Educating against Extremism

Schools have a responsibility under the ‘Prevent’ strategy to tackle extremism and, as the word suggests, prevent violent and non-violent extremism. The UK government defines extremism as:

“Vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

It might seem logical, and even desirable but I am not sure how I feel about this. Do not get me wrong; I am against violent extremism but I am not sure how well a school can spot the early signs. I am also worried about the over enthusiastic implementation of such a policy that would label children as ‘extremist’ or at risk of radicalisation. I think there are things schools can do to prevent extremism but I am not sure that having teachers being the vigilant defenders of British values, and being responsible for the rooting out of ne’er do wells is necessarily the best approach.

I think back to two examples in my teaching career that suggest the concerns of such an approach:

  1. During the second Gulf War a sixth former came into school wearing a t shirt with a picture of George W. Bush on it. Underneath were the words ‘World’s Number 1 Terrorist’. One of the senior leaders of the school decided that this was inappropriate and sent him home to change. Was this t shirt a symbol of extremism? Why was the other student in a Che Guevara t shirt not sent home? At the time I thought the student was being deliberately provocative but it was not a sign of extremism; under the new strategy perhaps the Head of Sixth Form would have had to do more than send him home.
  2. During a discussion of the Middle East situation one sixth former suggested in a debate that ‘Jews were not human.’ The whole classroom stopped in mid discussion so shocked were they at the thoughts that were expressed. As context, the student was born in Palestine but displaced and had to move to the UK via other areas of the world. This is not to defend his view, but rather to provide context for his views. Was this an example of extremism? Certainly. What did I do? I spoke with him and then we spoke with the class. Myself and this student had many discussions over the ensuing months about the differing views of the Middle East. I feel that under the Prevent strategy this is one approach that would be advocated but in a more formalised way. If this was the way schools approached it, then it would be great, but in some schools some leaders may be tempted to inform the police which would have made a bad situation worse.

What is important, however, is that my reaction to both of these incidents were based on my knowledge of, and relationship with, the pupils involved.

There is, however, an ethos and approach a school can adopt in striving to combat violent extremism which can be seen to be a result of ostracisation in school. Within all schools there is a possibility that everybody is from a group that can be marginalised and stereotyped. We are all a minority in some way, shape or form. It takes a teacher to look beyond the bare facts of a child’s record, or circumstances and focus on the individual. Pupils are able to break out of the bonds of what is expected by someone in a particular social situation because of the belief and support of others who never place any cap on success or ambition. I am led to contrast this experience with one highlighted by Malcolm X in his autobiography:

I happened to be alone in the classroom with Mr Ostrowski, my English teacher. He was a tall, rather reddish white man and he had a thick moustache. I had gotten some of my best marks under him, and he had always made me feel that he liked me. I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day. I doubt that he meant any harm. It was just in his nature as an American white man. He told me, “Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career. Have you been giving it thought?” The truth is, I hadn’t. I had never figured out why I told him, “Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer”… Mr Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a n***er. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a n***er. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands – making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person – you’d get all kind of work” (X, 1968: 118).

Interestingly, Mr Ostrowski did not adopt that mindset with all of his pupils:

What made it really begin to disturb me was Mr Ostrowski’s advice to others in my class—all of them white. Most of them had told him they were planning to become farmers. But those who wanted to strike out on their own, to try something new, he had encouraged. Some, mostly girls, wanted to be teachers. A few wanted other professions, such as one boy who wanted to become a county agent; another, a veterinarian; and one girl wanted to be a nurse. They all reported that Mr Ostrowski had encouraged what they had wanted (X, 1968: 118).

My question is: Do we sometimes unconsciously place barriers in the way of our pupils’ achievement and development? We may not say it in the same way and with such stark bluntness but we may well do it through our actions and expectations.

The experiences and backgrounds of individual groups may differ, but the barriers they encounter can be overcome in a number of ways that can be applied to all. As a personal example, I am a member of a minority religious group, and I sat in a training session regarding the ways in which universities could engage with and motivate those within black and Asian communities. The suggestions being made could just as readily be applied to the community to which I belong as to the ones being discussed. To borrow from Martin Luther King’s vision for society as we raise one group of people, we are not causing another group to be made low. By focussing on those from minority backgrounds, we are able to utilise some of the same tools to enable those outside of these groups to be raised in turn.

In a real sense all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly (King, 1967:181).

Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized. . . . Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America will no longer be the victims of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease (King, 1968: 110-111).

Extending King’s view of the “blessed community” that would result, one can relate the view of the experience of the minority groups in the classroom and beyond. Cox has argued that “It is . . . essential to notice that the two elements, the holy outcast and the blessed community, must go together. Without the vision of restored community, the holiness ascribed to the poor would fall far short of politics and result in a mere perpetuation of charity and service activities’’ (Cox, 1967: 133). This would enable a vision of an integrated society far beyond the one lamented by David Cameron:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong (Cameron, 2011).

Pupils who find themselves the victims of bullying, whether racist or not are at risk of creating greater social problems: “children who feel ostracised at school are at greater risk of joining gangs or engaging in maladaptive behaviour. Students who feel pain or threat, particularly over something out of their direct control, often come to experience frustration and resentment towards the social groups they blame for their feelings” (Davies, 2008: 42).  An example of how this works in practice is found in the life of Malcolm X. His early experiences of the “system” led him to make the following statement:

“I’ve never seen a sincere white man, not when it comes to helping black people. Usually things like this are done by white people to benefit themselves. The white man’s primary interest is not to elevate the thinking of black people, or to waken black people, or white people either. The white man is interested in the black man only to the extent that the black man is of use to him. The white man’s interest is to make money, to exploit.”  (Playboy interview, February 21, 1965).

