On Saturday, the world commemorated the International Day of Peace under the theme Education for Peace.
It is a fitting theme: few would argue with the claim that ensuring each and every one of us is able to enjoy his or her right to education is a key aspect of securing a peaceful world.
Even though only a few who would argue the opposite, they do so with the murderous power of their weapons – and we cannot afford to ignore them.
A 2010 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO called Education Under Attack documented attacks on schools, teachers and students all over the world.
From Afghanistan to Brazil, Chad to Georgia, Haiti to Lebanon, Myanmar to Venezuela, young people and educators are risking their lives to provide or receive a basic human right.
Between 2007 and 2010, the report documents attacks on education which included: mass or multiple killings; injuries caused by explosions, rocket and mortar attacks; mass poisoning; assassinations or attempted assassinations; sexual violence by armed groups, soldiers or security forces against schoolchildren and teachers; the destruction of education buildings, facilities, resources and learning materials; mortar and rocket attacks; and the recruitment and use of children under 15 years old as soldiers or suicide bombers.
Most people will have heard about attacks on schools in one country or another, as well as on students and teachers, especially girls and women.
In the north-east of Nigeria, a terrorist group calling themselves Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (Arabic for People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad), has been fighting to establish an Islamist state for the last four years.
The group is most commonly known by its name in the Hausa language, Boko Haram, which means ‘Western Education is forbidden’.
Staying true to its name, Boko Haram has burnt down more than 300 schools since 2009, killing scores of teachers and pupils.
In the most recent atrocity, 46 school children were murdered as they slept in their boarding school beds.
In a video posted on YouTube after that attack, the group’s leader has claimed that they will continue to kill “teachers who teach western education”, and force all children to study the Qu’ran.
In Pakistan, similar actions against girls’ schools and female teachers have been documented since 2007.
The near-fatal shooting of girls’ rights activist Malala Yousafzai by Taliban gunmen catapulted the issue of protecting girls’ right to education to the very top of the international education advocacy agenda.
In an open letter to Malala, a senior Taliban leader urged the young school girl, who is now attending school in England after recovering from her gun wounds, to return to Pakistan to attend an Islamic seminary for girls and to become an advocate for Islam.
On the 2012 World Peace Day, the United Nations passed a resolution on the situation in Northern Mali, where 86 per cent of children have no access to education as a result of the insurgency and attempted take-over of the region by the Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA).
Education as a weapon?
Armed groups often violently attack schools, students and teachers as part of their military strategy – terrorist groups are no exception.
In Nigeria, Pakistan and Mali, the extremists view education as the biggest threat to their ideologies, to their plans for establishing oppressive Islamist states, to their very raison d’être.
In response to extremist ideologies and violence, peace activists have long stressed the importance of using education to promote peace.
Absurd though it may seem, however, there is a similarity in the way that both camps view education: it is instrumentalised.
For extremists, pacifists, and human rights defenders alike, education (albeit wildly different versions of it), is the most powerful and effective weapon – for war or peace.
In the preface to the seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed by the Brazilian educator and advocate for critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, Richard Shaull argued that:
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
The difference between viewing education as an instrument (a means to an end), and viewing it as the practice of freedom (an end in itself) is what separates extremists from pacifists and human rights defenders.
Now more than ever, those of us who seek to promote peace through education must not lose sight of the intrinsic value of education.
We do not distance ourselves far enough from the perpetrators of war and atrocity if we instrumentalise education and make facile claims like the one alluded to by the title of this piece – education is not just a weapon for peace or against war.
The French philosopher René Descartes was right to focus our attention on the fact that it is human to think, and in Freire’s approach centuries later, critical thinking developed through a critical pedagogy that links mind and body becomes ‘the practice of freedom’. It is through education that we can develop our capacity for thought.
The right to education is, therefore, a human right, because it encompasses the right to be human.
We should never lose sight of its intrinsic value.