Synthesis of the debate organized during the 2019 Normandy World Peace Forum.
Moderator: Françoise Mélonio, Professor Emeritus, Sorbonne University
Speakers: Olivier Sidokpohou, Educational Inspector of Mathematics and Assessor for the General Education Inspectorate of France; Bénédicte de Saint-Pierre, Deputy Chair of United Way; Florent Bonaventure, Director of Studies and Communication at Campus France

In 1846, the great French republican philosopher Jules Michelet wrote: “If education worked to unite men as much as it tries to divide them, if only two children, one poor and one rich, sat on the same school benches, so closely linked by their friendship, so divided by their careers, and if only they saw each other often, they themselves would do more than all the policies and all the morality in the world. With their selfless, innocent friendship, they would preserve the hallowed bond of society.”

Today’s media regularly reports on school violence and inequalities between schools. There is an increasing number of initiatives which aim to achieve true educational justice and to strengthen the quality of the education provided, two inseparable elements which ensure that education, in its many forms, is a factor which strengthens social co-existence and contributes both to society’s proper functioning and to the strength of relationships between nations.

The French national education system is often judged harshly and is considered to be a “sorting machine” for students, given the significant role of their geographical and social origins in individual success. However, when a child whose parents do not speak French or did not attend university is educated to a secondary level or beyond, this is already a great success and should not be denigrated when compared with other students from more advantaged backgrounds.

Knowledge does not prevent brutality; it is not enough in itself. It must be supported and embodied, particularly by teachers. The impossibility of expressing one’s feelings, which often results in the perception of other people’s very existence as an aggression, is one of the main sources of violence in schools. However, it is possible to learn to express a thought, a feeling and even a disagreement. Olivier Sidokpohou points out that the French national education system aims to strengthen this learning process, particularly via the final oral exam of the French baccalaureate. Knowledge is a cornerstone which encourages the development of dialogue and creates a certain distance with which to approach controversial subjects, while taking a step back from the conflict.

Gender inequality and prejudices are also sources of violence. Choosing school subjects is influenced by age-old social prejudices, particularly for girls. Paradoxically, co-education accentuates stereotypes as young boys try to find differences between themselves and girls and vice versa. Long-term work must be done in advance to show that no subject is specifically male or female.

Education must begin by encouraging selfknowledge, if it is to provide an understanding of other people which goes beyond stereotypes. This involves helping young people to understand their own desires and identity, while encouraging them to be open to new opportunities (professions, cultures, knowledge and social environments which are different to their own). However, none of this is possible without self-confidence. Consequently, it is vital to ensure that young people, both in educational and out-of-school settings, have an impression of their own success, rather than of their own failure. In being open-minded with regard to other people, they must learn what they want to become and enrol in an educational course or a programme which gives them the opportunity “to develop their own self-confidence”.

However, this self-confidence cannot develop without a teacher’s confidence in his or her students. Its absence can be devastating, according to Olivier Sidokpohou, but this confidence can also be perceived differently by students and teachers: students may see the demanding nature of teachers as a way of highlighting students’ failures. It is therefore up to teachers to demonstrate their confidence as part of their everyday teaching, thereby proving that confidence is entirely compatible with a demanding nature.

In addition, schools are places for international exchanges. Every year, 245,000 foreign students cross borders to study in France. 42% of doctoral students are foreign students, who contribute to the reputation of French universities. There is international competition between countries to attract these young talents because they provide countries with an economic boost and a qualified workforce. Florent Bonaventure considers that the presence of these students benefits both their host country and their country of origin, enabling them to experience another world view and to develop a better understanding of others. However, although this encourages a sense of openness, the experience can be psychologically difficult for foreign students, leading to their withdrawal and an isolated focus on their own identity.

Lastly, education regarding universal values and social behaviour must be included in school curricula as part of an educational programme focusing on citizenship. In 1999, a UN resolution gave a clear definition of the culture of non-violence and peace and the eight areas of action to promote this culture were unanimously adopted by the 193 states which participate in the United Nations. The first of these areas is education for all.

If education is to be a genuine agent of peace, it must include the expression of personal identity, discussions and the teaching of universal values.