Teaching for Social Justice: The Case of Charlie Hebdo

"Education is the only solution," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Global Education Summit in 2013. It seems that the first solution to every problem is always education. However, before even thinking about a solution, a certain education is required in order to understand the problem. After the terrorist attacks that hit the French magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, a psychosis about the presence of "an enemy within," about a clash of civilizations has been tormenting the French population, and more generally the West. When a society is under such a crisis, what can schools do to equip students with this economical and social crisis? Or better yet, what should schools do?

What are schools for?

According to American author Michael Schiro (2013), schools have four different but intertwined goals. They should transmit the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors, help to stimulate and nurture growth through experiences, prepare kids to have the necessary skills to enter society and finally, serve to criticize society's injustices, emancipate individuals and make the world a better place for everybody.

While some theorists argue for one goal rather than the other depending on the context, all seem to agree that schools need to represent society in their curriculum. We live in a world that is globalized and therefore, schools should promote a globalized education.

The role of schools in society and society in schools

Beyond the role of education in society, there is the role of society, or its representation, in education. To what extent can we tackle current events without being too political? After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, many wondered if and how we should approach this problem in schools. Some firmly believed that it is not the teacher's responsibility to discuss these issues. They believe that children are too young to be concerned with "adult" problems and that we should let them live at least this part of their life happily in ignorance.

The problem though is that kids are experiencing the same events as adults and naturally have questions and need answers. If schools disconnect current events from the curriculum, we are not doing children a favor by keeping them sheltered. Similarly, as children grow up, they will become citizens of 'our world', and we are not doing ourselves a favor by withholding information from them.

Teachers should be rigorous with the way they approach the problem

The role of the teacher is not to teach students what but how to think. In other words, the goal is not to teach them what to think of the attacks but to accompany them in the process of understanding what happened. One of the most important goals of education is to make students critical consumers of information. We live in a world where everything and everyone is connected 24/7. We do not need to search for information. Information comes to us. As a French citizen living in the US, I learned about the Charlie Hebdo tragedy through Facebook. And this constant connection with the rest of the world is just growing bigger and bigger. Thus, it is important to help students develop an ability to think critically about the information they receive, especially about events that are being discussed worldwide. Instead of being afraid to talk about it, let's make it a learning opportunity to promote critical thinking in schools.

Kids should become critical consumers of information

There are many ways to transform a tough experience into a learning opportunity. These opportunities could come in many shapes and sizes, from something very simple such as a conversation about what could be done to avoid such a tragedy in the future to something more complex such as asking students to question the reliability of sources being used in a case. Additionally, teachers could ask students to actually analyze primary sources of information such as online FBI or Europol reports about the ratio of Muslim extremist attacks and total terrorist attacks to look at the data objectively.

By incorporating real life events into the classroom, the content of the class becomes more interesting and more meaningful to students. Further, it assists in creating responsible and autonomous citizens who are critical of the information presented to them in order to destroy the dichotomy of "us" and "them." It is only by questioning the world, that an individual can learn to live with the others in it.