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Conchuir Mac Siacais

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

I was born in Belfast in the summer of 1988, one of the most violent years on record during the most recent war in Ireland. This post is an attempt to convey some of my thoughts on the issues of sectarianism and the role that critical education can play in addressing it.

I believe there is a crisis in the way we educate people, which has a dramatic impact on community relations. It is important to note that the north of Ireland is currently undergoing a very tentative peace process, commencing in 1998. The reality however, is that large sections of society are still culturally segregated; education is mostly segregated: daily politics is toxic.

The lines of segregation are drawn in the psyche from early youth: if you identify as Irish (you’re ‘green’, and are generally considered to be a Catholic, Nationalist, or a Republican); if you identify a British (you’re ‘orange’, and are generally considered to be a Unionist, Loyalist or Protestant). There is a smaller section of people who identify as ‘other’ or ‘northern Irish’, but the two largest communities, ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’, dominate the political landscape, which effectively rules out the political capital of all ‘others’.

A significant number of young people that I have encountered in my role as a youth worker, and in my personal life, typically those born around the turn of the millennium, have demonstrated little to no awareness of the context of the Irish/British conflict known as ‘The Troubles’, the legacy of which impacts their lives daily.

It is worth noting that this phenomena of historical ignorance, is shared among many older people who tend to gain most of their narratives about the conflict from a combination of personal, community, and familial experiences, and from the ‘master narratives’ presented in segregated local media (and the BBC). The phenomena is particularly important when we look at the recurrence of extreme violence in Ireland over the past century, and the potential for future violence.

The cure for bigotry, sectarianism, and racism, is education. The first problem of education is one of process. The process of education in the north of Ireland relies heavily upon the banking model of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing information or ‘deposits’. Students are treated like passive learners; their heads are empty vessels to be filled with information that can be extracted at examination time. This approach creates an environment that is not conducive to learning, one in which there is an extreme imbalance of power in favour of the teacher. In this process, teachers tend to issue ‘communiqués’ and makes ‘deposits’ which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This issue is one of global significance and is particularly relevant to the whole of primary and secondary level education. This issue is important to consider as a barrier, not just to learning, but to understanding history.

Process aside, the second problem of education, that of content, follows. The content of history curricula differs significantly from one section of the community to another. There are state-run schools that typically cater to the Unionist community, and there are Catholic-run schools that generally cater to the Nationalist community.

This segregation results in the fact that the majority of ‘Catholic’ schools teach a unit that covers the years 1965-98, a unit which majors on civil rights and the ‘Troubles’, while just under half the schools run by a Protestant denomination or controlled by the state rather than by the Catholic church – teach the 1920-49 period instead, omitting any focus on the recent war or its context.

The result is that a significant number of young people, namely those focusing exclusively on the earlier period of 20th century history, never learn that institutionalised discrimination against Catholics was written into the fabric of the state’s laws since its creation in 1921. This ignorance, which is shared across the divide and across generations, is a recipe for repeating the violence and mistakes of the past. The impact of this problem cannot be overstated.

However, a vision for sound and authentic community relations is possible. One such vision aims to promote opportunities for all members of communities, irrespective of background, to interact, learn, and grow; to use the arts, literature, and sports, to engage their bodies and minds. It aims to create spaces in which specific communities can come to understand their histories, and become empowered, creative, and productive.

Tackling inequalities at a local level and organising collectively, not only in an attempt to lobby for rights, but also in an effort to reimagine our communities, and our future, is an essential part of the work. In order to promote the use of collective action as a means of combating inequalities, those concerned with authentic community relations should strive to build relationships in a creative way, to maximise opportunity for all involved.

One such method of engagement is group work. Informal group work in particular, facilitated by skilled practitioners, can provide people with learning-focussed environments; if education is the cure for bigotry, then the above method is an extremely useful one for engaging otherwise disengaged people.

This approach, which is based on participatory democracy, and which follows the principles of cooperation and equality, can begin to address the power imbalances and content-related issues present in formal educational settings. This approach not only attempts to address the often manipulative and disempowering process of formal education, but also the lack of important historical content present in its curricula.

Paolo Freire presents an educational framework, or pedagogy, in which people can develop the capacity for growth through the experiential learning that takes place in everyday life. These experiences, which effect individuals daily could be addressed critically by means of community-based group work, and could provide people with opportunities to raise their ability to think critically about the world in which they live.

The experiences gained from critical thinking, and the collective actions which arise from critical analysis of the ones surroundings, could be focussed towards reimagining the world for the betterment of humanity; rather than enabling one to adopt to the world, as in the formal process of education, which only serves in maintaining the ‘status qou’. It is possible therefore, for communities to adopt Freirian thinking, and to engage in critical pedagogy as a politically informed community relations approach.

“Since the immanent and the transcendent are paired, then unless you can systematically touch what is immanent and immediate to individuals and groups and societies in their daily lives, you cannot convince them to struggle for any transcendent”. (Gramsci, 1971).

Reflective of this quote, there are a number of issues that can act as barriers to the creation of transformative community-based educational processes.

On the one hand, there is a lack of awareness of historic approaches – namely Gramsci’s concepts of hegemony, the organic intellectual, and common-sense, which help people understand the dynamics of economic, political, and social relations.

There is Paolo Freire’s notion of the ‘practice of freedom’, and his concept and practice of critical pedagogy, which enables individuals to raise their consciousness and to think and organise critically around real life issues.

Also, we find Margaret Ledwith’s work; that we need to be vigilant about changes in the political context and we need to get better at weaving theory into our practice, ‘praxis’. Correspondingly, she warns about this need for ‘praxis’, in the following vein: “Heavily influenced by state policy, the skills-driven approach to education in which our work is now embedded is tailored to feed the needs of the economy, and therefore founded on the worldview of western capitalism. Critical education, designed to encourage questioning and action for change, is founded on a different worldview that of participatory democracy forged out of principles of cooperation and equality”.

And finally, Jarlath Benson’s approach to ‘working creatively with groups’, which provides a solid framework for creating meaningful and empowering group processes which can be used across groups of all ages.

On the other hand, alongside intellectual barriers, are very real economic barriers, erected by the state. These economic barriers generally exclude communities adversely affected by the conflict, from receiving vital state funding for community development work of this kind. There are, of course, opportunities for NGO funding, philanthropy and community fundraising etc, but the need for funding currently outweighs the viability of alternative funding pathways. The state, as it stands, shows little to no interest in investing in youth, community, health and other vital services and sectors. But, is that good enough?



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