If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children. – Mahatma Gandhi
It’s been a week in which I have found myself asking more than ever: what’s the point of school? I grew up during The Troubles. Only in Ireland could such an unseemly euphemism describe the senseless murder of thousands of people. As a child, I was deeply fearful of the IRA and their leader, Martin McGuinness. Yet, when the news broke that McGuinness had died this week, I felt genuine sadness at his passing.
Like any journey we take, often it is the confluence of thoughts, ideas and experiences that shape our final destination. Last weekend I had the good fortune to be part of a very special event at my school. Learning by Designwas a call to reimagine the way schools facilitate learning in a culture characterised by open knowledge systems, inclusive educational communities, and rapid social change. In other words, in the complex world in which we live, what is the true purpose of education? We were joined in our attempt to answer this question by many special people, including Suzie Boss, Colleen Broderick, Simon Jack, Ewan McIntosh, David Price and Gary Stager.
A few days later our students gathered to hear a Syrian refugee perform poignant folk music as we commemorated the first anniversary of the Brussels Bombings. As we sat in respectful silence, recalling the awfulness of March 22, 2016, my mind went back to the moment the terror truly struck home. School was in session that morning. A teacher arrived in my office and pointed to his phone at a scene of carnage and horror. In the midst of this lay a familiar figure, badly injured. “It’s Seb”, my colleague said. Terror had become personal.
Many surgeries later, this year, our former student, Sebastien Bellinmiraculously stood before our students and implored them not to be afraid, not to apportion blame recklessly, to try to understand and, above all, to find a passion that would make a difference to the world. This, he reminded us, was the real purpose of education. His brave words helped heal the fears and anxieties of many who had suffered on that fateful day. One year on, I returned to my office, imbued with hope following our community commemoration, only to hear of the awful events in London. Just days earlier, we had been filled with such hope at a conference that embraced the exciting possibilities of meaningful changes in education, changes that could improve the world; changes that our students had articulated with confidence and hope. Had we deluded ourselves? Futurist and author, David Price, in a thoughtful reflection on his participation in our conference, articulated our obligations powerfully:
In a strange coincidence, at lunchtime today I watched a news item about the anniversary of the bombing of Brussels airport. I was there just a few days ago, having worked at the Learning By Design conference at the International School of Brussels. What struck me so forcibly during that weekend was the emphasis upon two things: the UNESCO goals, and the benefits of internationalism. I was honoured to work with students from a range of countries who were creating socially purposeful global innovations that help bring us together, not drive us apart. And, throughout the whole event, there was a palpable, and visible, sense of love between delegates, teachers and students, who came from all over the planet to learn together and appreciate our differences.
Price’s words offer cause for hope, a much-needed perspective and affirmation of humanity. Later that evening, I came across the eulogy of former US President, Bill Clinton, at the funeral that day of Martin McGuinness, man of war who became a man of peace.
What struck me post powerfully about Clinton’s words was the theme of forgiveness and of the critical importance of education in ending conflict, of continuing the journey towards peace as a moral imperative. The atrocities of The Troubles were repulsive and sickening. Both “sides” perpetrated acts that resulted in the destruction of countless innocent lives. Kingsmill, Warrenpoint, Guildford, Birmingham, Brighton, Enniskillen Warrington, Derry, Monaghan, Dublin, Greysteel, Castlerock, Loughinisland. This was the sad landscape of those brutal years. This was the story of my school days.
Another son of Derry, and also a teacher, Seamus Heaney reminded us of the horrors of The Troubles in his Nobel Prize lecture. It is worth quoting extensively, I believe, for his words are an attempt to negate the fear of the “other” that lies at the heart of the futility that is violence:
One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.
When I look back at recent Irish history and attempt to seek meaning that can inform the work I do as an educator, one individual stands out. John Hume suffered the same social indignities as Martin McGuinness, growing up in Derry. In fact, both men grew up within metres of each other. While Hume opted for the road of peace, McGuinness felt he had no choice but to take up arms. Hume’s parents had the means and commitment to ensure that their son received a good education. When he completed his Master’s Degree, Hume returned to Derry to take up teaching and civil rights. Leaving school at 15, like many of his contemporaries, McGuinness took up a gun and journeyed on a very different road. This is not a political statement. I am a pacifist, not a nationalist; a teacher, not a politician. If only the circumstances had been different and the shootings and bombings could have been avoided. Those who witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday will understand the sad complexity of those troubled times. I can try to understand it, but I can’t condone violence.
I met John Hume in Brussels on the night my oldest son was born on July 3, 1996. I recall it was a tense time in Northern Ireland and that several murders jeopardized the fragile peace he and McGuinness had brokered. The standoff at Drumcree threatened an imminent return to war. I had just become a parent. In his gentle manner, Hume asked the name of my newly-born child and inquired as to what had brought me to Belgium. “Ah, Seán. A lovely Irish name. I hope the virtue of your profession rubs off on him and he does great things one day. I hope he grows up in peace.” I will never forget that brief meeting. Hume’s care for children and education was palpable. It evokes to this day that sense of love that David Price speaks of, the need to take care of the children, a need that McGuinness eventually recognised and Clinton so pointedly noted.
So what can we do? How can we take care of the children? What is the point of school? I think that David Price sums it up best:
Can we make tolerance, understanding, and love for ‘the other’, a cornerstone of our schools’ purpose?
We have to begin with the children. This is the point of school.
David Price. Education: “How We Should Seek To Understand While We Condemn The Westminster Attack.” Medium, March 23, 2017.
Seamus Heaney. Nobel Lecture, Stockholm. December 7, 1995.