After many years working with educators in conflict zones overseas, the author returned home to find that tensions are soaring in the U.S. as well.
When I lived in Yerevan, Armenia, in the early 2000s, the city was littered with rusted machinery and unfinished apartment buildings, sprawled like dinosaur skeletons across the landscape. A decade earlier, the Soviet Union collapsed and supply chains broke down. Construction stopped. The workers walked away.
Soon after arriving in the city, I became friendly with Yuri, a toothless man who sold apples, lemons, and pomegranates on the sidewalk outside the main doors of the university where I taught. We used to greet one another several times a day; sometimes we would linger and talk in broken fragments of English and Armenian. Once, he invited me to his apartment for Sunday lunch. We ate bony chicken parts and fried potatoes, washed down with homemade red wine, cheap vodka, and Coca-Cola. After the meal, over more wine and vodka, we looked through family albums filled with happy photos from family vacations on Georgian and Ukrainian beaches. In those earlier days, Yuri had a decent job at a piano factory. When the Soviet Union fell apart, he was left behind.
The whole region turned out to be full of stranded people and severed places. Mount Ararat, where Noah is said to have landed after the flood, looms over Yerevan. Armenians revere it as a national symbol. For thousands of years, they lived on both sides of the mountain. But during the First World War, soldiers from the Ottoman Empire drove them out of eastern Turkey (which Armenians still call “western Armenia”). Mount Ararat now sits on the Turkish side; the border is closed, the mountain out of reach. Armenia’s eastern border is closed, too, because of the festering conflict with Azerbaijan over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Drive north from Yerevan and you’ll soon find yourself in Georgia, another dysfunctional state with breakaway provinces and post-Soviet violence. In the Caucasus, people live amidst the wreckage of empire, conflicts frozen in time, without a hint of spring.
I moved to Yerevan to work with the Civic Education Project, an organization that tried to help universities in the former Soviet bloc transition to Western democracy. This work involved accompanying Armenian college students to Tblisi, Georgia, to meet their Azerbaijani counterparts. The Armenians would describe how they had suffered, then explain why they were right and the Azerbaijanis wrong; the Azerbaijanis would tell the same story, only turned upside down and reversed, so that they were the ones who suffered and stood on the right side of history. And then I would try to find some way to bridge these irreconcilable narratives, or at least to get each side to hear the other out.
When I visited family and friends back home in those days — or later, during my 11 years in Jerusalem — I always found it difficult to explain the work I do with people traumatized by ethnic, national, and religious conflict. Few Americans seemed to grasp what it means to live in the midst of such relentless turbulence and fear, where political institutions are unstable and basic trust in the social order has collapsed.
I always found it difficult to explain the work I do with people traumatized by ethnic, national, and religious conflict.
But something has changed. Today, here in the States, I sense the same kind of rancor and simmering tension I’ve come to know working abroad. Our cities and towns have not (yet) experienced levels of conflict and trauma one sees elsewhere in the world, but for the first time, it strikes me that many Americans, particularly American educators, can relate. These days, I switch between Fox News and MSNBC and feel just as disoriented and disconcerted as when I listened to Armenians and Azerbaijanis tell their incompatible stories.
It strikes me that my own country is wrestling with the same questions that confront me in conflict zones overseas: How can human beings learn to live together decently and share resources fairly? How can we learn to engage meaningfully with issues of common concern? How can we figure out effective ways to settle conflict without resorting to violence? To what extent are we capable of healthy self-government? What education prepares us best for self-government? What education prepares us to cope with a future of overwhelming social complexity, dangerously powerful technologies, and environmental crisis?
The power of personal connections
After my time in Armenia, I joined Seeds of Peace, an organization that aims to “inspire and cultivate new generations of global leaders in communities divided by conflict.” At first, I helped lead summer programs at our camp in rural Maine, working with educators from the Middle East, South Asia, Cyprus, and the United States. In 2006, I moved to Jerusalem to work with Palestinian and Israeli educators, to help them build upon their experiences in the summer program, to expand their scope of empathy, to exercise their imaginations, to practice critical thinking, civic engagement, and dialogue across lines of conflict My colleagues and I, working in partnership with local allies, have designed a range of initiatives and resources for educators and youth in villages, refugee camps, and cities in Israel/Palestine, and to a lesser extent in Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In search of ways to deepen self-expression and communication, we have integrated the arts into our work, gradually growing this into curriculum, a summer course, a desert creative retreat, and even a concert on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (played to standing ovations).
