Educating Liberian Children in the Culture of Peace
By George Werner
January 23, 2003
Much of my recent working with young people in postwar Liberia leads me to believe that there is precious little in their worldview to find worthy of pure, unadulterated honor and respect. From parents to leaders, so many of the actions and attitudes modeled to young Liberians today so often fail to inspire and encourage them to see themselves and the world as vessels of integrity, peace and honor. How then does one teach them to desire goodness, do good, seek peace and integrity? How does one teach them about the rewards of non-violence? How does one help young Liberians find themselves and others and our world worthy of respect and honor? What happens when they grow up? There are no easy answers to these questions, but they must be asked.
Wars often leave a legacy of violence, destruction, lawlessness, complacency, and emotional instability. This paper profiles Liberian children who are both victims and survivors of warfare. It highlights the role schools can play in helping to reintegrate these children back into society through peace education. Violence begets violence unless there is positive and timely intervention. Children who are affected by war or violence are, deliberately or not, conditioned by adults to fear and hate"the enemy" and to see violence as the only solution to the problems in their lives. When conflicts last for a considerable period of time, these destructive lessons are strongly enforced, and children learn to revere the tradition of war and violence. Children need to be counseled and educated to liberate themselves from the conditioned, divisive thinking at the root of all that leads to violence and war.
Children Affected by Warfare
In wartime, children are forced to live through terrible experiences of death and destruction. Consequences include extreme nightmares, flashbacks of the traumatic events, fear, insecurity, bitterness, difficulty in concentrating, depression, and a sense of hopelessness about the future. These psychological effects can be damaging to children. For example, children may think that what happens to them during wartime is sanctioned by society. They may also think that by giving in to armed groups they have consented. Giving in is not necessarily a consensual act because it is not a freely given agreement; it is a survival strategy for many a child soldier. Children who participate in warfare as fighters are often coerced and drugged into doing so. Besides, some take up arms to avoid being subjected to torture or death.
This is why children's reactions to violent acts should be looked at individually. Each child's story is different and requires an individualized response. They should not be encouraged to put the experience behind them or pretend that it never happened. There is no timetable to healing and learning. Young children need to be encouraged to be patient with themselves and not blame themselves. The circumstances of the violent act against the child, the child's relationship (if any) with the perpetrator, and the quality of the support system the child receives can all determine how s/he will react. All in all, children should know that they are not alone in whatever they may be thinking or feeling and that the world has a lot more good than bad people.
Here is a chart summing up the most common psychological, physical, and behavioral characteristics observed in Liberian children who have experienced warfare:
Characteristics of War Affected Children
|Armed child could be orphaned; could have been kidnapped from parents, could have been brainwashed, could have been drugged, could have killed, could have robbed others of their belongings. They can be dangerous and brutal when they want to be, and they can be kind depending on their mood.||Anger, revenge, hatred, distrustful of adults/authority, bitter, emotional liability and guilt, shock, disbelief, thoughts of suicide, disorientation, relationship difficulties, loss of esteem.||De-traumatizing, positive role models; if drugged, needs de-intoxication; needs to rebuild trust and relationship skills...|
|Orphaned or abandoned child could be armed, displaced internally or exiled. Must have witnessed death of parent(s) & siblings...||Loneliness, anger, frustration, weariness, fearful of intimacy, lack of self-disclosure, depression, shame, guilt, disbelief, grief, powerlessness...||De-traumatizing, A family, positive role models, relationship skills, assured sense of safety and return to a form of normality|
|Displaced child is uprooted from familiar environment. Must have walked a long way to safety. Must have experienced hunger, thirst and other deprivations. Must have also seen corpses littering the roadside or elsewhere...||Confusion, fear, loneliness, flashbacks, nightmares, difficulty in concentration, Shame, anger, frustration, hatred...||De-traumatizing, patient mentoring/tutoring, relationship skills, needs to rebuild trust...|
|Exiled child is uprooted not only from familiar environment but is outside of his or her country. If orphaned or unaccompanied by parent(s), the child faces dangers in exile. Girls are especially at risk of being enticed into prostitution, although studies now show that boys are also affected by child prostitution.||Anger, anxiety, grief, sadness, hatred, distrustful, emotional liability and guilt, confusion, loneliness, flashbacks, nightmares, fearful of intimacy, shame, frustration, loss of esteem...||De-traumatizing, relationship skills, openness to other cultures, needs to feel safe and returned to routine.|
|A war child raped could fit into any of the above-mentioned categories. Rape itself is an act of violence. Victims of rape tend to be in denial and rejection of support. Victim has little if any interest in gaining insight through treatment and can refuse to talk about the issue. Rape is forced sexual intercourse.||Fear, flashbacks, nightmares, shame, self-blame, afraid of trusting, anger, intimacy, post-traumatic stress disorder (recurrent memories, insomnia, lack of interest in family, friends or hobbies); emotional liability and guilt. May experience difficulty in concentration. May fear pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STDs), and AIDS.||Relationship skills, openness to memories, effort to relieve pain, assimilate experiences of rape, learn how to live with experience, regains control over life, though depression and anger may recur …|
Educating Children in the Culture of Peace
In view of the foregoing, there is a great need to educate Liberian children in the culture of peace. Freeing a child from the grips of warlords is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is not enough if we take into account the integral formation of the whole person. To possess a gun or any weapon of death is to have power, money and other forms of wealth. War weapons can be used to terrorize the unarmed. Weapons give one a feeling of superiority over the other and a false sense of security and protection. Once disarmed, the child feels powerless, inferior, worthless, depressed, confused, and threatened. To eat, for example, s/he must either ask or work for the food rather than forcing it from others.
