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Engaging Colombia’s students may be key to long-term peace

A FARC member waves a white peace flag to commemorate the completion of their disarmament. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

Engaging Colombia’s students may be key to long-term peace

The end of violence does not always constitute peace.

In June, Colombian officials announced that members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia had officially disarmed and become civilians after turning over the last of their weapons. This comes after the militant group signed a peace accord with the government in 2016.

Steps are being taken to promote truth, justice and reparations, and to remember victims of a conflict that saw the deaths of 220,000 Colombians.

But is this enough?

While incidents of violence have dropped dramatically across Colombia, a recent bombing at a popular shopping center in Bogota indicates the challenge of achieving and sustaining peace remains. Colombia’s peace is fragile, and the country is at risk for future violence due to its more than 50-year history of violent conflict, the instability in neighboring Venezuela and unresolved internal tensions between reintegration of FARC combatants and justice for victims.

My research on genocide and mass atrocity prevention and teaching methods shows that education at all levels can play a vital role in promoting peace.

Colombian universities, in particular, have an opportunity to prepare the next generation of political and business leaders to be agents of peace and social change. To do this, both public and private universities may need to rethink both what and how they teach. Having students work in diverse groups to research and write about real events in communities close to them can be a powerful tool for learning and developing peace-building skills. It could also serve as a model for other post-conflict zones, such as Rwanda or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Engaging students to build peace

Unlike other post-conflict countries where universities have been destroyed, Colombia’s higher education system remains strong. As such, it can help with the transition to peace if education leaders are willing to be creative. Public and private universities throughout Colombia are adding courses and degree programs to include information about the provisions of the peace accord and how to respond to past atrocities. This is part of a process known as “transitional justice.”

A speaker at Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. USAID/flickr, CC BY-NC

Adding new content to college curricula is a good first step. But building a peaceful society requires educators to place greater emphasis on promoting dialogue, listening and teamwork among students from different backgrounds. It means getting students to engage collaboratively with the community to define and resolve problems together.

These skills are often promoted by civil society organizations dedicated to peace-building, but they have largely been missing from university teaching, which continues to rely on traditional lecture methods.

One way to promote these skills in the classroom is to present students with an issue, or a “case,” to discuss in depth. To be effective and meaningful, these cases need to be relevant to the challenges facing students and, in my opinion, instill hope for a better future.

However, almost all cases in public policy have been written by authors at U.S. universities and set in U.S. organizations. A case about recruiting volunteers for a nonprofit organization in Ohio lacks relevance in Colombia. A growing number of cases are international or comparative, but few are set in Colombia or comparable contexts. Colombia’s situation is so unique that these cases are rendered ineffective.

So what can be done? My colleagues and I studied the effectiveness of having students research and write their own cases. Student-written cases provide a powerful teaching method to address both the lack of relevant cases and the need for developing dialogue, listening, collaboration and problem-solving skills.

In this setup, students work in teams deliberately structured to include geographic, gender, ethnic and professional diversity. Together they research and write a case that would demonstrate if and how concepts such as transparency, accountability, trust and justice apply within a Colombian community or organization.

As students write, the faculty guide the process. Faculty help students select a topic and setting. They make sure the topic is neither too broad or narrow. They help students gain access to essential people and documents. And they help students solve problems and edit the case to make it meaningful for others.

We used slightly different applications of student-written cases in our courses at three universities in Bogotá and Medellin – Universidad de los Andes, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and Universidad EAFIT. Many top political and business leaders are educated in these schools.

Over the course of a semester, one group of students developed a case about an existing program to promote leadership skills among children and youth in a rural area. In the past, these young people had turned to violence. The program taught them to work together.

In the process of writing the case, the students saw potential for similar programs elsewhere. During armed conflict, children are often the victims of violence and then become perpetrators of violence. Whether in Colombia or in the United States, when young people have no hope for a normal life with a job and family, they blame the “other side.” Hatred and violence continue. Lasting peace requires a sense of hope and some trust in communities. This case demonstrated how a local program could overcome distrust and build hope through dialogue and leadership development.

This case and the others written by Colombian students had all of the benefits that cases usually have in terms of the application of theory to practice. More than that, they also provided opportunities to work in teams, collaborate across differences and learn from each other, all of which will be essential skills in advancing a sustainable peace. The students said the experience was more rewarding and more applicable to their future because they worked in diverse groups.

Expanding teaching methods

While this research was done in the context of graduate-level programs in private universities in Colombia, it has much wider applicability. Lasting peace requires that individuals and groups from all segments of society, and students in all academic fields, understand the history of violence and be skilled in recognizing and stopping signs of its return.

When educators and students across countries and disciplines become partners in promoting peace, chances of preventing future mass atrocities will improve. Student-written cases and other teaching methods that promote dialogue and collaboration can be an important part of this process.