Teaching Tolerance: How to Educate Against Extremism

Tony Blair

The world is divided in many dimensions today. Rich and poor. East and West. North and South. Divisions of culture, identity and faith. Some people are frightened of globalisation. Others welcome it. Some see diversity of population and society as a strength, while others see it as a threat to traditional ways of life and thinking.

Yet one thing stands out. The future belongs to the open-minded. Globalisation is driven by people –through technology, through travel, through the possibility of migration. The world works through being able to take advantage of these trends to enlarge the scope of an individual’s horizons.

To navigate this meaningfully requires a mind which is open and not closed. By this, I mean that those who can make the future work for themselves are those who are connected, creative, and capable of understanding change and living with it.

Some are lucky enough to live in wealthier countries or to have better- off parents. Very often, the problem for millions of young people is a lack of education, a lack of ability to get connected or the absence of opportunity to make the most of their potential.

So, now we recognise the essential importance of education to opportunity. The United Nations has made universal education a Global Goal and, around the world, governments are trying to expand education systems, enrol children, particularly girls, and trying to correct what is one of the world’s biggest injustices: the failure to educate.

However, enrolment, building schools and taking on more students is only a first step. The next crucial step is quality of education. Education has to be such that it enables creative thinking, encourages reflection and discussion, and allows young people not just to learn but to think for themselves.

And here is where the challenge of extremism and the challenge of education intersect.

If young people are not taught an open-minded approach to the world but one that is bigoted, narrow or closed – and if they are taught that uniformity is more important than diversity – then they risk believing that there is only one true way to live and that those who live differently are lesser human beings.

Sometimes such teaching is to be found in State and public school systems, sometimes in informal systems or private schooling. Sometimes it is from a malign purpose – to radicalise young people. But sometimes it is derived from ignorance or tradition, fashioned in different times when knowledge of the ‘other’ mattered less.

Globally, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year on security measures to protect the public against terrorism, but only a tiny fraction of that on efforts that tackle the underlying ideology. This is all expenditure on the consequences of extremism.

What we are looking for is investment in dealing with the causes of extremism, one of which is undoubtedly the spread of hate thought through, amongst other things, systems of education.

Many countries know they have a problem within their education system. But the interests standing in the way of reform can be significant and difficult to overcome.

We see a parallel here with the environment and the development of what is now a global approach to climate change. With few exceptions, it is now accepted that countries have a global responsibility to act to reduce harmful emissions. What was once considered the sole domain of the sovereign State is now enlarged to include an understanding that we all win or lose depending on the collective determination to act on the climate threat. Therefore, there is a duty to take action within national boundaries to combat an international menace.

We want the same approach to education. We have been working with UNESCO, the Global Partnership for Education, the OECD and others to develop a set of policy principles which would form the basis of a global agreement for education reform. These principles would have as their objective the rooting out of prejudice and the promotion of cultural tolerance and respect within education systems, both formal and informal. Nations would commit to this process as part of fulfilling the UN Global Goals on the education of young people to promote critical thinking and dialogue.

Over the past ten years, our Institute has been developing programmes designed for such a purpose in over 30 different countries. We have developed pedagogical materials for teachers to use in multiple languages and run interactions online and through live streaming to connect young people of different cultures and faiths around the world. These programmes have been evaluated and found to have a positive impact on open-mindedness of young people. We use them as a demonstration of what can be achieved. But obviously this needs to operate at scale.

Early next year, we hope to launch this Global Commitment to Education and set a new direction for international cooperation in this arena.

Ultimately, we can take all the security action we like. But if young people are vulnerable to hateful ideologies, some of them will turn to violence. They do not naturally tend towards such sentiments. It is something that is taught. And it can be untaught.

A vital component of an enlightened security approach is to treat open-minded education as an imperative. We cannot afford for young children, at the moment of maximum impression in their lives, to be denied an education which will equip them for success in the modern world. It is in our interests. It is in theirs. It requires collective will and international action. And the right time to act is now.

This article originally appeared on the Tony Blair Institute site on 14 November 2019.