My introduction to William Shakespeare came in the Cairo of the late 1970s in a high school English class. The teacher, a liberal female in her late twenties, insisted that students buy a copy of The Merchant of Venice, in an abridged form, as an extracurricular text. Did she want to teach the group of impressionable Arab teens a lesson in the quality of mercy, now that Egypt and Israel had begun peace talks? Or was she so moved by the intricacies of Shakespeare’s plotting that she had to share? Perhaps her educational agenda included a historical overview of moneylending and interest-rate calculation?
Well, none of the above.
“Jews are loathed all over the world,” she drummed into the class, presenting Shylock as evidence in the class-courtroom she ran. More than two decades later (and, for me, away from the Middle East), little had changed. My nephews’ and nieces’ grade school textbooks in Sana’a, Yemen, exalted the virtues of martyrdom and self-sacrifice in the name of jihad. Whoever said that time and history move forward clearly underestimated human capacity for prejudice and stupidity.
I could not help recalling these adventures in the Arabic school system while reading Matthew Lange’s compelling and radical take on the role education plays in fomenting and mobilizing ethnic violence in many spots around the world. In Educations in Ethnic Violence: Identity, Educational Bubbles and Resource Mobilization, the McGill University sociology professor challenges many of our received wisdoms about the redemptive role of education. His book is both important and disturbing because it takes something every civilized society in human history has viewed as a force for good and social change and reveals it to be a flawed, potentially destructive creature.
As Lange points out in his introduction, there is “growing evidence” that members of organizations that use terrorist techniques are in fact very well educated, thank you very much. Mohamed Atta, the mastermind behind 9/11, was the son of an established lawyer in Cairo and brother to two university professors. When not plotting a massacre by jetliners, Atta was busy studying urban planning in a German university.
Lange’s main concern, however, is not terrorism but ethnic violence, and he draws on both qualitative and quantitative research to trace where, when and how education comes into the mix. The theoretical framework and statistical methods in chapters of the book are strictly for diehard sociologists and are at times impenetrable to the general reader (even to this academic). They do, however, show the meticulousness of the research—particularly as they take into consideration statistics on the intersection of education and violence from 121 countries.
It is easy to see why Lange insists on extremely rigorous methodologies. His findings could be misinterpreted as suggesting that the cure to ethnic violence is less and not more education, when in fact education and violence only go hand in hand in certain settings and under specific circumstances. Education, he argues, is more likely to fan the flames of ethnic violence in resource-scarce environments where the educated are forced to compete for what little of them there are. The scarcer the resources, the more the frustration is felt and the more violent the aggression levels become. Countries with effective—read democratic—political institutions (and Lange draws in Canada and modern-day Germany as examples) are less likely to have their education systems used as springboards for violence because more peaceful and legitimate methods of expressing anger or frustration are in place.
The heart of the book and its claim to a much-deserved wider readership comes in the four chapters (plus a conclusion) that follow the theoretical framework. Lange uses comparative-historical techniques, including narrative, that take in destinations as similar and as diverse as Sri Lanka, Cyprus, the Palestinian territories, India, sub-Saharan Africa, Canada and Germany. In these chapters, Lange the hard-core sociologist relaxes and provides a lucid and thoroughgoing summary of each country’s unique brushes with ethno-nationalist violence—all through the prism of educational expansion or scarcity. The longer chapters covering Sri Lanka and Cyprus in particular are richly detailed and, no pun intended, provide an education in the history of ethnic violence.
Both countries present irrefutable evidence not just of Lange’s theory of education’s role in fanning the flames of ethnic violence but of the fine line between nationalist pride and the human atrocities committed in its name. In Sri Lanka, for example, two competing ideas of nationalism—one Sinhalese and the other Tamil—resulted in a civil war that cost the lives of more than 100,000 Sri Lankans. As Lange makes clear, “educated individuals played instrumental roles in promoting each” version of nationalism. Both groups used universities as bases for recruitment, and literature and art to lay claims on the land—claims that by definition excluded the other community from many rights and privileges.
An expansion in education after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 led to an oversupply of educated graduates in a relatively short period. White-collar jobs—then and now the symbol of status and mobility, particularly in the developing world—became scarce and the competition led to social resentments that, in turn, found release in outbreaks of violence. Parallels to the current situation in the Middle East and the events of the Arab Spring come to mind. Egypt and Yemen, for example, have witnessed an explosion in post-secondary education in the 1980s and ’90s, partly to meet the demands of a growing population, but without the benefit or even the possibility of an economy that could absorb such massive growth.
But Lange’s book would be merely historical in perspective without a final chapter that not only reiterates some of his findings but also refines them while offering some vital implications for policy makers. For one thing, he writes, the findings in his book “suggest that popular beliefs about the impact of education on peace and tolerance are one-sided and must be reconsidered.” Lest his argument get hijacked by neoconservative policymakers—although the book is politically neutral, leaning neither left nor right—Lange cautions against investment in education purely as a means of economic growth without an equal emphasis on critical and reflective thinking.
In his analysis of this country, focused though it is on the separatist question in Quebec, Lange proves that our by and large peaceful encounter with ethnic division is the result of a stable Canadian political system, a diverse school system and the abundance of resources that defuse the impact of competition among the educated.
But for how long will these favourable circumstances prevail and keep ethnic divisions at bay in Canada? Lange does not answer or, for that matter, raise that question, but part of his book’s power is encouraging readers—especially anyone who escaped to Canada to avoid the very examples of ethnic violence in his book—to imagine all sorts of what-if scenarios. The recent student demonstrations in Montreal suggest that the resources are getting tighter or perhaps beginning to be spread too thin. An explosion in post-secondary education in Canada as a whole comes just as the wheels come off the global economy. And this current government has been flirting with such outrageously muscular versions of nationalism—from Arctic sovereignty to military jet-shopping binges—it is not inconceivable that, should the economic crisis deepen, ethnic differences in Quebec and beyond will not always be so peaceful. If that happens, Lange’s research will provide a sobering lesson on how other nations have experienced the same ordeal.