Teaching peace: educating the educators

My arrival in New Delhi on Friday February 10th was greeted by two intriguing news stories in the Friday edition of the daily paper The Times of India. One story was on the front page, the other was buried deep inside the paper on page 18. Both stories had eerie connections to why I am visiting India for the next several days. The last time I visited India was in 2009, in Mumbai, for a conference on South-South cooperation with special reference to Africa’s increasing geopolitical importance.

The front page story was about a 15 year-old boy who stabbed his teacher, a 42 year-old woman, killing her on the spot. The story said the teacher talked to the boy’s father about his abysmal performance in Hindi, and the boy was scared he would not be promoted from Class IX to Class X next year. The Saturday edition of The Times of India carried five more stories on the case, one of them again on the front page, detailing further information about the case and what may have triggered this particular type of violence.

Dr Steve Sharra in India. Photo courtesy of Africa Aphukira

The other story that also caught my attention was on page 18, which I was able to locate only because I was biding my time before going to have lunch. It was about 15 students from selected secondary schools and colleges in Pakistan and India who met to talk about their two countries and prospects for peace between them. One student was quoted as saying: “Arms are made to hold each other, not harm each other.” It did not bleed, so it did not lead, to paraphrase the quip about the journalistic value judgments that determine what goes on the front page and what gets relegated to an obscure page.

I am in India attending an international conference on Teacher Education for Peace and Harmony. It has been organized by four organizations and institutions, among them the Institute for Advanced Studies in Education based in Sardarshahar, in the state of Rajasthan, and the Global Harmony Association. This is the first time for me to attend a conference solely devoted to the education of teachers and the inculcation of peace and harmony in the curriculum and in the classroom.  I wrote my doctoral dissertation on uMunthu and peace education in Malawian classrooms, so this is a topic I am passionate about. There appear to be two of us from Africa, the other one being Heli Habyarimana, a Rwandan linguist and college lecturer. The ambassador from Djibouti was supposed to make an appearance later in the day, but did not show up.

The speakers who spoke today were inspirational. The first one was a yogi (teacher of yoga), a monk clad in all orange from top to bottom. Somebody sitting next to Heli and I whispered that the yogi was once a university professor of engineering, who left the professorship and took up spiritual teaching. He began his talk with a 3-minute Hindi chant, and spoke half in Hindi and half in English. Evidence that he strides both the intellectual and the spiritual worlds came from his references to quantum theory and relativity, which he said had reshaped human consciousness. He said scientists were now touting Unified Force Theory, which he said Hindus have long taught as the force of karma. Interestingly, I’m sharing my room with another engineer who did a PhD in Computational Fluid Dynamics, and now teaches yoga, breathing and meditation also, in the United States.

As the first speaker was chanting at the start of his talk, it made me think about chants in Malawian culture. Other than lullabies, I could not think of a traditional chant that could be said to emanate from a Malawian or African form of spirituality. I have grown up knowing no single form of African spirituality, thanks to Christianity. I also wondered if we had contemporary spiritual leaders immersed in ancient Malawian and African wisdom. In this I can envisage a line of new research that I believe Africans ought to be conducting. I’m familiar with some previous research, most recent being a new book by Dr. Gary Morgan, Director of the Michigan State University Museum, on gule wamkulu, a mask tradition in central Malawi.

Other speakers today included the Bosnia and Herzegovina ambassador to India, the president of the International Association of Educators for World Peace, Professor Charles Mercieca I (he told me he visited Malawi in 1969, before I was born), a member of parliament from Nepal who is also a niece of the president there, the vice chancellor of IASE Deemed University, and a number of other scholars of peace and harmony.

Dr Mercieca, originally from Malta but who has lived ad taught in the United States for 50 years, had a chilling story about what it takes for ordinary, peaceful individuals to commit atrocities. He talked of a woman who once came to a peace march in Alabama and talked about her son. He was a dedicated Christian who prayed every day and would be the last person to hurt another human being. He enrolled in the army and went to fight in the Iraq war. One day he spoke to his mother on the phone about a mission they had just carried out. They were ordered to flush out suspected terrorists in a Baghdad neighborhood. They were instructed to “shoot everything that moves.” By the time the operation was over, they had killed several civilians, including little babies.

A common theme throughout Saturday was that teachers have a central responsibility to teach peace. They spend a considerable amount of time with young people, and most children look up to them as role models. Because peace and harmony are never part of the school curriculum anywhere, education systems around the world graduate young people who have school knowledge, but have no moral values. Several speakers today called for a new type of teacher education that promotes peace. This is the subject of my paper, which draws on Malawian scholarship on uMunthu, and some concepts about teaching that I have been developing since 2004. As I developed the paper over the past few weeks, I read a book by Satish Kumar (2002) titled You are, therefore I am: A declaration of dependence. I was amazed to learn that what I considered to be an exclusively African worldview, uMunthuas the essence of being human by co-existence, was also found in ancient Hindi philosophy, captured in the term “So Hum”.

Events of the past three years have generated a lot of questions about how the global economy and political governance have fared over the decades, and how the capitalist system cannot continue in its present format. Three years ago it was mostly Marxist scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein and David Harvey who used to say this, today it is captains of capital who now see the dead end the system has led the world to. The time is ripe for teacher educators and curriculum theorists to get in on the act and start reimagining a new kind of education to serve a changed world. I hope we can initiate such a discussion in Malawi and in Africa, and join others who are already rethinking educational theory and practice for a better, more peaceful, more just and fairer world.

*Dr Steve Sharra: Blog: http://mlauzi.blogspot.in/2012/02/teaching-peace-educating-educators.html


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