Lately, we have been saturated with news about violence around the world. One can’t avoid daily updates on the civil war in Syria, or the one in the making in Ukraine; sectarian violence in several places in Africa, including South Sudan and the Central African Republic; or the futile efforts to find the young girls kidnapped in Nigeria. And, of course, even with the drawdown, American men and women continue to die in Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding Steven Pinker’s thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Penguin, 2011), at the moment there is plenty of brutality and angst to go around. This coming summer could be a violent one.
As classes take a hiatus, those of us who focus on raising the awareness levels of students about the world around them might wonder whether they are following events happening in far corners of the planet. Once classes resume, many educators will ask the proverbial question, “What happened in the world this past summer?”
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that our students’ answers will live up to our expectations. Though there are exceptions, many of our students are woefully uniformed when it comes to global conflict. They would have a hard time locating Ukraine, much less the Central African Republic, on a map. Those students who are aware and can engage in an informed conversation tend to be older students or students who have a vested interest in international issues: military students who have served in conflict zones, or students who are from countries that have been impacted by conflict.
With this dire assessment, there is a consolation. It is one thing to claim that students are not aware of global conflict and violence, but quite another to say that students are not aware of violence and conflict at all. While they might view global events removed from their daily lives and show little interest, conflict does impact their lives and many are acutely aware of the effects of conflict. Students in community colleges are often dealing with personal conflict such as family disputes, criminal altercations, bullying and workplace clashes. Locally based violent conflict can be caused by a range of sources, including mental instability. The recent acts of violence at the University of California, Santa Barbara, were perpetrated by a student who was suffering from mental disabilities and was enrolled at Santa Barbara City College.
Understanding conflict is presented in two ways. The first is by discovering the broader world we operate in, and as such learning how to engage as civically minded citizens. The second is by honing skills and aptitudes that better prepare us for a life of differences, diversity and constant change.
Our mission as educators is to promote both aspects. Too often we segregate global awareness from the more personal and domestic skill development. But they support each other, and raising the understanding of one will enhance the other. Students, who learn about nonviolent struggle in parts of the world, will come to recognize that they can engage in peaceful change at home, and that a response to conflict that is based in dialogue and political participation will serve them well.
Students who come to appreciate their own abilities to make peace between friends can learn to understand the role that internationals play in brokering the end of violent conflict through international mediation and reconciliation efforts, as was the case in Northern Ireland. The challenge is to harness what students know about their “local” world and use it to raise awareness of their “global” world.
It helps to know our students well. Knowing their personal experiences – be they tragic or empowering – will provide us with fodder that we can use to show how their own local situations and personal skills can help them in understanding the global environment. In communities that are culturally and ethnically diverse, this can easily be facilitated. Conflict between students of different cultural backgrounds (which could be gang related), could be the catalyst to understanding conflicts in far off homelands. Animosity between college Pakistani and Indian students or Jewish and Muslim students can provide an educator with the opportunity to explore conflicts in Asia or in the Middle East. We just need to help them make the connection.
Smith is a consultant formerly with the U.S. Institute of Peace and editor of Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource (USIP Press, 2013).
This piece was originally published in Community College Daily on June 12, 2014. It is republished here with permission.