The Future is Now: A Pedagogical Imperative for Peace Education

By Tony Jenkins, PhD*
Editors’ Introduction.  In this Corona Connection, Tony Jenkins observes that COVID-19 reveals an urgent need for peace educators to bring greater pedagogical emphasis to envisioning, designing, planning and building preferred futures.

Remarks delivered at the 4th International E-Dialogue – “Peace Education: Building a Just and Peaceful Future,” hosted by Gandhi Smriti & Darshan Samiti (International Centre of Gandhian Studies and Peace Research, New Delhi) on August 13, 2020.

When Prof. Vidya Jain reached out to explore topics for this e-dialogue we were drawn to the idea of making connections between peace education and the pandemic.  It is obviously vital for us to consider the role and transformative potential of peace education in addressing the many interrelated injustices, and social, political and economic obstacles to peace manifested and exacerbated by COVID-19.   At the same time, it’s imperative that we peer below the surface.  The coronavirus, in most instances, is simply making visible that which already existed.  Peace researchers have been illuminating for decades the structural violence of neoliberalism which leaves the most vulnerable in its wake.  The disproportionate impact the virus has had on vulnerable populations was sadly predictable.  Now, of course, peace education must continue to take up this mantle of critical inquiry.  We must probe into systems of power and the worldviews that led us to where we find ourselves today.  Pedagogically, we know that facilitating critical peace education is essential to illuminating patterns and systems of violence and injustice.  Furthermore, critical peace education is a key component of a holistic learning process necessary for cultivating a critical consciousness – of becoming “woke” – and challenging our worldview assumptions about how things are and ought to be.

In the grand scheme of things, when it comes to implementing critical peace education we are doing relatively well.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see terminology such as structural violence and structural racism adopted by mainstream media sources in their analysis of COVID-19 and the recent uprisings around police violence against black people in the United States.   I think critical peace education’s relative efficacy is enhanced by the fact that formal schooling does reasonably well in developing some of the cognitive abilities upon which it is based – especially the promotion of analytic thinking, and to a slightly less extent, critical thinking.  In other words, critical peace education is enhanced by the fact that it draws from some of the positive pedagogical forms emphasized in traditional schooling.  Critical peace education does not necessarily require introducing students to a radically new forms of thinking and learning.

Of course, there are major caveats to this rosy analysis.  Critical thinking, in these still early decades of the 21st century, a period which my colleague Kevin Kester (2020) describes as a post-truth era, has been deeply co-opted.   “Truth” has become muddled.  Rather than conducting deep inquiry and examining multiple sources and perspectives on an issue, many simply seek out opinion pieces – or are fed articles by social media algorithms – that affirm their preexisting worldview bias.  Further adding to this dilemma are certain political figures who unabashedly lie as an intentional strategy for shaping political agendas.  They know that getting the lie out ahead of the truth means that they control the agenda; that establishing the truth will be more difficult than debunking the lie. With awareness of the post-truth era we are living in, we need to further develop students’ capacities for critical thinking – to challenge worldview assumptions – to go beyond “I believe” statements – to back up our ideas with research – and to engage our peers in open dialogue.  While we wish for our students to have conviction in their beliefs, we must also help instill in them the importance of always remaining open to change by reflecting upon and challenging their worldview beliefs and assumptions.

Another major hurdle to address is that critical peace education probes the very social, economic and political structures and foundations that formalized schooling seeks to sustain and reproduce – foundations which are governed by policies established primarily by economic and social elites.  Many government officials have been keen to return things “back to normal” as swiftly as possible.  Indeed, many people – especially those who were vulnerable to begin with – are suffering under the duress of crucial public health mandates. The economic, social, and mental health tolls of the pandemic are staggering. But will “returning back to normal” make any difference to those who were already suffering under previous “normal” conditions?

A question that arises – and one that I think we have not yet adequately addressed pedagogically – is what should be the “new normal,” or what should the world we wish to return to look like when the pandemic subsides?

This is a prominent theme of “Corona Connections,” a series of articles I’ve been editing for the Global Campaign for Peace Education that asks the question of how we might establish the “new normal.” Back in May, we posted the Manifesto for a New Normality,  a campaign promoted by the Latin American Council for Peace Research (CLAIP), which helped us to bring into focus this important lens for peace education. CLAIP noted that “the virus does not kill (as much) as the perverse normality to which we strive to return.” Or more bluntly, the “virus is a symptom of the sick normality in which we lived.”

The Manifesto for a New Normality offers more than just a critique: it also puts forward an ethical and just vision of a new normality for us to strive toward. Most important, it illuminates some of the thinking that may be necessary for learning our way to freedom and to escape the colonized thought and worldview of acquiescence to structural violence shaped by the preceding normality.

I view the Manifesto for a New Normality as a potential learning framework suitable to nurturing a cosmopolitan vision of peace and global citizenship education. Some of the inquiries it presents help us to consider an ethical framework for the standard of living we should aspire to, who should enjoy it, and how might we achieve it.

