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Educating for Peace, Sustainable Development Goals and the ideal of Global Citizenship

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Educating for Peace

Toh Swee-Hin

(Original article: Common Threads – SGI)

Toh_Swee-HinToh Swee-Hin of the University for Peace, Costa Rica, unpacks peace education in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals and the ideal of global citizenship.

On September 25, 2015, over 150 Member States of the United Nations approved the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for their post-2015 agenda for national development. Embracing specific targets to be achieved by 2030, these 17 SDGs seek, inter alia, to end poverty and hunger; reduce inequality within and among countries; ensure health, the availability of water, sanitation, productive employment and quality education for all; protect the environment and combat climate change; and promote peaceful and inclusive societies.

In a world in which, despite exponential economic growth, industrialization and mass consumerism, millions of human beings suffer from hunger, poverty and deprivation—a world of widening inequality within and across societies and a deepening ecological crisis—these SDGs certainly are very relevant and timely. By adopting the SDGs, governments and public sector agencies are affirming their accountability and responsibility for their attainment. However, this enormous undertaking also needs the full participation of all other sectors, including individual citizens, private institutions and civil society organizations.

The Diverse Work of Transformative Education

As an educator committed to the building of a culture of peace at all levels and in all contexts of life, I am especially encouraged by the inclusion, within the goal of promoting inclusive and quality education for all, of the specific target 4.7:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.

This target recognizes and affirms the expanding work of educators in diverse fields of transformative education. While promoting specific purposes, these fields share many common principles and pedagogical strategies as well as the overall goal of educating citizens toward the building of peaceful societies. They include, for example, education for nonviolence, conflict resolution and transformation; disarmament education; human rights education; social justice or development education; intercultural and multicultural education; education for sustainable development or futures; global citizenship education; values education; and, increasingly, the emergent field of educating for inner peace.

“In a world in which millions of human beings suffer from hunger, poverty and deprivation, these SDGs certainly are very relevant and timely.”

The framing of this target also acknowledges the interconnections, synergies and complementarities between these diverse fields of transformative education and is an empowering reminder that attaining any single SDG necessarily involves economic, social, political and cultural dimensions of human and human-planetary relationships.

Reasons to Be Hopeful

While the journey to help build peaceful societies based on nonviolence, human rights, justice, sustainability and intercultural understanding through these educational initiatives has begun, there is still considerable work to be done. There are many challenges and obstacles, not surprisingly when systems and relationships between peoples and nations are often complex and steeped in conflict. Still, whatever the difficulties, it is essential to embrace a deep sense of hope. Amidst the pain, suffering and hardships endured by billions of human beings on planet Earth today, we still hear countless voices and witness many inspiring actions that collectively reflect a global yearning for peace, such as:

  • the patient but courageous efforts of ordinary people to create zones of peace free from armed conflicts between government and armed opposition groups;
  • the building of grassroots communities among rural and urban poor to promote alternative, reliant, just and sustainable development;
  • women struggling worldwide for their human rights and for development that overcomes traditional and/or modernization-imposed gendered inequities;
  • teachers, parents, citizens and students in North and South contexts advocating and building school environments free from violence and all forms of discrimination;
  • Indigenous peoples struggling through active nonviolence for their rights to self-determination and cultural survival in the face of development aggression;
  • the collaboration of North and South citizens to transform the policies and practices of states, intergovernmental agencies (e.g., the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) and private-sector institutions (e.g., transnational corporations) so that free trade and global investment regimes do not violate human rights and sustainability principles;
  • the efforts of combatant groups to resolve conflicts and civil wars through peace accords;
  • the campaigns to end the arms trade that fuels countless armed conflicts; and
  • the increasingly common gatherings of civil society groups and movements proposing alternative visions of people-centered development, sustainability, global democracy, human rights, intercultural respect and a simplified life.

These examples clearly show that the human spirit remains undiminished in the face of multiple challenges and all forms of violence and peacelessness.

Six Pathways for Peace Education

Given the multiple and complex realities of conflicts and peacelessness facing humanity and our planet, a holistic, multidimensional framework for peace education is necessary. In essence, the goals of peace education in such a holistic framework can be framed as two interrelated questions:

  • How can education contribute to a critical understanding of the root causes of conflicts, violence and peacelessness at the personal, interpersonal, community, national, regional and global levels?
  • How can education simultaneously cultivate values and attitudes that will encourage individual and social action for building more peaceful selves, families, communities, societies and ultimately a more peaceful world?

Consequently, many pathways can be conceived for educating toward a culture of peace. My partners and I in peace education in the Philippines have envisioned these through the metaphor of a flower. The flower comprises six petals reflecting the pathways or themes.

