The symposium, "Building Bridges: Educational Policy in Divided Societies," offered insights on how educational systems are critical in helping repair the effects of deep-rooted racial, religious, ethnic or socioeconomic antagonism.
Northern Ireland Minister for Education Martin McGuinness and South African Ambassador to the United States Sheila Sisulu were featured speakers at the event, along with Maureen McLaughlin, '77, deputy assistant secretary for policy, planning and innovation in the US Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education. The Irish Studies Program and Lynch School of Education co-sponsored the symposium with the Global Citizens Circle.
Sisulu and McGuinness gave brief overviews of how their countries' conflicts influenced the evolution of their respective public education systems, and described recent and future initiatives to counter those effects and, in so doing, help build new societies free from the traditional sources of disunity.
Sisulu noted that apartheid had left the new South Africa a fragmented, authoritarian educational system, where resources had been divided along racial and ethnic lines. The system is undergoing a transformation, with each school taking "a firm stand against discrimination," she said. Since South Africa now recognizes 11 official languages, she said, schools are able to adopt a multilinglual instruction policy and teach black children in their mother tongue.
"The legacy of apartheid will not simply go away," said Sisulu, a former special advisor to the minister of education. "There must be a bond that holds us together, and allows us to build a society with equal protection for all citizens. Education is what will forge that bond."
McGuinness said segregated education has considerable roots in Northern Irish society, despite an integrationist movement that has resulted in the creation of 44 schools. Equity in education, as well as housing and employment, has been a factor in the longstanding Protestant-Catholic conflict, he said. As the fledgling Northern Irish government seeks to address the region's complex social problems, education leaders are mounting their own initiatives. This includes a wholesale review of schools' curriculum, he said, and the adoption of core values that emphasize citizenship and the teaching of civics, justice and democracy.
Echoing Sisulu, McGuinness said education must be part of a society-wide effort to confront prejudice. "We have to hold up the past to the light," said McGuinness, "and ask how we can move on."
McLaughlin described the challenges American education faces in ensuring that children of all backgrounds have the same opportunities. She described Department of Education programs to narrow gaps between schools in advantaged and disadvantaged communities, such as reducing class size and improving teacher preparation. Partnerships between schools, communities, businesses and higher education offer one area of promise, she said, noting that the department has awarded funds supporting 237 such endeavors in 28 states.
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