However, later in life he realised his view of the “white man” was generalised and based on his experience:

In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again… The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when white people make blanket indictments against blacks.

His first inclination was to tar everyone with the same brush, and this is, to some extent, what happens for people in school who are ostracized- they react against the group that they see as responsible, leading to the disintegration of society.

Teachers have a crucial role to play in the prevention of ostracisation. This will mainly be done in the classroom, through the discussions that take place and the attitudes which are shown and are allowed to flourish. This does not mean ignoring any divergent opinions or attitudes that arise, but confronting them. In effect teachers become “border crossers: able to listen critically to the voices of their students as well as able to critique the language in which histories of conflict was expressed” (Davies, 2008: 93). Shutting a child down, or sweeping their comments under the carpet does little but retain the status quo or exacerbate the situation.

A multiculturalism underscored by cultural relativism may result in a society of shared values, expressed in specific cultural forms. But this leads to a certain fragility of social interaction related to a fear of upsetting others and so the unwillingness to talk about, say, gender issues, will give rise to ‘walls of silence’.

There needs to be an open and frank discussion about issues. Cultural sensitivities are important but not at the expense of human rights:

Communities need to face any ‘unpleasantness’ existing within them and unmask elements of [abuses]. Diversity needs to encompass a human rights dimension and watch for human rights violation. The 1995 UN conference in Beijing stated that culture, tradition and religion cannot be used as a means of eroding human rights by the state… Sensitivity to community traditions cannot override the human rights of their members. Human rights legislation is a powerful tool and should inform our thinking on diversity in schools. It can help guarantee certain principles that will enable all to participate fully in society. It will also assist with the development of whole school inclusive strategies that will support local communities while being vigilant over the human rights of our young women and men students. Paulo Friere is as ever an inspiration here, reminding us that teachers are the radical agents of transformation and that education is a continuing struggle to reshape meaning (Heidi Safia Mirza).

Engaging in discussion will require extra work on the part of teachers, to learn about the various cultures, religions and ethnicities that make up the school. Part of this can be done through research, but the vast majority will be done through interaction with the pupils, their parents and perhaps the wider communities. Let me share a couple of experiences from my own teaching career that helped me learn, but also made pupils from a variety of minority backgrounds feel as though their culture, religion or ethnicity was valued and accepted.

  1. In the second school I worked in there was a large Muslim population. For a number of years the school had allowed an annual Iftaar meal. This allowed Muslims to practice their religion communally and as a part of the larger school community. However, it also had the potential for there to be an “us” and “them” mentality. The Iftaar meal was opened up for any to attend, although there were small numbers of non-Muslims who attended, there was a large number of staff. The pupils were enthused to see their religious customs supported by teachers. In turn teachers were able to interact with Muslims beyond the classroom, and learn a little bit more about the faith of pupils.
  2. As a child my only interaction with Jehovah’s Witnesses was a girl who didn’t come into assemblies. As a teacher I first encountered Sarah when she came to visit me to complain about a colleague who was her RE teacher. Whenever she raised any question he would treat her dismissively. An example was her disagreeing with him when he taught that Christians believe Jesus was crucified on a cross- Jehovah’s Witnesses believe he was crucified on a tree. Rather than treating her concern openly, he dismissed it as an irrelevance. The next year, I had the opportunity to teach Sarah, and learn more about her beliefs as we talked and I communicated with her parents. The following year, I was invited to attend her baptism- which I did. The warmth which I received from Sarah’s family and religious community was a reflection that I accepted their religion as important in their lives, and did not make them feel an oddity for so doing.

This raises final suggestions that we can implement as teachers to help teach minority pupils to help them feel that they belong, can contribute to, and are a part of the school and the wider society; and as a consequence be less likely to respond with violent extremism. In speaking of community cohesion the DCSF suggested that meaningful contact between individuals from different groups breaks down stereotypes and prejudice. The definition of meaningful included:

  1. Conversations to go beyond surface friendliness
  2. People to exchange personal information or talk about each other’s differences and identities.
  3. People share a common goal or interest.
  4. Where contacts are sustained long-term, with one off or chance meetings unlikely to make much differences (DCSF, 2007).

While it is important to build understanding on commonalities, the differences enrich and make any contact “honest”. While children of all ages have similar interests and goals, which can form the basis of interaction, it is important to recognise and explore differences, and allow questions to form and be discussed.

It may seem simple for this to occur in a multi ethnic school, and less so in less diverse schools. However, problems of integration and exposure to other minorities in a meaningful way can be just as problematic through self-segregation.

I think I have taken an awfully long time to say not very much, and actually nothing at all that is innovative. The main thrust of this has been to suggest:

  • Pupils are treated as individuals and are given high expectations
  • Teachers take an interest in the differences that exist among pupils backgrounds.
  • Schools make links with parents and communities to help them feel part of the education process, and more integrated into society.
  • Attitudes of prejudice are challenged by all teachers.
  • Opportunities are developed for meaningful contact with a range of different groups (including adults).
  • Teachers make a child’s minority identity nothing out of the ordinary, and a valuable part of the pupil experience.

What will result:

  • Greater integration of the classroom (and society)
  • A better educational experience for minority groups
  • More informed teachers about minority experiences
  • Less opportunity for extremism to take hold, as minority individuals feel more a part of society.
  • Celebration and respect of all groups in society, rather than tolerance.
  • Children feeling valued and with high expectations of themselves and others.

What I have said may be overly utopian, but if, as teachers, we take our responsibility to make Every Child Matter seriously then these are some of the efforts we must make to make a more integrated classroom, school and society. In a future post I will return to a focus on how Religious Education can help but I think this may be enough for today.