This photo, taken May 2012, highlights basic education programs building skills for the future in Rwanda. (Carrie Antal/USAID Africa Bureau)
This photo, taken May 2012, highlights basic education programs building skills for the future in Rwanda. (Carrie Antal/USAID Africa Bureau)

This April will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide — a tragic experience in modern history when the international community failed to take moral and political action. To reflect on the anniversary, we speak to Elisabeth King, a consultant with CIGI’s Africa Initiative and author of the new book From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

CIGI: The Rwandan genocide has provided several lessons on civil conflict and the international community. In your new book, what insight does your analysis offer on the role of education within Rwandan society, both today and prior to the events of 1994?

Elisabeth King: I argue that formal schooling — which we very dominantly tend to think about, globally, as a tool for building peace — actually contributed to underlying inter-group conflict in Rwanda in both the colonial period and in the years leading up to the genocide. More specifically, who had best access to schools (usually either Hutu or Tutsi Rwandans), what was taught (especially in history class), as well as pedagogy and classroom practices contributed to collectivizing and stigmatizing groups, and promoting inequality between Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans. All of these factors — collectivization, stigmatization and inequality — are widely recognized to have underlay conflict in Rwanda. What I argue in this book is that one of the places where this collectivization, stigmatization and inequality developed is in Rwanda’s primary and secondary schools. 

I also dedicate a chapter to education in the post-genocide period. I argue that while the current government has made important strides in improving the education system from a developmental perspective, when one examines schooling through peace and conflict lenses, there remain a number of problematic trends that deserve attention. As just one example, the univocal way that history is being reintroduced to schools by the minority Tutsi-led government marginalizes much of the Rwandan population. This and other issues need to be addressed if schooling is to avoid replicating the conflict-conducive practices of the past, and, moreover, perhaps fulfill the role people aspire it to fulfill — helping Rwanda move towards a durable peace.

CIGI: Your approach to understanding Rwanda — through the education system — is quite unique. What led you to study this particular aspect of society?

King: Surprisingly, given the inherently political nature of education, political scientists and education scholars interact relatively rarely. While other analyses of inter-group conflict in Rwanda have examined education as one factor among many, or have looked at the importance of other institutions such as the church, this is the first book to focus on education and its role in inter-group relations in Rwanda over time. As I put it in the book, I try to bring education from the margins to the mainstream. I don’t argue that schooling is a smoking gun or a panacea, but rather deserving of more attention and nuanced attention. 

As a political scientist focussing on peace and conflict, my interest in education systems was in part prompted by personal experience growing up in the French-language school system in Ontario. In pondering Canada’s conflict between anglophones and francophones, it struck me as important that I had a different understanding of where we had been as a country than my many university classmates who had been educated in English-language schools. I wondered about education in countries that experienced even more acute conflict. I also visited Bosnia-Herzegovina in the postwar period when two schools for different ethnic groups were popping up in places where there had been one before the war, and I intuitively believed schooling was a phenomenon deserving more attention. Aside from my own experience, I never do a presentation about this book without someone coming up and sharing the parallels they see between their own education, in places as different as Afghanistan, Israel and the United States. Seeking to understand the role of education in underlying conflict is not just a Rwandan problem, but one from which many countries may suffer and can learn, so the relevance of the book is wide.

CIGI: For countries with colonial histories, struggling to grapple with competing interests along ethnic, tribal or religious lines, what advice would you offer their governments or the international community in trying to quell rising tensions?     

King: Any advice I offer is certainly with a good deal of humility. At the highest level, I would make the case for not overlooking or oversimplifying education in conflict prevention and peace-building strategies. The book shows that there is no “one size fits all” cure for conflict-ridden countries and that any type of education is not necessarily a “good thing” in terms of inter-group relations. Rather than simply prescribing more education, policy makers in governments and the international community need to understand what kinds of education contribute to conflict and what kinds foster peace. The Millennium Development Goals have brought much deserved attention to the quantity of education; I argue that we ignore quality at our peril.

Another reason not to overlook the complexities of education in conflict and peace building relates to global demography. Forty-three percent of the Sub-Saharan African population is under the age of 15 and those trends extend to many areas of the world and many that are conflict affected, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given that more than half of out-of-school youth currently live in conflict-affected fragile states and that school enrollment rates are steadily increasing, more and more children in states most prone to violence are likely to find themselves affected by the content and structure of schooling in the years to come.

To end, let me be clear that the fact that education can contribute to conflict of course doesn’t mean that no education must build peace. I intend that my book draw more attention and funding to education, not less.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.