Karen Murphy is International Director for Facing History and Ourselves, an international educational and professional development NGO. Photo credit: Facing History and Ourselves

In April, I presented alongside USAID education experts as part of the Agency’s Transitional Justice speaker series about the role of education in transitional justice. Transitional justice initiatives aim to address the legacies of widespread, systematic human rights violations, crimes committed by government or officially-backed entities or in the context of armed conflict. Unlike the more commonly discussed traditional transitional justice processes–prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations and other economic and institutional reforms–education is too often neglected. In authoritarian and divided societies with identity-based conflicts, education has quite often been used as an instrument of inequality and division and as a medium for spreading myths and misinformation, as occurred in Rwanda. Yet, we are slow to apply the same kind of rigorous reforms to this sector that we would do for the judiciary, military and police.

There are many interventions that can be made from the level of laws and policies that guide departments of education, to those which inform schools, to interventions in classrooms themselves. For example, USAID supports an education project in Bosnia and Herzegovina to build trust and partnership among students from different ethnic groups, and improve the capacity of teachers, school management and policy makers in implementing intercultural education. One of USAID’s goals in its Education Strategy (PDF) is improving equitable access to education for 15 million learners by 2015 in crisis and conflict environments, focusing on the most vulnerable such as displaced populations, ethnic minorities and war-affected youth.

History curriculum is crucially important within these contexts and is often left untackled because it is so potentially divisive and challenging. But not talking about the violent past and its legacies or addressing the transition and its effects in the classroom does not make them go away–silence can increase the tensions around the conflict and deepen the misunderstandings and misperceptions that groups have about each other (and themselves).

One of the most significant features of education within this context is that it offers a multigenerational opportunity, possibly the only sector with this kind of reach. Adult teachers and department of education representatives are themselves citizens who may have been actors during the conflict as well as witnesses and victims. They often need to wrestle with the violent past and its legacies, and the myths and misinformation in which they are perhaps invested, before they teach and discuss these things with students.

Students represent a new generation of citizens. Northern Ireland’s adolescents were all born after “the troubles.” South Africa’s adolescents are the “born free” generation. While these young people escaped the mass violence of their conflicts, they also missed the critical interventions that marked the transition to peace. Young people are inheriting not just societies that have experienced war and mass violence but the transitions themselves, their legacies and the legacies of the remedies. School is a critical place where new generations can and should learn about their societies, the conflicts and the human behavior that animated them, as well as the people who inspired peace.

Transition is multi-generational if we truly want security, stability, peaceful coexistence, and democracy. South Africa’s “born free” generation, for instance, need to feel deeply committed to the strength of transition, to seeing it through, to protecting the rule of law, a commitment to human rights and a vision of the future that is inclusive.