Preventing Violent Extremism through Education
The Goal of Education
Many students, their parents, and schools see education as a process of training to do well in tests and examinations, in order to acquire appropriate qualifications for lucrative employment and to make a comfortable living. Governments and industries see education as the process of creating manpower to contribute to the nation’s GDP. The goal of education from both perspectives thus appears to be money-oriented.
There is, however, an alternative conception, which views the ultimate goal of education as helping the young to develop their capacity to work for their own well-being —as well as that of the planet and its residents. ‘Well-being’ in this sense refers to health and fitness along with other dimensions such as physical, emotional, intellectual, societal, pragmatic, aesthetic, and ethical.
Accepting this alternative view commits us to designing curricula (syllabi, textbooks, lesson plans, assessment) that nurture the capacity to work towards minimizing the ills that humanity faces along each of the above dimensions including the likes of cancer, diabetes, clinical depression, and Alzheimer’s; hatred, intolerance, injustice, ignorance, gullibility, irrationality, and blind faith; racism, casteism, fundamentalism; poverty, violence, and environmental destruction.
As such, violent extremism (VE) is one of these ills that we would expect education to prevent.
How do we design an educational system that:
- reduces the contagion of violent extremism; and
- empowers youth to act, especially when they are in positions of power, to prevent the spread of extremism.
To address this, we have to begin with another question: What do we mean by violent extremism and what exactly is this illness that we wish to heal? Next, we have to identify the causes of the illness and then explore how education can serve to counter these causal factors.
All forms of violent extremism seek change through fear and intimidation rather than through peaceful means.
What is Violent Extremism?
The term ‘violent extremism’ comes from Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) discourse. To begin with the WHO’s The World Report on Violence and Health (1996) defines violence as:
“The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”
The report recognizes group violence, interpersonal violence, and violence against oneself as all different types of violence. The category of violence that concerns us in the discussion of violent extremism is that of collective violence, which the report characterizes as:
“… the instrumental use of violence by people who identify themselves as members of a group against another group or set of individuals, in order to achieve political, economic or social objectives. It takes a variety of forms: armed conflicts within or between states; genocide, repression and other human rights abuses; terrorism; and organized violent crime.”
If we accept the WHO’s characterization of violence and group violence, then any organization, whether governmental or non-governmental, which uses fear to achieve its political, economic, or social objectives can be regarded as one that practices group violence. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 is an example of group violence, but so is a government’s use of imprisonment and torture to suppress opposition, and the crusades to establish the domination of one religion over another.
As for the concept of extremism, according to Webster’s Dictionary, it is a “belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable.” In discourse on violent extremism, the term ‘extremism’ is often replaced by the term ‘radical’. This use of ‘radical’ implies that the use of group violence by minority groups to promote radical ideas constitutes violent extremism. It is this definition of VE that most governments appear to adopt. For instance, the Australian government’s website Living Safe Together: Building Community Resilience to Violent Extremism uses the term ‘radicalization’ to refer to the process of acquiring an extremist position:
“Radicalisation happens when a person’s thinking and behaviour become significantly different from how most of the members of their society and community view social issues and participate politically. Only small numbers of people radicalise and they can be from a diverse range of ethnic, national, political and religious groups.
As a person radicalises they may begin to seek to change significantly the nature of society and government. However, if someone decides that using fear, terror or violence is justified to achieve ideological, political or social change—this is violent extremism.”
Embedded in this discourse is the idea that the use of violence becomes an instance of VE if it aims to promote a minority view, but that it is not VE if it promotes the view of the majority.
Terrorist recruitment to induct the youth into VE can be achieved through indoctrination. The youth, who are vulnerable to indoctrination by both terrorists and the counter-terrorists, must develop the capacity to protect themselves, and to build resilience against all forms of indoctrination…
Once this ideological bias is removed it becomes clear that the above view of VE is not only arbitrary but also objectionable. For instance, although the Australian government’s conception of radicalization cited above is that of the minority in conflict with majority positions, the website also moves away from this arbitrary position when it says:
“Violent extremism is the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. This includes terrorism and other forms of politically motivated and communal violence.
All forms of violent extremism seek change through fear and intimidation rather than through peaceful means.
If a person or group decides that fear, terror and violence are justified to achieve ideological, political or social change, and then acts accordingly, this is violent extremism.”
Hereafter, I will adopt the non-arbitrary meaning of VE in which the notion of the majority versus a minority is considered irrelevant. Whether used by governments or rebels, violence that aims to achieve ideological, political, social, economic, or religious goals is considered violent extremism. The Catholic Church that burnt Giordano Bruno alive to protect the geocentric dogma was using VE, and so was the aristocracy in Athens that killed Socrates for promoting rationality.
What Gives Rise to Violent Extremism?
Some well-known factors that lead to the rise of VE can be summed up as follows:
- Greed when unaccompanied by empathy and compassion makes way for calculated violence. Violent extremism on the part of those in power, whether conquerors, governments, corporations, or mafia, typically fall into this category, as do most of the atrocities committed during conquests, wars, or riots.
