Student Perspective: Critical Thinking: A Key Element in Reconciliation and Peace-Building

Posted July 3, 2014

“The problem-posing method does not dichotomize the activity of teacher-student: he is not “cognitive” at one point and “narrative” at another. He is always “cognitive,” whether preparing a project or engaging in dialogue with the students. He does not regard cognizable objects as his private property, but as the object of reflection by himself and the students. In this way, the problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students–no longer docile listeners–are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher” – Freire (1990: 68).

Critical thinking, a key university value, contributes to peace-building by enabling people to question ideologies, authority and narratives of “the other”. Such questioning can lead to a greater understanding of conflict, a necessary precondition for the mutual trust that is required for eventual peace. Unfortunately, state and non-state authorities too often interfere with higher education communities, restricting or sanctioning the exercise of academic freedom, for the purpose of maintaining their power or the legitimacy of the narratives on which they depend. In this mindset, critical thinking is discouraged.

In some systems of formal education, the portrayal of one group as the perpetrators of violence and the other group as the victims impedes reconciliation. As Bar-Tal and Rosen (2009) explain, a nation’s collective memory often caters to this prejudicial dichotomy, as each group sees themselves as the victims. This makes reconciliation a distant utopian fantasy. Like the authors, I believe that peace education programs are a potential solution to this issue, but I argue that these programs must incorporate critical thinking and challenge common assumptions about “the other” in order for reconciliation and eventually, peace to exist.

In April 2014, a Palestinian Professor, Mohammad S. Dajani, traveled to the Auschwitz Nazi Concentration Camp in Poland with 27 Palestinian students . Dajani believed that this trip would facilitate empathy and tolerance. His actions ignited an immediate reaction from many Palestinians, including some who accused him of being a traitor. Despite this backlash, the students and Dajani openly expressed the profound effect the trip had on their lives, and encouraged other Palestinian youth to be open to exploring stories of “the other.”

At the same time, a parallel group of Israeli students arrived at Dheisheh refugee camp to attend a workshop facilitated by Palestinian refugees, to hear about the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their lives. Both trips aimed to create means through which all participants could openly discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consider the plight of both groups. This critical discussion, an essential component of academic freedom, is a crucial step toward reconciliation.

The professors that led these trips did not seek to absolve either group of their wrongdoing or to extirpate the cultural pride deeply ingrained in their students. They simply wanted to facilitate critical thinking about the conflict, and I applaud their efforts. Scholars have consistently emphasized the importance of critical reflection in peace-building and reconciliation and these groups have courageously begun to engage in this process. In doing so, the professors are treating their students as subjects that can effect change and initiate sustainable peace and not as objects to be acted upon. Moreover, through critical reflection and discussion, both groups are forced to confront the ways that both sides have been the perpetrators and recipients of violence throughout history.

Developing a greater understanding of “the other” does not signify a rejection of one’s own identity; on the contrary, it can lead to a more nuanced understanding of oneself. Educators have a powerful position in a society because they can use curriculum to challenge students to critically analyze their circumstances, effectively engendering reflection, which can lead to collective action. If authorities continue to impede critical thinking by imposing intransigent curriculum guidelines, it will not be possible to analyze, overcome or avoid conflict.

Higher education has the potential to play a significant role in peace-building by imparting the knowledge and skills, especially critical thinking skills, necessary to question and build understanding, from which peace might grow. In order to effectively play this role, higher education must enjoy conditions of freedom and values which allow critical thinking to flourish. A curriculum that lacks critical thinking can exacerbate current conflicts. Indoctrinating youth with hateful messages about “the other” will inevitably silence a more peaceful and collaborative ideology, and consequently concretize the politicization of factors such as religious and ethnic differences, that often play a central role in conflict. Institutions of higher education must support academic freedom in order to circumvent the obstruction of collaborative action. Ultimately, the suppression of academic freedom and critical thinking is an exorbitant price that society at large cannot afford to pay.


[i] King, E. (2008). “The Multiple Relationships Between Education and Conflict: Reflections of Rwandan Teachers and Students,” (pp. 137-151) in Educating Children in Conflict Zones: Research, Policy, and Practice for Systemic Change, A Tribute to Jackie Kirk. New York and London: Teachers College University Press
[ii] Bar-Tal, D & Rosen, Y (2009). “Peace Education in Societies Involved in Intractable Conflicts: Direct and Indirect Models.” Review of Educational Research 79(2) 557-575.
[iii] Booth, W. (2014 April 12). Palestinian University Students’ Trip to Auschwitz Causes Uproar. The Washington Post. Retrieved From
[iv] Freedman, S; Weinstein, H; Murphy, K and Longman, T. (2008). “Teaching History after Identity-Based Conflicts: The Rwanda Experience,” Comparative Education Review Vol 52(4) 663-690
Freire, P. (1990). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Group Inc.
Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research Vol 6(3),167-191
Ingelaere, B. (2010). “Do We Understand Life after Genocide?: Center and Periphery in the Construction of Knowledge in Postgenocide Rwanda, African Studies Review, Vol 53(1) 41-59

Read More:

Author Erika R. Hardaway
In Publication Years: 2014
In Resource Types: University Values