After experiencing fighting and witnessing death and destruction, the child has acquired a unique culture that needs the attention of the concerned educator and counselor. A child’s entire way of life forms his or her culture. Some examples include the child’s ways of feeling, thinking and acting, his or her attitudes of life, and values.
All this requires a more integrated approach to learning. Peace education aims at reeducating the whole person, guiding him or her in a path of self-releasing and self-rebuilding; it reemphasizes a value-centered education which enables learners to become aware and critical of the consequences of political, religious and economic decisions which have enormous impact on their lives and future. War is a consequence of economic despair, social injustice, political oppression, the manipulation of people’s religious sentiments, the distortion of reality and information by those who use power at the expense of the most vulnerable in society, massive unemployment, and the lack of adequate social adjustment and education.
Liberian schools are in danger of modeling their raison d'être on western standards without thorough examination. Our schools should not only be a place for the acquisition of methods, techniques and abilities. They should also be a place that promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of learners; a milieu where the experiences and stories of the nation form the basis of national curriculum. The importance of schools and the possibilities they offer in helping war affected children journey toward healing and learning cannot be taken for granted. Schools can be used to educate children in the culture of peace. Schools bring together and foster mutual understanding and friendship among children of different creeds and backgrounds. By placing side by side in the classroom the children of those who were previously enemies, schools demonstrate peacemaking and peacekeeping in practice.
Reforming Liberian Teachers and Schools
In recent times, concerns have been growing about schools in Liberia, embracing both standards of behavior as well as academic standards. Against the backdrop of a war-ravaged society with moral relativism, the development of the whole person beyond the academic has taken center stage in discussions about the quality of education in Liberia. These concerns touch upon, but not limited to, the quality of the education provided by Liberian schools, the educational standards achieved by those schools, efficient management of meager resources, the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of learners in those schools. These observations are timely because in this age, a truly educated person should not only be able to read and write, but s/he should also be judged by the way s/he treats other human beings and the environment. Raising the moral and academic standards of schools is further acknowledgement on the part of all concerned that the beleaguered state of education in Liberia today is unacceptable and that a commercially motivated proliferation of schools should not be seen as something good for the Liberian society.
The school has acquired a distinguished place in modern society. It is required to be a school of all and for all. It is now organized on a"full time" basis, and involves an ever-greater number of students and an increasing wide range of people: parents, teachers, administrative staff, and civil society. Schools in postwar Liberia are expected to carry out an ever-increasing number of tasks that were previously attended to by others. They are counted upon to educate the whole person within a context of an increasingly diverse yet intolerant society. The idea that schools were for "the disciplined pursuit of insight", from the meaning of the Greek "scholatzo," has long since been hijacked by a postwar culture of mediocrity. Disciplinary problems, class sizes, lack of adequate compensation for both teaching and non-teaching staff, lack of resources, punctuality, accountability, capability, finances, and lingering threats of war all dominate discussions in Liberian schools. If not attended to appropriately, all these issues can generate anger, frustration, and riots in both teachers and students. Such preeminence makes the school a privileged forum of education for peace.
It makes for peace then to affirm those schools in Liberia that strive to promote in their students an awareness of the rights and responsibilities incumbent on them as citizens of Liberia and members of the human family. Peace education helps them to take their place in society, since it teaches young people how to live together in a spirit of solidarity. It challenges them to be builders of peace in Liberia, capable of living together, capable of acquiring a value-centered vision of peace, capable of appreciating works of peace and, not least, capable of paying attention to the language used to either make or shatter peace.
All this requires educational reform that goes beyond renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curriculums, and revising texts. Any meaningful reform of education in Liberia must include input from students, parents, civil society, teachers, and administrative boards. Schools must be required to report on the spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development of students. Nobody should be considered neutral, not even the resources used in schools, because all have unique perspectives with consequent values, contemplated or not, which have a way of determining the ethos of a school and impacting the attitudes, behavior and personal development of both students and teachers.
