En­gag­ing Colom­bia’s stu­dents may be key to peace

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end of vi­o­lence does not al­ways con­sti­tute peace. In June, Colom­bian of­fi­cials an­nounced that mem­bers of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia had of­fi­cially dis­armed and be­come civil­ians af­ter turn­ing over the last of their weapons. This comes af­ter the mil­i­tant group signed a peace ac­cord with the govern­ment in 2016.

Steps are be­ing taken to pro­mote truth, jus­tice and repa­ra­tions, and to re­mem­ber vic­tims of a con­flict that saw the deaths of 220,000 Colom­bians. But is this enough? While in­ci­dents of vi­o­lence have dropped dra­mat­i­cally across Colom­bia, a re­cent bomb­ing at a pop­u­lar shop­ping cen­ter in Bo­gota in­di­cates the chal­lenge of achiev­ing and sus­tain­ing peace re­mains. Colom­bia’s peace is frag­ile, and the coun­try is at risk for fu­ture vi­o­lence due to its more than 50-year his­tory of vi­o­lent con­flict, the in­sta­bil­ity in neigh­bor­ing Venezuela and un­re­solved in­ter­nal ten­sions be­tween rein­te­gra­tion of FARC com­bat­ants and jus­tice for vic­tims.

My re­search on geno­cide and mass atroc­ity pre­ven­tion and teach­ing meth­ods shows that ed­u­ca­tion at all lev­els can play a vi­tal role in pro­mot­ing peace.

Colom­bian uni­ver­si­ties, in par­tic­u­lar, have an op­por­tu­nity to pre­pare the next gen­er­a­tion of po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness lead­ers to be agents of peace and so­cial change. To do this, both pub­lic and pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties may need to re­think both what and how they teach. Hav­ing stu­dents work in di­verse groups to re­search and write about real events in com­mu­ni­ties close to them can be a pow­er­ful tool for learn­ing and de­vel­op­ing peace-build­ing skills. It could also serve as a model for other post-con­flict zones, such as Rwanda or Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina.

Un­like other post-con­flict coun­tries where uni­ver­si­ties have been de­stroyed, Colom­bia’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem re­mains strong. As such, it can help with the tran­si­tion to peace if ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers are will­ing to be cre­ative. Pub­lic and pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties through­out Colom­bia are adding cour­ses and de­gree pro­grams to in­clude in­for­ma­tion about the pro­vi­sions of the peace ac­cord and how to re­spond to past atroc­i­ties. This is part of a process known as “tran­si­tional jus­tice.”

Adding new con­tent to col­lege cur­ric­ula is a good first step. But build­ing a peace­ful so­ci­ety re­quires ed­u­ca­tors to place greater em­pha­sis on pro­mot­ing di­a­logue, lis­ten­ing and team­work among stu­dents from dif­fer­ent back­grounds. It means get­ting stu­dents to en­gage col­lab­o­ra­tively with the com­mu­nity to de­fine and re­solve prob­lems to­gether.

These skills are of­ten pro­moted by civil so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to peace-build­ing, but they have largely been miss­ing from uni­ver­sity teach­ing, which con­tin­ues to rely on tra­di­tional lec­ture meth­ods.

One way to pro­mote these skills in the class­room is to present stu­dents with an is­sue, or a “case,” to dis­cuss in depth. To be ef­fec­tive and mean­ing­ful, these cases need to be rel­e­vant to the chal­lenges fac­ing stu­dents and, in my opin­ion, in­still hope for a bet­ter fu­ture.

How­ever, al­most all cases in pub­lic pol­icy have been writ­ten by au­thors at U.S. uni­ver­si­ties and set in U.S. or­ga­ni­za­tions. A case about re­cruit­ing vol­un­teers for a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion in Ohio lacks rel­e­vance in Colom­bia. A grow­ing num­ber of cases are in­ter­na­tional or com­par­a­tive, but few are set in Colom­bia or com­pa­ra­ble con­texts. Colom­bia’s sit­u­a­tion is so unique that these cases are ren­dered in­ef­fec­tive.

So what can be done? My col­leagues and I stud­ied the ef­fec­tive­ness of hav­ing stu­dents re­search and write their own cases. Stu­den­twrit­ten cases pro­vide a pow­er­ful teach­ing method to ad­dress both the lack of rel­e­vant cases and the need for de­vel­op­ing di­a­logue, lis­ten­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion and prob­lem­solv­ing skills.

In this setup, stu­dents work in teams de­lib­er­ately struc­tured to in­clude geo­graphic, gen­der, eth­nic and pro­fes­sional di­ver­sity. To­gether they re­search and write a case that would demon­strate if and how con­cepts such as trans­parency, ac­count­abil­ity, trust and jus­tice ap­ply within a Colom­bian com­mu­nity or or­ga­ni­za­tion.

As stu­dents write, the fac­ulty guide the process. Fac­ulty help stu­dents se­lect a topic and set­ting. They make sure the topic is nei­ther too broad or nar­row. They help stu­dents gain ac­cess to es­sen­tial peo­ple and doc­u­ments. And they help stu­dents solve prob­lems and edit the case to make it mean­ing­ful for oth­ers.

We used slightly dif­fer­ent ap­pli­ca­tions of stu­dent-writ­ten cases in our cour­ses at three uni­ver­si­ties in Bo­gota and Medellin — Univer­si­dad de los An­des, Pon­ti­f­i­cia Univer­si­dad Jave­ri­ana and Univer­si­dad EAFIT. Many top po­lit­i­cal and busi­ness lead­ers are ed­u­cated in these schools.

Over the course of a se­mes­ter, one group of stu­dents de­vel­oped a case about an ex­ist­ing pro­gram to pro­mote lead­er­ship skills among chil­dren and youth in a ru­ral area. In the past, these young peo­ple had turned to vi­o­lence. The pro­gram taught them to work to­gether.

In the process of writ­ing the case, the stu­dents saw po­ten­tial for sim­i­lar pro­grams else­where. Dur­ing armed con­flict, chil­dren are of­ten the vic­tims of vi­o­lence and then be­come per­pe­tra­tors of vi­o­lence. Whether in Colom­bia or in the United States, when young peo­ple have no hope for a nor­mal life with a job and fam­ily, they blame the “other side.” Ha­tred and vi­o­lence con­tinue. Last­ing peace re­quires a sense of hope and some trust in com­mu­ni­ties.

This case and the oth­ers writ­ten by Colom­bian stu­dents had all of the ben­e­fits that cases usu­ally have in terms of the ap­pli­ca­tion of the­ory to prac­tice.

Na­dia Rubaii works at Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity, State Uni­ver­sity of New York. He wrote this ar­ti­cle for The Con­ver­sa­tion.

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