I moved to Jerusalem with the idea that education must be its own track in the peace process, along with efforts to promote security, settle refugees, share water resources, and negotiate the status of the old city of Jerusalem. The work led my colleagues and me to crisscross the Green Line that divides Israel/Palestine, visiting dozens of schools, community centers, and grassroots initiatives. I’ve stayed in the homes of local educators, talking into the night; I’ve grown to care deeply about a wide range of individuals on both sides. Because of my relationships on the ground, I am able to navigate a complex emotional geography. I jump worlds — from lunch in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank to Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem
I’ve had machine guns pointed at me. I’ve waited for hours at checkpoints and huddled in bomb shelters. I’ve witnessed the great excitement of rekindled hope that comes when people see the positive difference they are making on the ground, along with the tragic deterioration of such hope: During my time in “the region,” the Israeli-Palestinian peace process floundered and then died. In 2011, when the Egyptian revolution erupted, I was in Amman, Jordan, where l saw local teachers celebrate the Arab Spring while it lasted, only to sink into the despair that followed.
Those same Jordanian educators opened my eyes to the misery of Iraqi and Syrian refugees seeking refuge in an already overburdened nation. Indian educators have guided me around Mumbai to see the scale of poverty and massive inequalities they are up against. Afghan educators have described what it’s like to live in a country where the central government’s authority barely reaches beyond the capital city, where young people with ambition for a better life do everything possible to get out. A Tunisian educator recently told me about her project with the mothers of young men who went off to fight in Syria for Islamic extremists.
I have no illusions about how difficult it is to teach the values and skills that make healthy self-government possible and enable people to live together with decency and fairness, or how complicated it is to work with educators who come from opposing sides of regional conflicts. But in my time with Seeds of Peace, I have seen what’s possible when such educators are given the opportunity to build trust and community in a supportive environment.
This is not necessarily about achieving “peace.” Rather, the point is to engage in meaningful, productive, nonviolent conflict on agreed-upon terms. At the Seeds of Peace Camp in Maine, and in our regional courses and workshops, we offer a kind of experiential learning, where participants live together through ups and downs. They air their grievances, share personal stories of loss and suffering, challenge each other’s stereotypes, and push through their conflicts to create degrees of relationship and mutual understanding.
In doing this work, I have learned viscerally that people are far less reasonable than I had previously assumed. Human beings learn through layers of emotion, in our bodies, through our senses, in our nervous systems. We resist change and protect our most cherished beliefs against “inconvenient” evidence. Yet we can learn. Science is only beginning to fathom the depths and complexities of what such learning entails. I have seen how, even as reason lags, human beings grow to care for one another, no matter how much they might disagree. As Bobbie Gottschalk, the cofounder of Seeds of Peace, puts it, the educators, like the “Seeds,” participants in our youth programs, get a taste of “life the way it could be.”
Our hope is that participants will go on to provide such experiences in their own classrooms and schools. In 2017, for example (and in partnership with Eastern Mennonite University), we ran a five-day course on Trauma Awareness and Resilience at a ramshackle resort in the hills outside Bethlehem for Palestinian educators from across the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. A year later, when we brought participants back and asked them what difference the course had made, many told us about making profound changes in how they interact with their students.
A high school English teacher — a “covered” woman in her 30s, dressed in somber traditional garb, from a village outside Bethlehem — said that before taking our course, she didn’t relate to her students on a personal level. In the Palestinian educational system, she explained, high school graduates must take a high-stakes national exam that largely determines their options for the future, and she had always focused on preparing her students for that test. But our course invited her into a reflective learning community, giving her the opportunity to cocreate the educational experience. She had the chance to express herself. She had the chance to play. She built trust in the group. She engaged in discussions about difficult issues that matter to her. For the first time in a professional context, she felt a circle of support. Now she feels compelled to give her own students a taste of what she experienced. “This personal connection,” she said, “has changed everything.”
Education for self-government
Since moving back to the United States in the fall of 2017, I have seen that American educators are just as much in need of such experiences as their counterparts in the rest of the world.
