Main Image Credit Courtesy of Anthony Crider/Wikimedia Commons.
Could the recent upsurge in far-right extremist violence be countered by preventing or countering violent extremism education efforts aimed at teaching historical awareness or critical thinking skills?
In the context of the global shift towards ‘softer’ alternatives in counterterrorism efforts, policymakers and practitioners have pointed to the role of education systems and educators in building the resilience of young people to violent extremism (VE). In a recent paper, this author explored the effectiveness of education approaches in preventing or countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and the evidence base for the assumptions that underpin these approaches.
The paper found that whilst radicalisation studies have rebutted the assumption that a lack of education leads to radicalisation, many programme interventions are based on an understanding that education systems can play a central role in the reduction of VE. Young people are thought to be the group that is most vulnerable and susceptible to extremist narratives while also being more action-oriented and less risk-averse than adults. As individuals in these age groups tend to spend the majority of their time in the education system, education interventions are often considered to be and an easy access point for interventions.
Yet, education-focused P/CVE interventions are not without their critics, and the assumptions that underpin them do not always hold true. For example, despite the well-intentioned ambitions of safeguarding young people, the focus on youth vulnerability in practice often leads to the monitoring and policing of extreme thoughts and attitudes young people may have, even if those young people are not at risk of embracing violence as a means of achieving their goals. As the literature on radicalisation demonstrates, the conflation of radical beliefs or attitudes and extreme behaviours is not supported by empirical research and can lead to a shift in focus from safeguarding and providing inclusive education to identifying, punishing, and rehabilitating ‘undesirable’ students.
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that education interventions can play a role in P/CVE in certain contexts if they effectively address local drivers of VE and are designed and delivered in a way that resonates with students. While many of the factors that drive individuals to VE, including economic circumstances and broader political and societal conditions, cannot be directly addressed through educational activities, interventions in this area can contribute to increasing the resilience of students to VE. This can be done through the promotion of critical thinking skills, the teaching of civic values, historical awareness and human rights, or through the exposure of students to different perspectives on the same issue.
Unlike interventions that are specifically targeted at young people who are thought to be ‘at risk’ of radicalisation and recruitment, these types of interventions are typically aimed at the entire population of students. Instead of tackling a specific risk, they aim to help students reject violent extremist ideologies before radicalisation processes even begin. This makes it difficult to prove that interventions were effective in preventing VE as it is impossible to determine how many of the students who were involved in these activities were otherwise going to turn to violent action. Still, there is some evidence to suggest that if done right, these approaches can make students more aware of the dangers of VE and better able to resist recruitment and radicalisation efforts.
The recent upsurge in violence linked to the far-right in Europe and North America in recent years, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which far-right groups have reportedly capitalised on to further their objectives, provides a good example of how exactly education interventions can be applied to counter a specific VE threat.
Evaluations of existing P/CVE interventions in the education sector that are directed at the far-right indicate that the factors for success in these interventions are similar to those aimed at other forms of extremism. Generally, approaches that involve engaging young people in dialogue, even if it is controversial, rather than aiming to instil the ‘right’ values from above to transform the entire population of students into ‘desirable, liberal democratic’ young people have a higher chance for success. Equally, the style of facilitation and the ability of educators to listen to and understand students’ perspectives is essential in avoiding a scenario in which students simply ‘switch off’ when confronted with opinions that are different from their own.
If those general conditions are fulfilled, education interventions can be effective in countering specific aspects of far-right extremism. One such example are the recent attempts of the far-right to exploit demonstrations led by the Black Lives Matter movement to promote their narratives and provoke hate, division and societal polarisation. In the UK, groups of activists, including some with links to the far-right, clashed with police as they gathered under the justification of protecting statues from anti-racism protesters. Meanwhile, a series of vehicle ramming attacks directed against protesters marching in support of the Black Lives Matter movement has rattled the US in recent weeks, whilst pictures and videos of these attacks have been circulating in white supremacist circles. In this context, historical consciousness and education were highlighted as a central element in the fight against white supremacist ideologies.
Evidence suggests that historical and civic education can promote an appreciation for political, religious and cultural diversity and reduce racist sentiments. Inclusive curricula covering multiple perspectives on historical, religious or other content can promote the understanding of a shared common identity. This also includes teaching students about uncomfortable and regrettable parts of history and contemporary world events. As the example of Germany’s approach to dealing with its own racist legacy through the education system demonstrates, debating the government’s role in past human rights abuses and other injustices can play a role in combating racism and far-right extremism.
Similarly, education approaches could be applied to address issues such as the belief in conspiracy theories, which has been closely linked to the far-right in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. While coronavirus conspiracy theories have originated from a number of different actors, including China and Russia, the far-right has capitalised on and promoted a wide array of conspiracy theories about the pandemic. A recent study on coronavirus conspiracy theories indicated that educational attainment was not directly correlated with such beliefs. Nevertheless, building critical thinking skills and other specific attributes in students through education efforts can arguably contribute to lowering the likelihood of individuals believing in conspiracy theories that are part of far-right narratives.
Evidence from existing interventions suggests that changing how students think, for example, by improving their ability to critically evaluate arguments and perspectives they are confronted with, can make them less likely to fall for the simplistic, binary worldviews that are often inherent to violent extremist narratives. Similar evidence was found with regard to interventions aimed at improving integrative complexity, the ability of students to acknowledge multiple viewpoints on topics including values and identity. Interventions in this area build up skills that young people can apply to question and analyse any information they are confronted with, unlike rote memorisation which only covers the content taught in the lessons.
The relationship between education and (far-right) extremism is context-dependent and multi-faceted and the success of P/CVE education interventions is also highly dependent on local factors. Education interventions can only address a limited range of concerns related to VE, but as the example of recent issues regarding far-right extremism shows, carefully designed education interventions can play a role in making young people more resilient to radicalisation and recruitment efforts. While perpetuating the image of extremists as uneducated and presenting education initiatives as a panacea to VE is unhelpful, education can play a limited but important role in the effort to counter the threat from extremist violence.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.