London Review of Education Article: Libyan teachers as transitionalist pragmatists
By CEID Blogger, on 29 June 2023
Conceptualising a path out of the peacebuilding narrative in conflict-affected contexts
By Reem Ben Giaber
I often question whether my research fits in with the work of other colleagues at the Centre for Education and International Development (CEID). I am from Libya and Germany – the former is often defined as a ‘conflict-affected’ country, and I am trying to explore teachers’ perceptions there of the roles that schools play in turbulent societies like Libya. Yet the questions I ask could be asked of any teachers in any country so, epistemically, I sometimes think that my research is more in the philosophy of education camp than in the education and international development camp. Or can it be both? Mindful of Gur-Ze’ev’s (2001) critique that much of peace education is driven by ‘good will’ more than ‘theoretical coherence or philosophical elaboration’ (p. 315), which leads to mainly unchallenged and unevolving practices, I propose a pragmatist philosophical approach (familiar in political science and political philosophy disciplines) as worth looking into, to see if the two camps can benefit each other. My first published article in the London Review of Education is a cautious conceptual re-examination of pragmatist philosophy in the fields of Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) and peacebuilding education. It is available [here].
The dominant analytical and programmatic frameworks used when writing about conflict-affected contexts such as Libya in Global Northern academia belong to the interdisciplinary field of PACS – an umbrella term that includes peace education (PE), critical peace education (CPE), peacebuilding education (PbE) and education and conflict to name a few. Within PACS, education is increasingly gaining attention as a tool for building peace and developing social justice and democracy. Yet, caught in the epistemological and methodological nets their work entails (neo-colonialism, blind universalism, organisational impact metrics, white saviourism, structural violence etc), many scholars in these fields are themselves calling for a more context-specific and ground-up approach to education for peace or social justice (Bajaj, 2019; Davies, 2017; Kester & Cremin, 2017; Zembylas & Bekerman, 2013). As such, this trajectory to involve local stakeholders in thinking about the links between school and their society, brings the project back to the philosophy of education discipline, drawing upon centuries of thought and scholarship. This is the integration, or even shift, I am proposing in my doctoral research because what is needed here is cultural criticism and transformation – a sensitive topic where one’s own positionality is significant.
My article takes a deeper look at the American philosopher John Dewey’s pragmatist approach to politics and education, and his conceptualisation of a ‘public,’ his understanding of enquiry and his views on teaching for peaceful and democratic living. When Dewey (1916) famously described democracy as not a political system, not a form of government, but as a way of living and communicating with others in our community that best allows for individual and social flourishing, he made it a cultural and pedagogical phenomenon. This is meaningful to the field of PACS because it situates the design, inquiry and action that can be taken at the local level. For PACS projects to be effective, PACS scholars and practitioners would share their expertise as facilitators and capacity builders – not deliverers, consultants or implementers.
Throughout my paper, I argue that a pragmatist philosophy is a worthwhile pedagogical project in a challenging and unsettled context such as Libya, as it is an internal and ground-up discourse, compared to the often externally-initiated and top-down discourses of peacebuilding. I speak as an ‘adjacent and connected critic’ (Koopman, 2009), because I am both a Libyan and a German researching a problem in Libya to which I hope to find potential proposals by engaging with discourses and practices in an academic institution in the Global North. As such, to describe Libya’s socio-political situation, I prefer to use words such as ‘unsettled,’ ‘changing,’ ‘turbulent’ or ‘evolving’ rather than ‘conflict-affected.’ One reason for this is to ensure a disentanglement from PACS education frameworks that activate organisational mechanisms from fundraising to pre-packaged programmes to metrics to impact evaluation reports. Another reason is for socio-linguistic considerations.
Speaking to Libyans, it is clear that ‘conflict-affected’ is too definitive, confining and suggestive of a state where common everyday occurrences like meeting friends in a café or taking your children to play in the park are excluded. Libyans would not describe their society as ‘in conflict’ or ‘conflict-affected’ because that would suggest to them that there is what Galtung would call direct violence (i.e. war) all the time. What Libyans might recognise is Galtung’s structural and cultural violence and that, again, takes us to culture critical projects which can, understandably, only be initiated by Libyans. Finally, from a pragmatist perspective, ‘conflict’ and ‘peace’ are locked into a dualistic tango of end-states. We either have one or the other and this denies that both are possible at the same time and that the only way to ensure any transitional amelioration in the situation is to keep working democratically (beyond programme end dates). There is no ideal (capital P Peace or capital D democracy) or destination to be reached; there is just continuous inquiry and work to be done with an ‘end-in-view’ (Dewey, 1916) that drives action.