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Negotiations between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the possibility of signing an agreement – and, thus, of opening a post-conflict era – have made many of us in Colombia dream of a new country. To accomplish this dream, much hope has often been placed in education. But when it comes to proposing a clear path for education in the post-conflict era, more questions than answer arise. How can education contribute to the negotiated settlement of the conflict and to achieving a stable and lasting peace in Colombia?
People spend most of their childhood, adolescence and, particularly in developed countries, their early adulthood in a classroom. It is because of this fact that everything that happens in schools plays a decisive role in the acculturation of future generations. The task of building a country at peace requires the reviewing of the different forms of cultural violence - understood, according to Galtung (1990), as the ways of relating to others that have helped keep the conflict alive. In this sense, any effort to build peace must include the education sector as a lever for the cultural transformations the country needs when it is on the brink of signing the peace agreements. Here are some ideas that come from working closely with many educational centers in Colombia.
A definite and immediate first contribution of the educational sector has to do with helping us to believe that a negotiated solution to the conflict is the best way to build a country at peace. Although many people see the negotiated solution as the best possible option, broadly shared feelings of distrust towards both negotiators, the FARC and the government, and about the enforcement of the peace agreements, currently exist in Colombia. This is partly due to a long history of breaches on the part of both actors, but also to lack of knowledge about the process and what is being negotiated – and the ensuing confusion is being reinforced by those sectors of Colombian society opposing the process. In addition, for many Colombians, since this is a process put into action by the government, it is its business to carry it through. This translates into low local and citizen empowerment, as opposed to the many opportunities it offers.
The challenge is that children and young people file and process this skepticism as distrust towards the state and politics, and especially towards dialogue as a means to resolve conflicts. Of course, politics should not be preached in the classroom, but the classroom should be turned into an agora for discussing current affairs, for debating on progress being made at the negotiations, to reflect on their implications for the country and, above all, on the changes that the signing of the agreements would mean for the pupils’ own lives. The contribution, however, should go further than this. Educational institutions have the possibility of setting a great example of peaceful conflict resolution, which is what can make everyday discussions simple. If it possible to stop a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives by sitting down and talking, why not do it at home or in the school playground to settle minor conflicts? Besides, if we, as a society, were to choose to go the way of an armed struggle, we should be reflecting on the example we would give to future generations.
Peace negotiations have also challenged Colombians’ ability to dream and hope. Many years of conflict and many failed attempts at peace have left a deep mark on the citizens’ faculty to imagine a different country. That is, on the fundamental capacity for social change and for achieving goals in life. One of the most important contributions that the education system can make is to help young people generate positive hope on the future of the country and allow them to dream that they, on the basis of their passions and abilities, can really make significant changes in their environment. This contribution implies assisting children, young people and future professionals in creating life projects within a framework of legality and peace which can contribute to building the renewed country we are dreaming of. Education must expand opportunities for all Colombians, and offer personal and professional tools to make not just individual, but collective dreams viable. Of course, this cannot be achieved through the efforts of the education sector alone: real opportunities, in terms of jobs and education, need to be created for all the young people in the country.
Countries that have managed to successfully overcome complex conflicts like ours have incorporated into their educational systems a critical revision of their history. “Understanding history, so as not to repeat it” implies recognizing what has kept us together as a country and what has led us to the worst levels of barbarism. Education can help generate a critical reflection on the role all of us have played in that history. This is not to say that students should learn the dates and names of thousands of massacres, but that they should analyse the possible causes and roles of different actors in the conflict. It is also important to review with them the cases of resistance to violence and of peace building of so many individuals and peoples, which show what Colombians are capable of. It is a matter of using the teaching of history as a platform to discuss the role that children and young people can have in the building of a peaceful everyday life and, ultimately, in writing a new chapter in the history of Colombia. International programs, such as Facing history and ourselves, offer some important lessons that can help the Colombian system to reflect on better ways to teach about our past, our present and our possible futures.
The above point is closely related to what is, in my opinion, one of the most important contributions that the educational system can make: to create a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation in the new generations. The conflict has left all Colombians emotionally scarred, be they direct victims or not. Forgiving what has happened requires the building of a new understanding of the facts which allows us to overcome their negative impact on our lives. It is a matter of helping to heal the emotional wounds that the conflict has left, in the way we see others, build relationships, listen to those who are different from us, and trust each other and democratic institutions. For Danesh (2008), educational institutions can become healing spaces when they become places where people can talk openly about how the conflict has shaped them, for in this process they begin to discover that their own pain is shared by others, that the dividing line between victims and victimizers is not as clear as they might have thought, and that we adults are the ones most in need of forgiveness and reconciliation, so that we do not pass on our fears, hatreds and resentments to the new generations. Creating a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation in the schools involves teaching children and young people to understand and manage their emotions, to be empathetic and assertive, and to learn to forgive, to ask for forgiveness, and to make amends for the wrongs done.
Ultimately, schools must commit to educating citizens for peace. This implies transforming the world views that justify violence, generating an environment where the peaceful solution to conflicts is the norm, and where differences coexist in harmony. Martín Baró (1990), martyr of the war in El Salvador, said that “the militarization of social life is generating a progressive militarization of the mind.” In Colombia, this is apparent in the subtlest aspects of our everyday lives - in the way conflicts are resolved within families, within couples, at work, in communities and, of course, in educational contexts. It is revealed in our language and in the way we conceive as enemies those who think differently. It is a great challenge for the Colombian school system today to question this culture and to teach that we can live peacefully together despite our differences. Education should serve the purpose of helping students to learn alternative routes to violence to resolve conflicts.
In addition, the school must allow firsthand experience of the benefits of democracy in terms of building agreements and conditions of justice for all. To this end, educational institutions should teach by example. One learns through what one does and experiences, but not so much through what one hears or memorises. Therefore, what is really important is learning how to participate through action. Creating a culture of peace is to make a political commitment to non-violence and justice, and to see dialogue and participation as ways to achieve better living conditions for the whole community.
The conflict in Colombia has spread abuse against several population groups. The school can play a decisive role in the breakdown of the traditional gender roles, which have been strengthened by the war. The conflict has left deep marks on the identity of Colombia as a nation – on the relationship of Colombians with their history, their families, their municipalities and regions of origin. We need to educate the new generations to be proud of being born here. This implies recognizing what resources and experiences of peace have allowed us to keep the country together, talking about the experiences we have been through and in many cases have refused to acknowledge, and creating strategies for non-repetition through explicitly emotional education.
Finally, the building of a country at peace also entails turning educational spaces into protective environments for children and young people, so as to shield them from future violence, potential illegal markets, and criminal careers. In the aftermath of a conflict, societies go through a transition period that can witness similar, or worse, violent acts, as groups are formed to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the armed forces - groups that look for ways of recovering lost privileges, and others that, driven by feelings of impunity or vengeance, seek to take justice into their own hands. The school should be a space that grants protection against future recruitments, a haven of peace, and an attractive space for families, children and young people to stay in.
Education, in short, should be considered a key variable for reaching the agreements and building a country at peace. The major structural changes that are being agreed in Havana will quickly wither away if we do not undertake a major process of cultural transformation. Educational communities can and should play a leading role in this process - for the sake of the new Colombia we are all dreaming of.
Baró, M. (1990). Psicología social de la guerra. San Salvador: UCA Editores.
Danesh, H. B. (2008). Creating a Culture of Healing in Mutiethnic Communities: An Integrative Approach to Prevention and Amelioration of Violence - Induced Conditions . Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 36 (6), 814-832.
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research,Vol. 27, No. 3, 291-305.
 See: www.facinghistory.org