“Given the multiple and complex realities of conflicts and peacelessness facing humanity and our planet, a holistic, multidimensional framework for peace education is necessary.”

First is the dismantling of a culture of war whether expressed in armed conflicts or domestic and community violence, media violence, violence in sports and even war toys. The culture of war needs to be dismantled and transformed through active nonviolence and conflict resolution/transformation.

A second theme is living with justice and compassion. This calls for a transcendence ofstructural violence rooted in unjust national and global structures and relationships and of the dominant paradigm of corporate-led development and globalization from above. It calls for social and economic justice locally, nationally and globally.

A third theme is promoting human rights and responsibilities to overcome violations that deprive people of their dignity and freedoms. This includes human rights education in formal and nonformal contexts.

Fourth is the need for intercultural respect, reconciliation and solidarity to overcome discrimination, racism, xenophobia, injustice and conflict between diverse cultures and faiths, and to build understanding and harmony through intercultural or multicultural education and interfaith dialogue.

Fifth is living in harmony with the Earth. It is vital to halt ecological destruction and address the climate change crisis that has been deepened by unsustainable development paradigms. This includes personal and social transformation to reject over-materialistic consumerism.

A sixth theme focuses on cultivating inner peace, which is necessary for the recovery of peaceful values and other dimensions of spirituality in a world marked by alienation, addictions and excessive competition for possessions, commodities and power.

“Peace education must move not just our minds but also our hearts and spirits into personal and social action for peace building.”

The journey along these six possible and interrelated pathways will not be easy, quick or smooth. It will demand commitment, courage and, above all, patience. It also calls for a process of education that empowers, which then, hopefully, leads to transformation. Hence, peace education and acting to build a culture of peace is not only about cognitive understanding of the root causes of conflicts and violence in all its forms. Equally vital is how we educate for peace.

Pedagogical Principles for Peace Education

In this regard, in educating for a culture of peace and global citizenship education, I have found helpful four pedagogical principles, namely holism, values formation, dialogue and critical empowerment.

“Peace education and acting to build a culture of peace is not only about cognitive understanding of the root causes of conflicts and violence in all its forms. Equally vital is how we educate for peace.”

Holism or a holistic framework always tries to clarify possible interrelationships between and among different problems of peacelessness, conflict and violence in terms of root causes and resolutions.

Second, educating for a culture of peace emphasizes the crucial role of values. Recognizing that knowledge is never free of values, the peace educator constantly encourages learners to surface the innermost values that shape their understanding of realities and their actions in the world (e.g., compassion, justice, equity, gender fairness, caring for life, sharing, reconciliation, integrity, hope and active nonviolence).

A third important pedagogical principle of peace education rests on the value and strategy ofdialogue. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire emphasized, education should not be “banking” whereby teachers assume the role of authoritarian “experts” and learners become passive recipients of knowledge. A dialogical strategy, rather, cultivates a more horizontal teacher-learner relationship in which both educate and learn from each other. Creative and participatory pedagogical activities are integrated in the classroom. The realities and voices of learners yield essential inputs into the learning process, and collaborative analysis between and among teachers and learners creates opportunities for critical reflection leading to a self-reliant political position in relation to transformation.

A fourth vital principle for practicing peace education is critical empowerment or what Freire has called “conscientization.” While dialogical, participatory and non-banking pedagogies and methodologies are crucial, they are not sufficient. Peace education must move not just our minds but also our hearts and spirits into personal and social action for peacebuilding. In short, educating for peace is educating for critical empowerment through which we develop a critical consciousness that actively seeks to transform the realities of a culture of war and violence into a culture of peace and nonviolence.

“The realities and voices of learners yield essential inputs into the learning process, and collaborative analysis between and among teachers and learners creates opportunities for critical reflection.”

The journey of educating toward a culture of peace is necessarily slow and complex, demanding patience, dedication and a sense of hopefulness. However, the good news is that, in various countries and regions, there is a growing array of possibilities and indeed increasing implementation of peace education through multiple but interrelated pathways. In this regard, it is possible to be hopeful about the attainment of target 4.7 of the SDGs. In diverse regions and countries, critical educators are contributing through transformative education to the formation of global citizens who are moved to actively participate in the building of a peaceful and sustainable humanity and world.


Toh Swee-Hin (S. H. Toh) is distinguished professor and head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace near San José, Costa Rica. He was founding director of the Multi-Faith Centre at Griffith University, Australia. Born in Malaysia, he has taught at universities in Canada, Australia and the Philippines in the interrelated fields of education for a culture of peace, human rights, justice, multiculturalism, sustainability and interfaith dialogue. In 2000, he was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education.

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