The Heart of the Matter

In learning about the peace heroes, students learn about what it means to be human, first. Yes, they learn history in the process; they learn some geography; they learn about key issues affecting people around the world. But the primary learning happens on a different level altogether. And that’s what makes all the difference

“History holds the potential, only partly realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum” [1]

Someone recently asked me some very poignant questions about the way in which the Curriculum engages with today’s accepted historical method of inquiry. The conversation, though fascinating and insightful, made me realize how important it is to set down expectations about what the Curriculum is – and what it isn’t. The purpose of the Curriculum is not historical inquiry. Rather, the Curriculum aims to develop students’ ability to take historical and current narratives and find ways to connect these to their own life-circumstances in a way that inspires them to step out and take responsibility for the realities around them. In other words, it’s not about gathering and analyzing information, but about transformation – on a personal, communal, and even global level. More important than the historical details are the values that will hopefully be remembered and applied.

This point was beautifully illustrated to me last week when I had the chance to participate in two different events where students from our pilot schools gave wonderful presentations about the peace heroes. The first event took place on Friday when a number of students from the Jerusalem School presented on their favorite peace heroes to a group of women philanthropists who were visiting the school and wanted to learn more about the Curriculum. A few days later, we had the opportunity to visit our pilot school in Bethlehem, where the sixth grade classes were presenting their year-end projects on Thich Nhat Hanh, who is one of our heroes from Asia. In both instances, as I sat and watched these kids talk about their heroes, I saw for myself how the values they were learning had trickled down into their own context and were making a difference in the way these students were interpreting the world around them.

All the students who presented are Palestinian. In other words, these are children who understand what it means to live in conflict, who have experienced violence in some form or other, who have been touched by death – whether directly, or one or two degrees removed – in a way that is sometimes hard for people living in the West to understand. With this in mind, to see the things they latch onto with each hero takes on new significance. Take, for example, the sixth grade student who chose to present on Rigoberta Menchu from Guatemala and kept coming back to the fact that her two brothers, her father, and later her mother, all died very violent deaths – and yet Rigoberta chose to stand up for her people without using violence. The amazement behind his words was palpable – that Rigoberta could experience such loss, and not choose the way of revenge! “This,” he promptly told us, “is why she is my peace hero.”

Similarly, when asked what they admired most about Thich Nhat Hanh, also known as Thay, the sixth grade students in Bethlehem offered things like: “That he didn’t give up working for peace,” “that he was always calm, even in the face of war,” “that he didn’t give up on his faith, even when holding on to it was really hard,” “that he was brave, in spite of the destruction in his country,” “that he helped refugees and people who were suffering,” “that he didn’t leave anyone behind.” Without a doubt, the things that stood out to these students about Thay’s life are the ones that spoke into their own personal context – to a certain extent, the students could appreciate how hard it would be to make the choices Thay made, given his very difficult circumstances during the Vietnam War. Because the students could understand something of this, Thay’s story had the potential to transform their own life-stories as well.

You see, in learning about the peace heroes, students learn about what it means to be human, first. Yes, they learn history in the process; they learn some geography; they learn about key issues affecting people around the world. But the primary learning happens on a different level altogether. And that’s what makes all the difference. Do the students always get their facts and definitions right? Quite frankly, no. (During the presentations, one student said Mama Maggie won the Nobel Peace Prize, which she didn’t; another lumped China in with the USSR; several of the students confused the timeline of French and Communist rule in Vietnam; and – perhaps a little more memorably – one student explained that guerillas are a kind of group that believes in peace and nonviolence.) But these details are all relatively small mix-ups – information that will right itself in time, as the students grow older and deepen their understanding of world history and politics. The point isn’t how accurate their facts are, but whether or not they understand the essence of the stories they are learning and the significance and beauty of the peace heroes’ choices in light of their historical circumstances.

The young boy who presented on Mama Maggie said he loves how she helps all people, no matter who they are – “Christians, Muslims, Jews – everyone!” he told us with great enthusiasm. Never mind that there are no Jews in Cairo’s garbage slums – that’s beside the point. The point is that this student has understood Mama Maggie’s heart – a heart that desires to reach out and help those born into poverty, regardless of their religious/ethnic/social identity. This he gets. And if this is what he takes away and remembers about his encounter with Mama Maggie, then it is enough. It is more than enough, because he will have internalized the very heart of the matter – and maybe, one day, it will change him. Change him not in some vague and idealistic way, but in a way that is directly related to the circumstances in which he lives, where division between Christians, Muslims, and Jews is rife – and the upholding of human dignity can be a monumental challenge. His interpretation of Mama Maggie’s life is telling – telling because of the way he took her values and superimposed them on to his own reality. This, in the end, is the purpose of the Curriculum. And frankly, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

[1] Wineberg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. Print. Quote from page 5.

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