How Studying Peace Building Can Be a Tool for Global Education

The following is a guest post by David J. Smith, an educational consultant who teaches at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He was formerly a senior program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace and is the editor of Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource.

David J. Smith teaching a class on peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

David J. Smith teaching a class on peace building at the U.S. Institute of Peace

There is a lot of discussion today about how to get students interested in international issues and fostering in them a global identity. But colleges and universities at times make global education a priority without giving much thought as to what it exactly means for learning outcomes.  This is particularly the case in community colleges.

Promoting a global identity in those who study at community colleges is critical not only because of the diverse populations represented at these institutions, but because of the roles the graduates play in society. Graduates often take on important roles as local leaders, educators, public servants, and entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, many community colleges promote “window dressing” globalization efforts, such as placing international flags or putting up clocks in classrooms to display times in different parts of the world. They might start student clubs, even well-respected efforts like Model U.N., or host an annual international fair. Many are starting to offer study-abroad programs, but usually only for short-term periods, and they often benefit only a small group of students.

In the end, the campus might “look” global, even “feel” global, but deep down students have not changed their worldviews, have failed to deeply reflect on global challenges and solutions, have not seriously considered international careers, and, as a result, have missed opportunities to become members of a global society.

Some institutions have sought to provide a collegewide exploration of a global issue. However, it is difficult to find such a topic that can be integrated throughout the curriculum and throughout the college community. Often global issues are viewed as mono-dimensional: It’s an environmental problem, or a political issue, or a women’s-rights issue, and as such, the conversation with students may be limited to a few courses and a few faculty members.

But one potentially powerful area of study that community colleges and others could use to promote global learning is peace building. By peace building, I mean efforts to create lasting and stable peaceful relations between individuals and societies. Peace building works to promote an environment where human rights are protected, humanitarian efforts are successful after conflict, health needs are met, broad-based education is provided, and, over all, people are allowed to live their lives free of violence and conflict. As such, peace building has many means, but one overall aim.

For colleges prepared to engage in global education, peace building can be a powerful way of engaging students with peoples and their plights around the world. Done effectively, peace-building strategies result in students knowing about the struggles of refugees in Africa, human-rights violations in many parts of the world including China, the need for promoting sustainable environmental practices (the absence of which can result in conflict), and the expansion of basic health services in war-torn countries.

As an objective, peace building helps alleviate suffering and hardship, foster reconciliation, provide basic occupational and literacy education that is necessary to alleviate poverty (viewed by many as a form of violence), and overall create a world that is secure, healthy, and peaceful. It cuts across disciplines and can offer unique opportunities for bringing together diverse faculty and students in service of major global concerns.

Let me provide an example: Today there are estimated to be some 300,000 young people serving as child soldiers. Most are forced to fight for guerrilla and government groups. Girls and boys are affected differently: Boys are generally used at the front line (often poorly armed) as militia, and girls are frequently forced into sexual servitude. The consequences for both boys and girls are grave. Freed children face a host of physical, mental, social, and education challenges including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), HIV infection, malnutrition, delayed emotional and psychological development, and negligible vocational and basic education abilities.

This issue is pressing, it is current, and it has important ramifications for global society.  The correlation between societies that have child soldiers and those that suffer from continual war, corrupt governments, economic struggle and deprivation, and human-rights abuses is high. Unchecked, the use of child soldiers will impact all of us in ways we have yet to fully appreciate.

So how can a community college view this issue as a learning opportunity? It is interdisciplinary, which makes it an ideal issue to teach through multiple courses and subjects, both liberal arts and vocational. For instance, the effects of PTSD can be the subject of an introduction-to-psychology course. The international law and human-rights aspects of enslaving child soldiers could be dealt with through a criminal-justice or legal-studies course. Ways of helping former child soldiers understand their experience often include art therapy and could be considered in a fine-arts context. Rehabilitation could be considered through education courses, as well as economics and business offerings, particularly the strategy of providing former child soldiers with microfinance grants to help them start businesses.

A natural-science class such as earth science could explore the connection between controlling mineral wealth in parts of the world and the rise in child soldiers. A literature course could assign one of the many autobiographical works written by former child soldiers. A nursing or other allied-heath course could look at the physical trauma associated with being a child soldier. And of course, a history course could look at the historical use of children in war. This campuswide effort could take place over the course of a semester and end with a visit by a former child soldier. Essential to the effort would be setting up specific learning objectives and afterward evaluating what students have learned.

Approaching one issue in this way allows an entire student population to better understand an issue of global significance. This focus on the challenges to building lasting peace in many places will better equip students to understand global challenges, and raise their interest in pursuing global careers. The child-soldier issue is just one example of how a pressing global issue can be distilled in such a way that its various dimensions can be exposed to improve global-education outcomes. An array of issues including climate change, trafficking and forced labor, gender inequities, and ethnic and cultural violence can be explored in this way, these all being peace-building issues.

In community colleges, where interdisciplinary ways of teaching including using learning communities are already a priority, threading a pressing global issue throughout many aspects of college life can have powerful educational outcomes.

[Photo courtesy of the U.S. Institute of Peace]

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