One thing the Manifesto makes abundantly clear is that peace education needs to bring greater emphasis to the future – more specifically, to envisioning, designing, planning and building preferred futures.  The vast majority of our learning emphasizes the past.  It is backward-looking, rather than forward-looking.  We critically examine the measurable and empirical, what we can see, what is and has been – but give little attention to what can and should be.

Peace education needs to bring greater emphasis to the future – more specifically, to envisioning, designing, planning and building preferred futures.

In a world in which political realism has a firmly solid grip on the reigns of society, utopian thinking is dismissed as fantasy.  However, utopian visions have always played an important role in fostering social and political change.  Elise Boulding, prominent peace researcher and educator spoke of how the utopian image serves two functions: 1) to satirize and critique society as it is; and 2) to describe a more desirable way of organizing human affairs (Boulding, 2000).

Betty Reardon (2009) brings up the value of utopian imaging in a similar vein:

“Utopia is a pregnant idea, formed in the mind as a possibility toward which we might strive, and in the striving learn how to realize the concept, to make it real. Without conception, new life, in human society as in human beings, cannot be become reality. Utopia is a concept, the germinal idea from which new life in a new social order can germinate into a viable political goal, born into a process of politics and learning that could mature into a transformed social order; perhaps what we have come to call a culture a peace, a new world reality. Absent the germinal concept, there is little chance for a better world to evolve from a possibility to a reality.”

Let me repeat that last line as I think it captures a big part of the challenge ahead for us:

Absent the germinal concept, there is little chance for a better world to evolve from a possibility to a reality.”

So with the little time I have remaining, I really want to dive into the opportunities and challenges for how peace education can pedagogically move us in this future direction.

Let’s start with unpacking a psychological dilemma.   The images we typically hold of the future are rooted in our present experience of the world and in our interpretations of the past.  In other words, our perception of what the future holds is often a linear projection, a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Any pessimism we hold in the present moment, which is rooted in very real historical experiences, leads us to projecting “probable” futures, which are basic continuations of past trajectories.

This thinking is captured and cemented in our imaginations through the predominance of dystopian novels and media aimed at young adults.  Now don’t get me wrong, l love a good dystopian novel or movie, it offers a warning of what is to come if we don’t change course.  However, dystopian media don’t aid us in shifting our thinking about the future from the “probable” (what is likely based on our current path) – to the “preferred,” the just future that we truly desire.  When I lead futures workshops with students – or adults – this thinking trap presents itself as a major obstacle.  When asked to reflect upon an exercise in which students were asked to think about and describe a preferred future world, a common response is that “it’s really hard!” or “I just couldn’t stop thinking about what I think is going to happen” or it simply “feels unrealistic” to articulate a more utopian image of the future.

It’s important for us to understand that human beings construct reality in their minds before they act on it externally, thus how we think about the future also shapes the actions we take in the present.  So, if we hold negative views of the future, we are very unlikely to change our present course.  On the other hand, if we hold positive images of preferred futures, we are more likely to take positive actions in the present.

This is something that Dutch historian and futurist Fred Polak examined (as translated and referenced by Boulding, 2000).  He discovered, that throughout history, societies that held positive images of the future were empowered to take social action, and those societies that lacked positive images fell into social decay.

Part of the challenge is that our education does not adequately capacitate learners in methods and modes of thinking about the future. To think about and to construct preferred futures requires imagination, creativity, and play.  So of course it should come as little surprise that many of our most prophetic utopian thinkers have been trained in creative arts.   Any curricula or school subject that might embrace such forms of thinking – arts, music, humanities – has been on the chopping block of neoliberal education reforms for decades.  Such curricula are not deemed essential to students’ participation in the current economic order. Probably many of us here have been told at some point in our lives: “You can’t get a job with that degree.”

To open ourselves up to thinking about preferred futures requires, at least temporarily, that we step away from rational thought and embrace our intuitive and affective ways of thinking, knowing and being.  There’s a lot of ways that we can do this.

Elise Boulding (1988) emphasized mental play and imaging as tools for releasing the imagination.  In regards to mental play, she cites Huizinga who noted that “play lets us know that we are more than rational beings, because we play and also know that we play – and choose to play, knowing that it is irrational” (p. 103).  Adults play, but in very ritualized ways.  We’ve lost the freedom of play that is inherent in youth.  So the recovery of play in adults is essential for our recovery of the social imagination.

Imaging is yet another tool to unleash the imagination. To quote my colleague Mary Lee Morrison (2012):

“We all image. Deep within us we carry impressions, fragments, pictures, sights, sounds, smells, feelings and beliefs. Sometimes these represent real or imagined events from our past. Sometimes they might represent our hopes and dreams for the future. Sometimes these images come to us in dreams while we sleep. Sometimes in daydreams. Sometimes these images are scary. Sometimes not.”

