Lifelong Learning in the battle against extremisms

Radical islamists and far-right nationalists are extreme poles of the same phenomenon: both feel marginalised, argues diversity educator Robin Sclafani. 


The year 2015 was marked with tragic events around the world, and in Europe we reeled from the terrorist attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Paris again. It is impossible to count the number of speeches made by political and community leaders referring to these events, and the number of times these speeches concluded that the solution will only be found through EDUCATION. Education, education, education. Mostly they were referring to education of our young people, formal and non-formal education, and mostly they were referring to educating those youth at risk of being radicalised.

Although it was reassuring to hear the word EDUCATION become the mantra of hope across Europe, there can be mixed feelings for educating professionals. One the one hand, we say “finally!” there is a political will to move beyond nice words and the occasional conference. On the other hand, our hope is tarnished because this new drive for educational policy change is caused by fear; one more piece of the security puzzle.

It would have been more empowering for European Muslims these last decades to have experienced educational policies that promote diversity, citizenship and anti-discrimination because of a belief in pluralism, rather than being the “target” of initiatives framed as “prevention of radicalisation.”

There is a risk of increased frustration for the generations of people who have already experienced a lifetime of discrimination and cultural isolation and who now become the (negative) focus for so many areas of policy-making – justice, security, migration and education.

Why did it have to “get so bad” before policy makers would seriously commit to prevention?

The signs of disenfranchisement have been blinking alarms for over a decade. Social exclusion is not only affecting Muslims but also many other minorities are marginalized or discriminated in one way or another. For example, Roma segregation in education is a long-standing form of institutional discrimination in several EU Member states, and despite recent attention to the plight of refugees and migrants in the last year, they have essentially been treated as an invisible caste. The 2014 Annual Report of the Fundamental Rights Agency is full of statistics and analysis related to the many challenges we must face to overcome social exclusion.

Europe needs to do some serious soul searching about how to achieve, in practice, democratic pluralism and fundamental rights for all.

Even the white working class are experiencing feelings of marginalisation, which explains partially the attraction of far-right nationalistic parties across Europe in recent years. As explained in this Open Society Institute report on the White Working Class in Six European Cities:

“While there is rhetoric of integration as a ‘two way’ process, too often integration and social cohesion policies have failed to engage with the views and experiences of existing settled communities … For many this failure to address (their) concerns or anxieties … reinforces a sense of being ignored, left behind and demonised. In some cases this has fed into resentment of mainstream political parties and the liberal political values they are seen to represent and increased the appeal of populist parties on mainly the right but also the left.”

Fortunately, a more inclusive approach to education was spoken by European Education Ministers that converged in Paris on 17th of March 2015 with a goal to better prevent and respond to radicalisation. The result is a ground-breaking Declaration on Promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education.

In this Declaration, there seems to be a recognition of the deeper problems within our society, where extremism is a symptom which manifests in different ways: ranging from radicalised Muslim youth to far-right nationalist neo-Nazi types. Hatred today has many faces, and its likeness is drawn through words, images and deeds. We need a multi-pronged, holistic approach to healing our societies and this is recognised in this Declaration of EU Education ministers which calls for greater cooperation between ministries dealing with education, employment, justice and social affairs.

The big question, however, which must emerge from this Declaration is: who educates the youth and how can they be prepared to transfer and role model the competences we set out as educational objectives? Adults, that’s who. Teachers, social workers, parents, employers, media professionals, etc. all need to be empowered

“… so that they are able to take an active stand against all forms of discrimination and racism, to educate children and young people in media literacy, to meet the needs of pupils from diverse backgrounds, to impart common fundamental values and to prevent and combat racism and intolerance.” (from the Declaration)

In the field of adult education, we cannot underestimate the power of implicit bias. All people have biases – tendencies in our way of thinking. Biases emerge from the natural cognitive ability of humans to make categories. They are the result of implicit associations made in the subconscious part of our brains. Unfortunately, many of our biases are the result of negative stereotypes of particular social groups which can be found in the culture-at-large. Biases can guide our behavior without awareness, and lead us to wrong conclusions. The result is a negative impact on the results we strive for: in education, employment, social policies, media, etc.

If we are to make any structural and cultural impact on overcoming the challenges of social exclusion and reducing tendencies towards extremist and radical ideologies, then educational policies must address the adults as target group and not only as a mechanism to reach youth. The problem-centred approach to policy-making focuses on the young people, but we must recognise that it is the system within which they live that has created the problems.

Teachers need to address their own prejudices before they can effectively use the skills and tools which can help to create an inclusive classroom.

School directors need to be prepared to implement more participatory and inclusive governance within the school community.

Education ministries need to properly consider the wealth of civil society resources and existing good practice, and scale those up in such a way that fosters cooperation amongst educational stakeholders.

Vocational training institutions should be places where younger (and older) adults can become optimistic about their futures and feel valued as contributing members of society.

Social workers, street workers, youth workers will be inspired when they are equipped to transform feelings of social exclusion, anger and frustration into forces for active citizenship.

Political leaders must understand that the costs of investing in the lifelong learning education system will be much less than the costs of dealing with a wide range of problems linked with poverty, social exclusion, hate crimes and violent behaviours.

So, rather than a problem-centred approach to changing youth, policy-makers should be taking a youth-centred approach to systemic change. In this way, there is greater responsibility placed on the various stakeholders within the system where youth are embedded, and society as a whole will benefit – including those who can fall prey to the brainwashing of violent ideologies or others who can be easily swayed towards xenophobic populism. There is no magic recipe to confront the social challenges of today, but one thing is for sure, education is a key ingredient.

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