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Schools and Identity-Based Conflict

Bourdieau and Easton argue that education has a key nation-building function: it transmits core myth-symbol complexes (or cultures), furthers children’s internalisation of communal identities and contributes to the development of support (or hostility) towards the sociopolitical system. The contents and practices of formal education can also contribute to instability within a state, and even to the outbreak and continuation of violent conflict among its population, because they reflect and reproduce socio-economic hierarchies and political allegiances. In deeply divided societies, hierarchies, allegiances and identities often coincide with communal cleavages: this amplifies the economic, political and symbolic impact of education reforms on certain groups.

Education policy can reproduce socio-economic inequality by restricting access to schooling and providing unequal educational opportunities to members of different communities.129 This can cause violent rebellions against the state, such as the 2001 ethnic conflict in Macedonia. Thus, education reforms after conflicts tend to focus on expanding access to compulsory schooling and assess progress through quantitative rather than qualitative indicators.130 These policies overlook the fact that higher average levels of education are not correlated to improved social harmony: social cohesion depends on how equally education levels are distributed.131 Moreover, the quality of education is as important as access to school: perceptions of differential quality and of unequal long-term returns to schooling between members of different communities can motivate violent uprisings.132

Politically, Brown sees education as a tool for inclusion or exclusion. Through its contents, practices and structures, education may promote and convey inclusive overarching narratives of identity, but it may also reproduce exclusivist militant discourses.133 Above all, as Easton proposes, schooling may promote either support for or opposition to the political system and the state itself. Hanf highlights that schools will succeed in assimilating a diverse population only if ‘the assimilating group [is] willing to accept members of other groups and the latter [is] willing to sacrifice at least certain aspects of their identity’.134 Thus, strong and hostile ‘gatekeepers’ may undermine state efforts to convey diffused support for the political order, erode attempts at conveying a culture or myth-symbol complex, and question the legitimacy of authorities. This would contribute to the perpetuation of inter-group conflict. Indeed, Chap. 3 shows that in Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Macedonia, education policy emerged as an arena for conflict between the state and ethnic communities, and among different communities, becoming enmeshed in the wider ‘ideological battleground’ over state identity and legitimacy.135

Symbolically, the contents and structures of education express whether a state recognises the myth-symbol complexes of all of its communities. Attempts to shape a culturally homogeneous society through schools imply the exclusion of the myth-symbol complexes of certain communities from the curricula and daily practices of schools: this may further intergroup conflicts. Conversely, state failure to impose a sanctioned culture on children through common institutions, may lead to the emergence of separate schools, which become further markers of group membership.136

Psychologically, Bar-Tal demonstrates that schools are instrumental in reproducing the ‘collective orientation of fear ... hatred and anger as well as guilt or pride’ functional to coping with intractable conflicts.137 He argues that during a conflict, compulsory education is ‘directed to strengthen the rationale for the continuation of conflict, to develop dele- gitimisation of the rival, and to reinforce patriotism in order to secure and maintain mobilisation for the conflict, participation in it, and even the readiness to die for the collective’.138 In turn, the culture, attitudes and practices that help individuals and communities cope with protracted violent conflicts also hinder peace processes.

In sum, schools can provide a motivating factor for rebellion but their structures and contents can also indirectly motivate the escalation (or perpetuation) of identity-based conflicts. Dupuy points out that education is generally addressed in peace agreements when it is perceived to have contributed to violent conflict.139 This suggests that the negotiators of the Taif, Belfast and Ohrid Agreements viewed schools as contributors to the three violent conflicts in Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Macedonia. By comparing education policy in these deeply divided societies, this study aims to highlight the contributions of schools to violent identity-based conflicts before offering insights on how education reform can foster reconciliation.

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