Education is empowering young people to care about global suffering and act with integrity and courage

Gerry ChidiacWhen reflecting on how a people who embraced European art, literature, music, science, and culture could commit such horrendous crimes against humanity during the Nazi era, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel commented that their education “emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.”

My life as an educator has been deeply influenced by the words, though not the actions, of Elie Wiesel. The question I continually seek to answer is, “How can I use my education and privilege to make a world where ‘never again for anyone’ becomes a reality?”

I began my teacher training in 1984 and have seen the school curriculum shift significantly in the last 40 years. Individual children have become more important than the number of pages covered in a textbook. We have gone from filling our students with nationalistic mythology to dissecting the damage caused by colonialism. Educators are less purveyors of information but are evolving into companions on the journey to find truth and build a more just world.

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Of course, there have been setbacks. Many influential decision-makers who shape our children’s and society’s future do not understand Wiesel’s warning. For them, school is only about preparing young people for employment. I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge how frustrating it is to deal with this mindset.

In Canada, significant change has resulted from decision-makers beginning to listen to Indigenous voices. After evaluating the negative impact of the residential school system, Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, stated, “Education is what got us here, and education is what will get us out.”

Being part of the journey of reconciliation as a Canadian teacher has been a tremendous experience. Indigenous ways of learning are significantly more humane than those espoused by the Western education system. Embracing them has not only made me a better educator, but I have also become a better human being.

Young people have been influenced by the positive changes in our educational system, and we can see this on our university campuses. They ask questions and refuse to violate their principles. Their motives are pure and transparent. By their actions, they are stating, “I recognize my privilege and the responsibility that comes with it. I care about people who are suffering on the other side of the world. I see my government and my university as complicit in genocide. My conscience will not allow me to remain complicit. I will sacrifice my safety, my education, my reputation, and my future to do what I know is right.”

It is astounding to see those in authority respond negatively to people acting with integrity and courage. I am puzzled when I see the violent and repressive reactions. It is as if those calling for these crackdowns have not studied history, human psychology, or pedagogy. Such tactics always lead to failure in either the short or the long term. Yet, many of those calling for them have gone to the most expensive schools in the world. What do they learn in those institutions? It is indeed quite baffling.

Fortunately, there are educated people with wisdom. Not only have faculty members stood side by side with their students, but university administrators around the world have agreed to consider divesting from the arms industry and other student demands. They recognize how fostering death and human carnage contradicts the espoused principles of their institutions.

Good people are pushing us in the right direction. We have learned the importance of values over theories and human beings over concepts. We have taught our young people to ask questions and think critically.

I am proud to be an educator, and my students fill me with hope.

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages and genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He received an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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