When violence ends, getting children back into schools is often a priority. Besides education being an essential human right and crucial to sustainable development, there is an overwhelmingly common belief that education leads to peace. The last panel on display at Rwanda’s main genocide memorial in Kigali sums up this conviction: “Education has become our way forward.” But, by focusing almost exclusively on the hope that schooling can build peace, we risk overlooking the ways in which schooling can do the reverse – contribute to conflict.
In the decades leading up to the Rwandan genocide, classroom teaching contributed to Hutu and Tutsi thinking about themselves as meaningfully different, unequal, and diametrically opposed groups. A few years ago, I spent some time talking to Rwandan students and teachers about what happened in schools before the genocide and how the lessons of that time had affected them. Rwandans told me about the common record-keeping practice of teachers asking Hutu and Tutsi to stand up in class in order to self-identify by ethnic identity. They recounted how this exercise was sometimes paired with a lesson in which the teacher taught the physical and behavioural stereotypes of each ethnic group or with teasing the minority Tutsi.
They recalled this as just one of the ways in which schools divided Rwandans rather than bringing them together. This isn’t news to the current Rwandan government. It too argues that schooling under the previous Hutu regimes contributed to the “self-destruction” of the country.
Here’s the rub. While education is vested with great hope and responsibility in post-genocide Rwanda, while reconstruction has been impressive to an education system that was virtually destroyed by genocide, and while public ethnic identification is illegal in Rwanda today, there is much continuity in the school system too. Scholarships for advancement from primary to secondary school, how history is taught, and a number of classroom practices continue to prompt Rwandans to think about themselves as meaningfully different, unequal and diametrically opposed groups, if this time, under the surface. For example, in Rwanda’s schools today, supported by a minority Tutsi-led government, children are learning a historical narrative that dangerously marginalizes much of the Rwandan (Hutu) population.
It ignores most of their losses during the civil war, genocide, and aftermath. Despite students being taught that they are all Rwandan and that Hutu and Tutsi no longer exist, the people I talked to readily identified themselves and their situation by ethnicity without my asking, albeit in confidential, anonymous, one-on-one interviews. Many Rwandans, especially those who self-identified as Hutu, were clear about the injustice of ethnic exclusion which they felt lurked just below the surface of their curriculum. Given the restrictive political context, they were afraid to speak out.
Many Rwandans, especially those who self-identified as Hutu, were vocal about the injustice of ethnic exclusion which they felt lurked just below the surface of their curriculum. This exclusion, and the response it is engendering, should serve as a warning sign of important cracks beneath a shiny post-genocide veneer.
Indeed, schooling can often be considered a microcosm of society. Its structure serves as a reflector of existing societal conditions and its content is not universal and true as we often think of it, but reflecting the understandings of a certain time and place. Schooling can actually amplify those conditions and messages, can be a signal to citizens, and can prompt students to act in certain ways.
As such, the structure and content of schooling could be more systematically included in conflict risk assessments. For instance, in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, politicians of each of the three main groups reformed curriculum such that each group’s history was presented as one of victimhood at the hands of the others. More recently, it is reported that at least since Assad became president in 2000, public schools in Syria have presented Islam as monolithic, with Sunni Islam as the one “true” sect, despite the fact that about 16 per cent of Syrian Muslims are not Sunni. This educational chasm reflects some of the lines of conflict today. It was an early sign of what has come to pass.
Elisabeth King is the author of From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2014). She is a Fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and teaches at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice at the University of Toronto.