Lessons in handling worries of the world

PUPILS SHOULD be taught to accept their own vulnerability in the face of terrorism or natural disaster, in order to foster a better understanding of the world, an American academic writes.

Nancy Lesko, of Columbia University in New York, believes that schools are often unwilling to acknowledge the realities of a crisis. Instead, they expend all their effort maintaining an illusion of calmness and normality.

Many schools refuse to interrupt their usual routine, even immediately after a disaster. The aim is to reinforce a sense of security by indicating that everything will continue as always.

In many cases, teachers are told only to respond to pupils' questions and to avoid introducing the subject of the catastrophe. In one Manhattan school, for example, teachers were allowed to refer to the events of September 11, 2001, only in limited, factual terms. Giving their own opinions resulted in suspension.

Professor Lesko says: "There is a sense that adults should always protect young people from controversy, upset and difficult understandings. To raise difficult knowledge has become synonymous with traumatising children." But she argues that this sense of security can also be misleading: everyone is vulnerable and can be affected by disaster, tragedy or pain.

Often, a whole-school response to a disaster takes the form of a charitable collection for the victims. This reinforces the idea that those who are safe are distinct. Professor Lesko cites middle-class pupils who visit inner-city schools and return feeling blessed by good luck and immune from hardship.

"Is there an emotional triumphalism akin to religious triumphalism, in which those who live in emotional safety will inherit the world?" she asks.

She suggests that schools focus on human beings' inherent vulnerability. In this way, pupils will understand that no one is immune from tragedy. They can then question the nature of personal responsibility.

If tragedy is not predetermined, then responsibility must lie with individuals, whether terrorists, politicians or casual onlookers.

* nl70@columbia.edu

Please contact us Adi Bloom would like to hear from anyone working on a project or publishing a paper that they think is relevant to TES readers. Please email adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

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