Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Education Against Extremism

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said that the military campaign to stop the Islamic State group has killed more than 10,000 of its fighters in less than a year. The announcement came at the same time as the news that IS had made advances in Iraq and Syria. A general conclusion is that the group is not deterred by fear of death, but no one is quite sure what drives these people to commit mayhem in order to create a world they want to live in. Hence the difficulty in finding out the right antidote.

Last month, the Oxford University announced that Louise Richardson had been nominated to become the next director and vice chancellor of the university, starting in January 2016. She would be the first woman vice chancellor of the university since the post was created in 1230. The Irish born professor is a specialist in counter-terrorism. According to her, terror groups are characterized by a "highly oversimplified view of the world" and the most effective "antidote" to violent extremism is education.

Speaking at a recent British Council conference in London, Professor Richardson said that "radical ideas belong in a university" and should be debated and challenged. She argued that education challenges the "black and white" views of extremists, undermining "simplification and certitude." Bill Rammell, vice chancellor of Bedfordshire University and former universities minister, who also spoke on the panel, warned that it would be "counter productive" to block open campus debate about radical ideas, because that would "feed the narrative of victimhood."

Certainly, such intellectual debates could help prevent radicalization of university students, especially those who are interested in developing their minds toward creating a better world. But for those already in IS ranks it's far too late.

One of the earliest proverbs I learned growing up in Croatia was (loosely translated) "from the cradle to the grave, the best is the learning age." It could mean that the nicest part of life is when you are a student, or that you should spend your life time studying.

In many European countries Philosophy is an obligatory high school subject, and inevitably a core subject at any humanity college. I majored in Linguistics at the School for Philosophy of the Zagreb University - clearly a Philosophy course was obligatory.  Discussions we practiced in these courses were later applied in the courses of Literature, Sociology, Political Sciences and others. Philosophy taught us how to think, analyze and explain the complexities of life around us.  It was one of my favorite subjects.

But most people have a limit beyond which they don't want to study. It often happens when a person graduates and begins to work. Building a career, making money, creating a family and other preoccupations take precedence over in-depth studies, discussions and debate. The conversations begin to center on things like mortgages, interest rates, electronic gadgets, quality of beer and house pets.  That would be an acceptable learning experience - it was for me - if another one followed. But that is usually where it stops. True, there are political and other discussions here and there, but their depth often depends on where you live and work.

Even if we do engage in lofty discussions, most of us become "set in our ways" as we grow older  and we have less tolerance for those whose values differ from ours.  Often, we have no patience to hear out the other side.  When I visit my "intellectual" friends in Zagreb, the discussions center around the best local dentists, the "in" fashion brands, family issues and gossip. The political discussion is reduced to general statements like "our political leaders are incapable" or "corrupt," or both, and "the country is on the edge of the abyss."  Even though the statements are true, one rarely gets an elaboration on the topic, and almost never a suggestion as to what should be done to change that. My French teacher says it's the same in France, so it's not just a local phenomenon.  It may be a little different in Washington's "elevated" circles, but don't count on a philosophical discussion in every bar in the city.

What a surprise and pleasure therefore it was the French movie La sapienza I happened to see this weekend.  Seemingly about Italian baroque architecture, it is a meditation on life and a reminder not to allow one's intellect to sink into the darkness of mediocrity, but constantly strive for light.  In La sapienza, film director Eugène Green offers an allegorical tale of a successful Swiss-born architect Alexandre Schmidt who professes adherence to French secularism, but has clearly lost passion for his own ideas. He decides to travel from France to Italy to resume research for a book on the Baroque architect Francesco Borromini. 

Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, Rome
On the shores of Lake Maggiore, he and his wife Aliénor encounter an Italian brother and sister in their late teens. The boy Goffredo wants to be an architect and so he accompanies Schmidt on a two-week trip looking at Borromini's buildings. 

Unlike Schmidt, Goffredo believes in spirituality. A model town he has constructed is centered around a temple for all religions. When asked what about people who have no religion, he says even they can feel the "presence" in the temple. And how does the architect achieve this ? “Through light,” he says.

Schmidt told Goffredo of the fierce rivalry between Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The former's work is mystical and the latter's highly rational. “I am Bernini,” says Schmidt who is obviously attracted to Borromini’s mysticism. Telling the story of the two architects to the younger man, rekindles his own passion that has been smothered by disappointments in his adult life and the contemporary materialism of his world.

The purpose of architecture is to create spaces where people can find light and love, concludes Schmidt at the end of the trip as he embraces his wife for what seems like the fist time after many years.

As I write this, it occurs to me that tomorrow is another day at work, another day in the box
with no light or love, a place where no radical thought will ever come up for discussion, and a place where passion for one's own ideas is systematically smothered.

In La sapienza, the renowned architect explains to the young Italian that a Turin chapel housing the famous shroud was attacked by an arsonist because "people want to destroy what they fear." Islamic State destroys ancient monuments. One may wonder what they fear since obviously it is not death.  Could it be their own mediocrity - the inability to create something that can be admired and serve as inspiration for generations to come?  It is preferable to be feared than to be ignored.

If, as Professor Richardson said, terror groups are characterized by a "highly oversimplified view of the world," the question one might ask is why they don't keep it to themselves and let others keep theirs.  Why is any individual thought or trait within a group strictly forbidden? Why does Boco Haram discourage education?  Even thought the translation of the name would suggest that only Western education is banned, to my knowledge Boko Haram does not allow any teaching except selected parts of Quran.  So my guess is people in these groups use violence to prevent others to think and learn.  Anything beyond blind obedience could lead to questioning the "wisdom" of the leadership and prove it wanting. 

It would be wrong to assume that members of radical groups lack intelligence.  If Islamic State was made up of stupid people it would not have recruited so many people and made such impressive territorial advances.  But the group's vision of the world has no future because it lacks an essential component: the understanding of an individual's need to seek enlightenment.

The West is not free of people with oversimplified views of the world either, in fact they dominate in many areas.  They may not take up weapons and shoot like Islamic State, but they fight in other ways to subdue those who don't agree with them.  At work, it's the lowest-level supervisors who impose rules made up by the higher management, and penalize any challenge to their authority.  In the U.S. health care system, it's the doctors who refuse to see a patient as an individual, but run everyone through the same set of rushed procedures.  In the financial world, it's the bankers keeping clients hostage through loans.  In the government, it's those pushing for huge military budgets at the expense of education. In the economy, it's the producers and consumers of the tons of cheap and tasteless goods, including food, movies and music.  None of them understand the long -term consequences of shoving their rules and procedures down everyone's throat.  The only way to escape people with oversimplified views of the world is hiding away on Aldous Huxley's Island.  

All over the world architects, real and figurative, do build spaces to be filled with light and love,  but the light is often blocked by people with oversimplified views.

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