It’s striking, after many years overseas, to experience how fragmented American society has become. Political institutions, old certitudes, and civic habits are corroding. Life expectancy in the U.S. is in decline, just as it was in the former Soviet Union with that empire’s collapse. Some cities and towns stand out as hubs of entrepreneurship and prosperity, while others languish, dotted with vacant storefronts, shuttered factories, and neglected schoolyards, where people, much like Yuri and other older Armenians I knew in Yerevan, find themselves “left behind.”
The ecosystem of American democracy is in sorry shape, and our educational system isn’t doing much to help repair it.
The ecosystem of American democracy is in sorry shape, and our educational system isn’t doing much to help repair it. If anything, our bureaucratic testing regimes and top-down management models punish teachers for trying to engage in the sort of patient, candid dialogue (with both their colleagues and their students), or the day-to-day practice of self-government, that democratic citizenship requires.
Recently, at the beginning of a Seeds of Peace course on Educating in a Diverse Democracy, participants were struggling to agree on an agenda and goals for their session. After a while, a teacher from New York became exasperated, announcing that she’d listened to enough talk; she wanted us to provide her with tangible suggestions and classroom skills she could take back to her school. “That’s why I’m here,” she explained. The room fell silent. Finally, another participant spoke up: “But aren’t we learning those skills by having these difficult discussions? Isn’t that the point?”
Yes, it is. I often find myself asking participants to put aside, for the time being, their desire for concrete “tools” related to their work. Later on, there will be plenty of time to translate what they’ve learned into tools, strategies, and resources. If they want to learn how to become better teachers, they must first experience what it’s like to be part of a community that contains conflict effectively and earns the trust of its members. They must spend time working through their own conflicts, reflecting, testing themselves, while they learn from others who are different in fundamental ways. Becoming the kind of teacher that I’m talking about here is about far more than “skills.” It requires practice, courage, and growth as a human being.
Our capacity to disagree productively, learn, and act, rests on how we were educated, how we educate ourselves, and how we educate others. This is at least as important as the next exam.
In Augusta, Maine, not long ago, I participated in a meeting that brought local educators together with high school students (several of whom served on their student councils and school boards). When somebody brought up the Pledge of Allegiance, the discussion became intense. A number of students said they felt alienated from the Pledge; they wanted their schools to stop requiring them to recite it every morning. One of the teachers, a Vietnam veteran, explained how upset that made him feel. The ensuing conversation was full of honesty and emotion. Conflicts were put out in the open and disagreements were aired, though not resolved. I left with reinvigorated faith in this work.
Of course, if we hope to prepare students to participate in a healthy democracy, it won’t be enough to provide them and their teachers with opportunities for dialogue-based experiential education — but it is an essential place to start. The quality of politics and political discourse, the strength of our institutions, our capacity to disagree productively, learn, and act, rests on how we were educated, how we educate ourselves, and how we educate others. This is at least as important as the next exam.
The long view
My Jerusalem-based colleagues and I persevered during that terrible summer of 2014, among the most violent months of my years in the region. We drove by a burning missile on the side of the road and were stopped by soldiers pointing machine guns at us. We organized a series of one-day educator workshops along with a summer camp for children. We followed the news as three boys were kidnapped and killed, and later another boy was burned to death.
I was walking in a Jerusalem park, and the siren went off; joggers, acrobats, lovers, soccer players, and picnicking families all disappeared in various directions as I fell to my stomach by the curb. Several out-of-town colleagues stayed with me during what felt like the eye of the storm. In the middle of an evaluation of our programs, we lugged around camera equipment for interviews. We stayed up late, made elaborate breakfasts, brainstormed, commiserated, and daydreamed.
In the midst of all of this, we took approximately 40 Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Indian, Pakistani, Cypriot, and American educators to the shores of the Dead Sea where, for a long weekend, we created a fragile counterculture of possibility. Mohammed, my friend from Gaza, called regularly; the houses around him were being bombed and his neighborhood was in ruins. We kept checking in on “the situation.” Yes, we agreed, “the ground is burning.”
As I look around today at the political hostilities raging across the U.S. and many other countries, it helps me to remember the Biblical story of Noah, how human beings screwed up and started over again. When I contemplate the challenges we face, it helps to imagine myself walking in Jerusalem, that tragically human city. The people there do not live in the Jerusalem of the prophets, the prayers, or the songs. They are far from it: Like the rest of us, they are walking in the desert, talking, singing, struggling toward a continually receding Promised Land.