articulated by the Earth Charter, which describes peace as the "wholeness created by right relationships with oneself, other persons, other cultures, other life, Earth, and the larger whole of which all are a part." This definition invites learners to deeply inquire into the nature of "right relationships" by asking: what are the values, principles and ethics that inform and sustain right relationships, and how and by whom are they determined? The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins by recognizing "the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family (as) the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Being in right relationships requires identifying, inquiring into, living with, and transforming existing relationships so that they are in accordance with the values, principles, attitudes and behaviors that are found in the UDHR and other ethical frameworks.
Through reflection and inquiry into our relationships with others we might come to the conclusion that the world was on a certain path; but we now see it differently. What then are the possibilities for a more preferred world and how do we get there? Tragedy introduces a new narrative into the collective consciousness. What has the tragedy helped to reveal about that world that we want as opposed to the actions (related to the tragedy) that we revile? Developing the skills and capacities to re-conceptualize, imagine and plan for a more preferred the future is also essential to the deep response to tragedy. What we often forget to ask when we are thinking about changing things is once we've overcome the problem, what do we want to fill that void with? Conceptualizing a different world requires more than just daydreaming. It is both a creative and intellectual task. When we catch a glimpse of what we want - say for example "peace" - we also have to deeply inquire into and articulate what we mean by peace to make the concept useful and meaningful.
So how then do we begin the process of rebuilding? How can we co-author a new narrative? How do we do it together? Who needs to be involved? What institutions need to be changed or created? These questions are at the core of what must be a collaborative inquiry. Educational responses to tragedy should invite students into such creative, cooperative and collaborative challenges in order to capacitate and engage them in the co-construction of their present and future realities.
Pursuing a deep educational response to tragedy requires risk, creativity, thoughtfulness and courage. The learning we must pursue asks of us and others to critically and open-mindedly question assumptions about our selves and the world around us. Given such risks, it comes as little surprise that in deeply politicized educational contexts the deep response is often met with resistance and fear. Peace educators, using some of the processes suggested above, can facilitate learning to help overcome this fear by bringing diverse views and concerns into conversation and engaging citizens in collaborative inquiry toward a commonly preferred future. While it might not be easy to "trust the process," I've generally found that when people are given opportunities to genuinely reflect and relate, to listen and be respectfully heard, they will open their hearts and minds to new possibilities.
I've been encouraged by the many courageous educational responses to the tragedies of September 11, Virgina Tech and others. Educational organizations such as September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, Peace First, and Teaching Tolerance have been championing deep and transformative educational responses in an era where creativity in the schools is threatened by policies such as No Child Left Behind. Virginia Tech resisted the temptation to respond to its own tragedy by creating a hyper-vigilant security state, and instead established the Virginia Tech Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention. These organizations have modeled the true transformative efficacy of peace education through their deep responses to tragedy.
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9-11 I invite you to engage yourself, and others, in deep reflection, inquiry and conversation about the tragedy. While we mourn and remember, let us also be sure to engage in the deep learning - reflecting, relating, re-conceptualizing and rebuilding - that will help move us toward a more peaceful and preferred future.
Jenkins, Tony (2007). Rethinking the Unimaginable: The Need for Teacher Education in Peace Education. Harvard Education Review, 77(3)
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