Can We Learn to Get Along?

There is a solid base of evidence that we can draw on to support educational practices that can teach students to get along, to accept and even embrace those who are different to them.
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When Eleanor Roosevelt and other visionaries drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a short document designed to create the conditions for lasting peace and security, they included education as one of these rights that would contribute to peace, through the promotion of " understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups." The horrors of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II made self-evident the need to promote tolerance and to prevent hatred. The inclusion of education as one of the fundamental human rights, and the creation of the U.N. institutions to advance education, produced the remarkable achievement of providing most children around the world access to school.

The moral clarity that guided the inclusion of the right to education, however, was not sustained in the important efforts to universalize access to education that followed the adoption of the declaration and the creation of the U.N. system. Consequently, many children today are schooled in ways that do not promote tolerance or understanding among nations, racial or religious groups. The most extreme examples of such failure of education include the extremists such as the militants of ISIS who resort to violence against civilians not engaged in combat as a way to advance their goals.

Apparently some of them have attended school, including schools in the U.K., but they have clearly not been educated, and in particular have not been educated to be respectful, tolerant and accepting of those who have different national, racial or religious identities. Less extreme, but equally troubling, forms of ethnic and religious hatred are far more prevalent around the world, arguably the reason religious and ethnic hatred is perceived as the greatest global threat by a significant percentage of the world's population. A recent Pew survey of Global Attitudes, administered in 44 countries, reveals religious and ethnic hatred to be the greatest threat to the world for 34 percent of the population in the Middle East, 24 percent of those in Africa, 15 percent in Europe, 13 percent in Asia, and 9 percent in Latin America. In the United States, 24 percent of the population see this as the greatest threat to the world.

It is for this reason that the inclusion of global education as one of the three priorities the Secretary General of the U.N. has announced for the organization is prescient. The U.N. organizations should indeed move beyond the low bar of focusing on access to school and completion of school, or achieving parity between boys and girls in those indicators, as the goals that should drive global efforts to foster development and peace. School graduates who hate others can't be an acceptable result of the global efforts to advance peace, security and progress.

But it is not just the U.N. that must embrace bolder educational aspirations. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development which, since the year 2000, has enriched the global conversation on education with the assessment of student knowledge and skills in the domains of language, mathematics and science, must also align its metrics of educational progress to the kind of competencies that can secure peace, understanding and coexistence. The failures of too limited a set of metrics to judge success are evident in the global discussion of the results of the PISA studies which unquestioningly point to Finland, Poland, South Korea or China as global education paragons. Indeed, in some of the subjects measured by PISA students in those countries perform better than students in most other nations, but that is not to say that other countries should run to emulate wholesale these countries as if they were global education benchmarks for the entire educational enterprise.

We should balance the knowledge of the high levels of student performance in the subjects which have been testes, with the knowledge that assessments such as the World Values Survey of populations in those and other countries reveal, for example, that people in China, Finland, Poland, and South Korea have greater levels of intolerance towards people of a different religion, race, immigrants or people who speak in other languages, than the levels of intolerance acknowledged by respondents to the same survey in the United States. Before concluding that American schools should try to emulate Chinese or Polish schools, we should tease out what aspects of the American education experience contribute to greater ethnic and religious tolerance, and not throw those out on the race to catch up with the highest performing countries in PISA, because some of those high performing countries are no paragons when it comes to the global threat of intolerance.

There is a solid base of evidence that we can draw on to support educational practices that can teach students to get along, to accept and even embrace those who are different to them. Many thoughtful educators and leaders have translated this knowledge into programs and pedagogies that work. Providing all children and youth in the world access to educational experiences that will make them more tolerant, and less likely to fall prey to ethnic and religious hatred, is possible and within reach.

We need to make it a real priority, of governments and ordinary citizens, to build the necessary institutional coalitions to build an ecosystem that makes the promotion of peace and understanding core to the expansion of education, and to use all the power of the technological tools we have available to ensure that all are schooled and educated, and that this brings true understanding and the ability to get along with those we perceive to be different.

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