- Violence breeds violence. When a group of humans is subjected to emotional violence (discrimination, exploitation) or physical violence (rape, murder), they naturally turn to violence against their ‘enemies’. The antagonism between Hindus and Muslims has a long history of violence against each other, which has cyclically fed further violence.
- Non-violent individuals engage in violence when trapped in flawed ethical systems of belief that glorify violence. Suicide bombers from religious fundamentalist organizations generally believe that they are obeying God’s orders, or that they will go to heaven because of their virtuous deeds. Soldiers fired up by patriotism are no different. Many forms of violence against slaves perpetrated by otherwise ethical people also fall within this category.
How can the young protect themselves? Perhaps the only way for this is to develop a skeptical mindset of doubting and questioning what is taken for granted…such doubting and questioning ourselves, our peers, and ‘authorities’ (parents, elders, teachers, political and religious leaders, experts, …) needs to be supplemented by a capacity for critical thinking and inquiry into the issues they face.
Education to Prevent Violent Extremism
Of the three above factors, the first two call for systemic change in various institutions. Education can contribute to this endeavour by nurturing ethical qualities among the young, and helping them simultaneously to gain the knowledge and critical thinking necessary for pursuing effective and efficient action in their personal, professional, and public spheres of life. Most discourses on PVE do not pay attention to the challenge of preparing the young for this responsibility.
How can education prevent what the PVE discourse labels as the threat of radicalization? Terrorist recruitment to induct the youth into VE can be achieved through indoctrination. Contrary to popular belief, indoctrination is practiced not only by religious fundamentalists, racists, castists, communalists, and sexists, but also by those who are allegedly trying to counter VE. The youth, who are vulnerable to indoctrination by both terrorists and counter-terrorists, must develop the capacity to protect themselves, and to build resilience against all forms of indoctrination regardless of who practices it.
How can the young protect themselves? Perhaps the only way for this is to develop a skeptical mindset of doubting and questioning what is taken for granted — the substance of the enlightenment programme. Such doubting and questioning ourselves, our peers, and ‘authorities’ (parents, elders, teachers, political and religious leaders, experts, …) needs to be supplemented by a capacity for critical thinking and inquiry into the issues they face. This mindset can be achieved through a form of education that develops a capacity for critical thinking and inquiry in mathematics, physical sciences, biological sciences, human sciences, and the humanities, in such a way that these various modes of inquiry can be extended to unpack real life situations, and be used to make life choices as and when needed.
For instance, consider the distinction between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’. Every child has an experiential understanding of these concepts. The floor we stand on is solid because we don’t sink into it; but the water in a pond is liquid because if we try to stand or walk on it we sink. This experiental knowledge of solid and liquid is thus based on our tactile experience of our body. Yet, most textbooks distinguish between solid and liquid in terms of visual experience:
A solid has its own volume and shape.
A liquid has its own volume, but takes the shape of its container.
This serves as a telling example for confronting a textbook definition in the classroom, to initiate students to doubt and question the authority of the textbook.
A handful of sand takes a conical shape when its container is conical, and a cylindrical shape when its container is cylindrical. A long piece of string also takes the shape of the container. Hence, given the textbook definition, sand and string must be judged as liquid. In contrast, a soap bubble must be judged as solid, given its spherical shape. These judgments are unacceptable and hence the definitions from which the judgments are deduced are also unacceptable. Once students realize this flaw, they can be asked to come up with a definition that yields the judgments that we are committed to.
This activity can initiate students both to the need to doubt and question the assertions of authorities, and to the art and craft of constructing and evaluating definitions. These are important components of rational inquiry.
Take another example. Aristotle held that air and water are elements, while gold is not. Modern science holds that air is a mixture, water is a compound, and gold is an element. Why should we reject Aristotle’s view in favour of modern science? To address this question, students have to be taken through the relevant evidence and arguments to defend the textbook claims. Likewise, students are told, contrary to what their experience tells them, that the Earth revolves around the sun, and rotates on an axis tilted to the plane of revolution. Why should the students accept this assertion, which goes against their experience of a stationary earth?
Most textbooks do not address these questions. As a result, even university-educated individuals with degrees in science may not have an answer. In the absence of an understanding of their rational justification, most conclusions that have become part of science are accepted as true on the basis of blind faith in the ‘authority’ of science. In education, this is a form of indoctrination, no different from the indoctrination of religious fundamentalism. Telling students that all the existing and extinct species on earth evolved from unicellular life forms, and requiring them to accept this without critical evaluation of the relevant evidence and arguments, is no different from requiring students to believe that the world was created in its present form by an eternal, infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfectly moral deity.
… acceptance of assertions on the basis of blind faith then becomes a pathological habit of the mind that lends itself to religious and ideological indoctrination… If not we are promoting an intellectual culture of blind faith in authority, making children easy prey to the radicalization of those who practice VE.
Such acceptance of assertions on the basis of blind faith then becomes a pathological habit of the mind that lends itself to religious and ideological indoctrination. It is imperative, therefore, that we take students through the relevant evidence and arguments for such conclusions presented in science and other textbooks. If not we are promoting an intellectual culture of blind faith in authority, making children easy prey to the radicalization of those who practice VE.