Additionally, teachers must be better educated, better screened, better compensated, freed from bureaucratic harassment, given a role in academic governance, and provided with the best possible methods and materials. Teachers, whether or not they are aware of it, have powerful influence on their students. Teachers can make constructive interventions that help to cultivate attitudes, values and personal qualities in their students. How a teacher settles disputes between learners, or the stance taken with a learner who is upset at being chosen last or left out of a game, or the way in which an undisciplined class is brought under control, all mirror the value system of the teacher that is transmitted, openly or otherwise, to the learners. The beliefs teachers hold, consequently, inform the values being advocated or demonstrated in the school.
In today's Liberia, a society that seems to become ever more fractured, divisive, oppressive, and suspicious of each new insurgency, and political scandal, Liberian children suffer the loss of innocence all too soon. Herein lies, I believe, the greatest harm to our future. Visions of presidential marital scandals, suffering and displaced refugees, and senseless, blind violence have colored our nation's landscape this year alone. Our young people's vision of Liberia, their unique potential, and their self-worth is mercilessly being challenged by so much that's around them. How will they learn to be good in such a society? Where will they learn humility, justice, and to be people of integrity and credibility? When will their hearts and imaginations, as Plato put it, "fall in love with virtue"?
Although the whole of the challenge here is greater than the sum of its parts, I do firmly believe that part of our hope lies in the teaching process. What happens in the classroom may or may not inspire a child to want to grow up to be honest and good. It would be overly idealistic to think that every Liberian teacher will be able to spark in every student a passionate and ardent desire for truth and justice. It would be, sadly perhaps, unrealistic to expect each and every high school senior graduating from a Liberian school to be embarking on a meaningful lifelong journey, fully equipped with a more than ample supply of skills, integrity, and motivation. Yet I cannot help but believe that the process of teaching can be a sacred process, pregnant with possibility and fertile with hidden fruits, a process capable of planting the seeds of awe and wonder, value and worth.
I have no question that students who learn, not teachers who perform, is what good teaching is all about: students who learn to see themselves and the marvels and challenges of the world around them are the finest fruits of good teaching. As a result of my experiences as both student and teacher in Liberia, I find the courage to offer this paradigm of teaching, a model for creating the human conditions that allow for moral, meaningful, and effective teaching, learning and being.
War is a very costly enterprise, and the losers are ordinary people, especially children. As these children struggle to heal and recover from death and destruction, they must be integrated into a schooling system which restores the understanding that knowing and learning cannot take place in a vacuum, that academic knowledge and progress cannot be isolated from beliefs and values held by leaders, teachers, students or society. To allow and enable learners to reflect and consider the implications of what they are learning is what education is about. Educating this generation of Liberians in the culture of peace could help to broaden their understanding of what it means to be a truly educated person, namely, one who always considers life's fundamental questions, explores meaning and purpose in life, reflects on his or her own and other people's lives and beliefs, the environment, the human condition and discovers values that inform his or her actions.
Given Liberia's recent history of warfare and its impact on children, Liberian schools can be used in a more creative way to educate learners in the culture of peace. Such a process could provide learners with the knowledge and insights into values and beliefs and enable them to reflect on their experiences in a way which develops their spiritual awareness and self-knowledge. Peace education could teach learners principles which distinguish between right and wrong, and encourage them to relate positively to others, take responsibility, participate fully in the community, and develop a fine-tuned understanding and appreciation of citizenship and Liberia's diverse cultural traditions.
With this in mind, peace education could be constructed on the basis of central human values such as life, freedom, truth, and justice. Essential to its dynamics is the process of reeducating a more genuinely human person"fully alive," a person who unconditionally and effectively respects human life, human dignity and the rights of each person, despite his or her social status. It fosters genuine human relationships, responsibility for one's decisions and actions, and seeks to delve into the nature and sources of conflict, of the nature of power and the way in which power influences individuals, groups and nations. It discourages wars of all kinds, injustices, inequalities, discrimination, and oppression which underlie the culture of war and violence and to which they are traceable.
I belong to a generation of Liberians who have never known a peaceful Liberia. The past twenty-two years have seen Liberia go from one uprising to another. Like many Liberians who survived the civil war, my eyes saw what no one should ever see in his or her lifetime: adults killing children, children killing adults, pregnant women's stomachs gashed open, a massacre in the House of God, a whole country ransacked, and an entire population displaced. All this was contrived and executed by educated Liberian men and women with foreign backing. Consequently, I am suspicious of the intentions of many of Liberia's political elite. This is why I am hoping that this and other visions put forward by Tarnue Johnson and others will help us continue dreaming of a new way of educating our children that they may become fully human, not learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated murderers and destroyers.