There are many different methods of imaging, including free floating fantasy (a form of play), escapist daydreaming, conscious reworking of sleeping dreams, and in futures education we use a lot of focused imaging of personal and social futures (Boulding, 1988).   This latter form draws on all the others in a focused and intentional way.  This is the basis of a model of preferred future workshops developed by Warren Zeigler, Fred Polak and Elise Boulding that eventually evolved into a workshop that Elise regularly conducted in the 1980s on “Imaging a World without Nuclear Weapons.”

Many peace educators, particularly those working in higher education, may feel uncomfortable in utilizing some of these creative, playful methodologies in their teaching.  It’s understandable that this is the case.  Most of us have been indoctrinated to believe that’s not how learning happens in higher education.  We also teach in academic institutions that validate a limited scope of ways of knowing and being.  Our peers might look down on us, or, as is often the case for me, we are met with bewildered gazes by our colleagues as they walk past our classroom and see students engaging in theatre of the oppressed activities, laughing, sculpting their bodies into metaphors of oppression, or playing games.  While acceptance by our academic peers may be critical to our job security within academia, we should not let it stand in the way of conducting meaningful and meaning-making learning that equips students with the knowledge, skills and creativity to design a more peaceful future.

While play and imaging are critical to unleashing the imagination, we also need to situate these ways of knowing and being within a more comprehensive pedagogical framework for social change.  A few years ago, Betty Reardon (2013) articulated three modes of reflective inquiry suitable to a pedagogy of political engagement. These 3 modes – critical/analytic, moral/ethical, and contemplative/ruminative – can work together as a scaffolding for a learning praxis that can be applied to formal and non-formal learning for peace and social change.

Critical/analytic reflection is an approach generally synonymous with the critical peace education I described earlier. It supports the development of a critical consciousness that is necessary for disrupting worldview assumptions essential to personal change and political efficacy.  Moral and ethical reflection invites consideration of a range of responses to a social dilemma raised during critical/analytic reflection.  It invites the learner to consider an appropriate ethical/moral response.   Contemplative/ruminative reflection provides a futures orientation, inviting the learner to envision a preferred future rooted in their ethical/moral universe.

I’ve adapted these modes of reflective inquiry as a pedagogical framework in both my formal and non-formal teaching (Jenkins, 2019).  My sequence is similar, but with some added dimensions.  I start with critical/analytic reflection to support learners in inquiring into the world as it is.  I then move to ethical reflection, inviting students to assess if the world as it exists is aligned with the values they hold and their moral and ethical orientations.  This is a great opportunity to bring in existing ethical frameworks.  I highly encourage the use of the Manifesto for a New Normality because of its pertinence to the moment.  For those interested, the Global Campaign already developed and published some inquiries for its use (see: “Reviewing our Pedagogy in Walking the Path to a New Normality”).  You might also consider using other normative frameworks such as the Earth Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace that establishes a set of “values, attitudes, traditions and modes of behaviors and ways of life” that could practically serve as the foundation of a peaceful world order. Assuming students find the present world misaligned with these frameworks and their own values, from there I bring in opportunities for contemplative and ruminative reflection, which I typically facilitate through creative processes that foster envisioning of what is preferred, and what could be.  And finally, to support the empowerment of students to take action on these visions, I also encourage them to design future proposals, engage in peer evaluation, and establish plans for putting forth pedagogical and political strategies for bringing the vision to reality.

My hope and intention in sharing some practical, pedagogical insights from my personal experience, is to stimulate some reflection on the hope and promise of peace education as a tool for building a just and peaceful future. My concern is that peace education, without a futures orientation, remains little more than an activity in critical, rational thought.  As peace educators, we are presented with a number of very real pedagogical challenges in educating for the establishment of cultures of peace. Having a critical understanding of our world means little if we don’t also find ways to pedagogically nurture the internal convictions that are the foundations for forms of nonviolent external political action that are necessary to build and construct a more preferred future.

As the new school year is about to begin, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere, I encourage educators to consider integrating some of these essential inquiries for thinking about, envisioning, planning and establishing the “new normal” of a post COVID-19 world into their curricula.

I’d like to conclude with a quote from my friend and mentor Betty Reardon (1988), who reminds us that “if we are to educate for peace, both teachers and students need to have some notion of the transformed world we are educating for.”  For peace education, it’s imperative that the future is now.

Thank you.

About the Author

Tony Jenkins PhD has 19+ years of experience directing and designing peacebuilding and international educational programs and projects and leadership in the international development of peace studies and peace education.  Tony is currently a Lecturer in the Program on Justice and Peace Studies at Georgetown University.  Since 2001 he has served as the Managing Director of the International Institute on Peace Education (IIPE) and since 2007 as the Coordinator of the Global Campaign for Peace Education (GCPE).  Tony’s applied research is focused on examining the impacts and effectiveness of peace education methods and pedagogies in nurturing personal, social and political change and transformation. He is also interested in formal and non-formal educational design and development with special interest in teacher training, alternative approaches to global security, systems design, disarmament, and gender.

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