My final example comes from political philosophy. Consider the following questions in a classroom:
- Does country X have democracy? (Replace X with the country of the students.)
- If a country is ruled by a king or queen, and the people do not elect their representatives through voting, can it still have democracy?
Students are likely to respond with a “Yes,” to the first question, and a “No,” to the second. We now ask them what democracy is, such that their answers follow from the definitions. Chances are that they would say something along the lines of the textbook version:
Definition of democracy:
Democracy is a system in which people elect their rulers through a system of voting.
Students are now asked to consider a group of eight friends who do their homework together, go to the movies, have lunch in the canteen, play, and so on, always together. But they also have their individual preferences. Two of them are vegetarians, one of them hates garlic, three of them dislike martial arts movies and so on. They are asked to come up with a democratic dinner-and-movie plan for the group.
Their attention is now invited to the logical contradiction between the consequences of their earlier definition in terms of voting and election, and their judgment that the system they have invented is democratic. Their task would be to come up with an alternative definition.
To facilitate the search for an alternative, they are given the following scenarios:
Scenario 1 : In most traditional families, parents, typically fathers, make unilateral decisions. Now imagine a family in which all decisions affecting the children’s lives are made jointly by the father, mother, and the children, through rational discussion, negotiation, and consensus. The children, along with their mother and father, have a say in which school to go to; what subjects to study; what, if any, extra-curricular activities to join; what TV programmes they can watch, and for how long; whether their mother and father should accept a particular job offer; and what path of specialization to choose for their higher education. Is the system in this family democratic?
Scenario 2 : In Winter Hills School, all decisions affecting students and their learning are made jointly by the principal, administrative staff, teachers, and students. If students are interested in learning something that is not currently part of the school curriculum, they talk to the teachers and the principal, and if feasible, a course is set up to help them learn it. The syllabi, textbooks, homework, assignments, and deadlines for existing courses are negotiated between teachers and students. If there is a discipline problem, a committee consisting of teachers and students figures out a solution, and if a penalty is needed, they also figure it out jointly. Students have a say even in decisions on the hiring of teachers. Is the system in Winter Hills School democratic?
If education is designed in such a way that students develop the mindset of doubting and questioning, critical understanding, critical thinking, and inquiry, they can then better recognize and protect themselves from all forms of indoctrination and will also build up the capacity to protect themselves from the indoctrination of communalism and organized religion.
Students judge the above systems as democractic. In this case then, the system of voting to elect representatives is not a necessary condition for democracy. They are now given the following scenarios:
Scenario 3 : Imagine a country A in which there is an extended family of the richest person in the country, called the Bandin family (with more than fifty members.) Every five years, twenty members from the Bandin family are nominated for election. The people vote to elect ten of them as their ministers. The ministers elect one of them as the Prime Minister. Does country A have democracy?
Scenario 4 : Imagine another country B in which there are four such extended families. Every five years, each of these families nominate ten candidates for election. The people vote to elect ten of a nominated forty as ministers. The ministers elect one of them as the Prime Minister. Does country B have democracy?
If students judge the above systems as undemocractic, then the system of voting to elect representatives is not a sufficient condition either. What is democracy, then?
This would be a good point to divide the class into groups, and ask them to spend, say, a week outside class time to come up with a definition of democracy. In the course of their deliberations, it would also be useful to ask them to consult internet sources to gain a rudimentary understanding of the concepts of monarchy, oligarchy, bureaucracy, sociocracy, plutocracy, majoritarianism, and so on.
Given sufficient time to think and discuss among themselves, students are likely to come up with a variant of the following definition:
Democracy is a system in which individuals and groups who are likely to be affected by a decision have an equal opportunity to influence it.
Under this definition, election through voting is only a means to optimize democracy. By itself, it is not sufficient for implementing the ideal of democracy. Nor is it necessary: a political system of monarchy in which kingship is inherited, or each king appoints the next king, can nevertheless be democratic if the king’s actions are shaped by the voice and the will of the people.
As in the case of the examples from science, the exercise of democracy develops the capacity for critical thinking and inquiry.
If education is designed in such a way that students develop the mindset of doubting and questioning, critical understanding, critical thinking, and inquiry, they can then better recognize and protect themselves from all forms of indoctrination, and will also build up the capacity to protect themselves from the indoctrination of communalism and organized religion. The habit of doubting and questioning will extend to governments, corporations, and religious authorities as well. There seems no better way to liberate the young from ‘radicalization’.
K.P. Mohanan received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and taught at the University of Texas in Austin, MIT, Stanford University and the National University of Singapore. At NUS, he initiated the General Education Program for undergraduate students and, as part of this program, created a web course on Academic Knowledge and Inquiry. In January 2011, he moved to IISER-Pune, where he has created a three-course package on rational inquiry, covering scientific, mathematical, and conceptual inquiries. He is currently engaged in developing courses and programmes on different types of inquiry-based learning for high school and college students.