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Last Updated: 12/04/2007
A Solution to my Existential Crisis as a Teacher – Learning Communities
Paul Klassen

After having taught in classrooms in both Costa Rica and Canada for nearly ten years, I now find myself as the student here at UPEACE, on the receiving end of the learning spectrum.  Having been away from the university milieu for a while now, it was rather overwhelming to contemplate how I was going to get back into the learning mode.  Could I once again produce those blitz-styled all-nighter essays that wouldn’t be butchered by my professor’s red pen?

As classes pass and essays roll off the production line, I slowly find myself looking back at my old ways of teaching through my newly acquired peace education lens.  As a result of immersing myself in the torrent of assigned readings, I now find myself in an existential crisis: have I simply been an unconscious cog all these years in the giant conformist and consumerist wheel that makes our world turn?  Has my teaching been "unpeaceful"?  Have I simply been the despised classroom despot that lectures about democracy but doesn’t walk the talk?  Is it really as bad as Noam Chomsky makes it out to be when he says that “students will end up knowing and understanding virtually nothing” (Chomsky, 26) when they leave school? 

If teachers such as me can fall victim to being a mere cog in the wheel of the system, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “it is not the unschooled who cause today’s wars, terrorist attacks, or devastation to the Earth.  It is more often decision-makers and power brokers who are highly educated, but who have been schooled in worldviews, values, an lines of reasoning that aggrandize one nation or culture over another, or measure self-worth by the amount of wealth or power amassed” (Mische, 2006). 

The story of Adolph Eichmann is a horrendous case study resulting from this kind of systemic education.  According to Arendt, it wasn’t his ideological beliefs or hatred of Jews that pushed him to consciously send thousands to their deaths under the Nazi regime.  Rather, it was his obedience to the structures and rules of the system in which he was one of the cogs.  As Arendt discusses, Eichmann was never deemed insane by the psychiatrists, rather, “his attitude toward his wife and children, mother and father, brothers, sisters, and friends, was “not only normal but most desirable” (Arendt 1994, 25).  He was a product of a system that rewarded individuals that conformed and obeyed rather than those that thought independently, critically and empathetically. 

Thus it begs the question - has our educational system today changed much from the one Eichmann attended in Germany in the early 20th Century?  Do our current grading systems and methodologies do much to foster independently-minded citizens?

Chomsky, I believe, hits the nail on the head when he writes that “real education is about getting people involved in thinking for themselves – and that’s a tricky business to know how to do well, but clearly it requires that whatever it is you’re looking at has to somehow catch people’s interest and make them want to think, and make them want to pursue and explore” (Chomsky, 27).  Therefore, how can educators turn the “tricky business” of teaching students to think for themselves into a reality?

One possible answer to the question lies in the innovative pedagogical ideas that Paolo Freire (1970) presented in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  According to him, schools did little to “promote a curiosity that [was] critical, bold, and adventurous” (Freire, 38).  Unfortunately, the "banking system" of education that Freire so fiercely criticized and sought to transform with a participatory model, is still endemic to our education system today.  I would argue that the vast majority of teachers today still view their students as mere vessels to be filled with "important" information. 

Thankfully, the grey skies that loomed overhead at the beginning of my studies here at UPEACE have given place to some rays of sunshine and a hope that we can change the way we impart knowledge in our classrooms (No, it doesn’t mean sitting around in a circle and singing Kumbaya!) 

Although there is not one solution to changing the system we have in place for educating the masses, one way is to make more room in our classrooms for a participatory model that peace education proposes.  As Betty Reardon, the pioneer of peace education has written: “a pedagogy directed toward eliciting social change or transformation needs the involvement of all members of the learning community” (Reardon, 26). 

But as Tony Jenkins states: “we are taught about innovative pedagogical approaches through traditional means but are rarely prepared for their use…why should professional academics teach about Freire, and even advocate for Freirean pedagogy, but not use it themselves?” (Jenkins, 5).  Thankfully, I have been introduced in Tony’s course to this participatory method, also known as "learning communities". 

These learning communities provide a space in which students can share their impressions in small groups relating to a given reading.  For instance, rather than having the teacher’s viewpoint as the accepted interpretation of a given reading, this methodology fosters an environment where diversity and differences are embraced.  In short, the classroom atmosphere becomes what Maxine Greene (1995) believes it should be: a place that “ought to pulsate with multiple conceptions of what it is to be human and alive” (Greene, 43).   By becoming engaged in the process of discussing ideas rather than simply ‘being on the receiving end’ of someone’s interpretation, I believe we move closer to “catching people’s interest and making them want to think, and making them want to pursue and explore” (Chomsky, 27). 

The end result of the learning communities that I have experienced here at UPEACE is the creation of a dynamic democratic setting in which multiple perspectives are valued.  Rather than being in the hands of the teacher, knowledge begins to be seen as a shared and communally constructed product.  Moreover, I believe that this pedagogical approach places greater emphasis on listening to and appreciating a diversity of viewpoints, a skill that I would deem to be crucial for fostering a culture of peace.  Interestingly, this respect for diversity has long been at the heart of how many Native Americans have traditionally approached problem-solving.

It is within the diversity of these indigenous ‘ways of seeing’ that Joel Spring (2007) sees one potential way of improving humanity’s overall quality of life.  In particular, he refers to the process by which many tribes utilize wise elders not as the mere keepers of all answers, but as facilitators that work with the group in order to develop a consensus on a given problem.  As Spring writes, “The assumption is that any human problem is complex and must be considered from a variety of viewpoints.  In this model, multiple perspectives on an issue are considered legitimate.  Instead of debating, these differing perspectives are presented.  As people listen to others, they modify their perspectives on the basis of others’ comments” (Spring, 130).

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Lester B. Pearson asked: “How can there be peace without understanding each other, and how can this be if they do not know each other?”  Clearly, implementing "learning communities" can be one of the ways in which we strive as a society to place more value on getting to know and understand each another.  Perhaps I have found the answer to my existential crisis?

Arendt, Hannah. 1994.  Eichmann In Jerusalem:  A Report on the Banality of Evil.  New York: Penguin Books.

Chomsky, N. (2003).  The Function of Schools: Subtler and Cruder Methods of Control.  In Saltman, K. & Gabbard, D. (Eds.), Education as Enforcement: the Militarization and Corporatization of Schools (pp.24-34).  New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Freire, P. (1998).  Pedagogy of Freedom (29-48).  New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Green, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change (pp.32-43). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Jenkins, T. (in press) “A Peace Education Response to Modernism: Reclaiming the Social and Pedagogical Purposes of Academia: in Jing Lin and Christa Bruhn (Eds.) Educators as Peacemakers: Transforming Education for Global Peace. New York: Information Age Publishing.

Miche, P. (2006).  Educating for Peace and Planetary Community at the Level of our Deep Humanity.”  Peace Education Center, Educating for Global Peace Lecture Series.  Riverside Church, New York, NY. 4 Nov. 2006.

Reardon, B. (2001).  Education for a Culture of Peace in a Gender Perspective.  Paris: UNESCO.  Section 1: Introduction to Education for a Culture of Peace (pp.17-45)

Spring, J. (2007).  A New Paradigm for Global School Systems: Educating for a Long and Happy Life (pp.103-155). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Paul Klassen is an educator, father, and student of life. He is currently a masters degree candidate in Peace Education from the UN madated University for Peace.