How should schools respond to conflicts?

The world is reacting to the war in Ukraine in an unprecedented manner. Moral condemnation, political outrage and commercial isolation of Russia are overwhelming (though not yet unanimous; and there are disturbing questions to ask about why this conflict is being treated differently to, say, the conflicts in Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan or Nigeria).

Abhorrence of unfolding events is widespread and I know many have made personal contributions to, for example, the Red Cross or other charities supporting Ukraine. Organisations and individuals of all sorts are moving to action—which has to be a good thing.

What might this mean for schools?

As a College, we have educated for peace for 50 years, and the way we do it is woven into our curriculum (see this white paper for details) But what should this look like today?

I have a great deal of respect for the view that we should, as a school, be asking students to wear Ukrainian colours, posting support on our Instagram feeds, condemning aggression. These immediate and visible manifestations come from a place of solidarity and support—excellent.

I wonder, though, if there are other considerations at play.

We have been asked about getting each of our primary, middle, and high schools (each under 1,000 for Singapore social distancing still!) into the plaza for a show of solidarity, and pictures.

I can imagine some striking images there—with our iconic globe in the centre—and it would have been a strong symbol.

And there is certainly a place for symbolism (see this lovely piece from our College President, for example) but it can be hard to distinguish between symbols and token gestures, and I worry that events organised by teachers, where students come in groups that are too big for meaningful discussion, can indeed be tokenistic.

I would worry that students attend these because everyone is attending; and that they would feel good they have ‘done something’ and made statements, without due attention to understanding events or learning about complexity.

The analogy with fundraising for a disaster is apt; we never simply pass a bucket around and ask people to chip in a few dollars; we look for understanding before meaningful action. Similarly, in this case, we need to do more than ask for specific—even mandated—action.

The most worrying aspect of adult-run events is that they run the risk of presenting adults’ answers; they ask students to turn up and follow a predetermined course.

These events can avoid the need for students to think for themselves, and to show the initiative needed to do something themselves.

Our Mission is to educate for peace—not to demonstrate, lobby or post on social media for peace.

So while demonstrations, lobbying and posts may emerge, they are not our goal as a College.

Most importantly, we want students doing these things from a sense of internal conviction.

If we want to teach students to think for themselves, to be aware of the pressures on them to think one way or another, to think morally and critically then we need to resist the temptation to tell students what to think, no matter how strongly we feel (and just to be clear, I think we can all feel pretty strongly here).

Anything else would be to set students up, in the long term, for lives of compliance, conformity and submission—which is not, in the long run, likely to lead to the positive peace we seek.

Of course, exactly the same events, organised by well-informed, caring and determined students, have a completely different feel and message.

They aren’t just things they have to turn up to; they are then substantive and authentic expressions of commitment to peace, and we are 100% behind the various ideas that have emerged from students and which will appear in the student-led focus week being organised.

So while there are some things we choose not to do as teachers, we do encourage and support pretty much whatever students want to do for peace (without breaking any local laws)

 What, then, does the College response look like?

 

1 We’ll look after the children and adults in our care.

David Sobel famously argued ‘no tragedies before fourth grade’. He was talking about climate change, but the principle applies more generally and the underlying message is clear: first and foremost, do no harm.

We need to look at the individuals in front of us; consider how they are reacting and plan in light of that—and that’s not just for our youngest students.

We do not want to send anyone into disarray; so we’ll tread carefully, avoid the social-media lure of live-streamed disaster feeds, avoid crass national stereotyping; and monitor the mental health of our students.

This is our first moral imperative.

2 We’ll educate ourselves and our students about the situation

If students are to stand for something, they cannot fall for anything.

No one has a monopoly on truth, so we won’t be telling students what to think, or parroting any countries’ propaganda.

We’ll draw on a range of sources and help them make informed principled conclusions.

We’ll examine traditional and social media critically; we will resist easy and self-serving moral outrage.

That doesn’t mean automatically taking a neutral position (neutrality is a definite judgement that the evidence in a particular case is equally balanced on both sides—that’s not the case here) but any position needs to be an outcome from, not an input to any discussion.

And in any case, picking a side is not educating for peace.

 

3 We’ll make education a force to unite people… for peace

If students feel safe (step 1) and the ‘What?’ question has been answered (step 2) and then experience shows that there will be responses to ‘So what?’—which is to say, action.

These may be statements, fundraising, collections, letter-writing, demonstrations, contact with schools in affected countries …  all driven by students who want to enact the Mission, not just be told about it by adults.

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