Tracing Violence’s Pedagogic Roots

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate | Leave every hope, ye that enter (Dante)

I awoke today to a news alert that there has been another shooting at the military base Fort Hood in Texas, USA. The New York Times reports: “Fort Hood Gunman Was Being Treated for Depression”. Critical analytic skills went on automatic shutdown as I found myself overcome by nauseating morosity: “Again…?!”

In the midst of finishing this posting for REA’s website, my mind flashed back to early 2013, when I began the task of composing a theme for REA’s Annual Meeting this year. The Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Connecticut, was still wrenching our guts, alongside daily accounts of violent outbreaks local and global. For thematic inspiration, I was wrestling with the question, “What is urgent, what is exigent, what demands our attention today as an association of scholars in religious education?” With increasing poignancy, the answer came: violence.

However, with this conviction also came an obvious problem: sure, violence is all around us, but there has already tremendous research and writing about this grand theme. What’s new?

It is a question that stumps, but also one that challenges. What are we seeing and not seeing, saying and not saying, hearing and not hearing about violence in its varied forms and valences? What have we missed, or mis-recognized? What unique perspectives and insights have scholars of “religion and education” or “religious educational theory and practice” offered to the study of and public discussions about violence? What can we claim, and what can we expand further?

There lies the generative potential of a theme so abstract yet replete with concrete instantiations. I am a 1.5-generation Vietnamese American academic and ordained clergy. If every research “itch” is in some ways autoethnographic (if not psychosomatic!), then the immediate “personal to my political” would be the war of Việt Nam—and yes, that is the correct and not phonetic spelling of the country’s name, with proper diacritics. Geopolitics of war notwithstanding, of that protracted conflict, the international community may remember American helicopters, immolating Buddhist monks, bodies spilling from boats afloat at sea, flesh incinerated by Agent Orange. However, those of us who had to make sense of life in the profanity and mundaneness of war’s aftermath—as if there is ever a definitive “end”—carry vague “inherited memories” of such things as learning mathematics through word problems like this one: “If you kill 2 + 2 soldiers, how many have you killed?” In the meanwhile, Vietnamese refugees who are shuffled through transition camps at U.S. military bases undergo cultural acculturation training with handbooks that teach “proper” American cultural behaviors and etiquettes—including such instructions as, “Don’t chew loudly.”

That is what grips me about the viral and insidious effects of war violence. That is what I would consider to be an instantiation of “violence’s pedagogies”—violence in the making through pedagogic means, with Elliot Eisner’s explicit, implicit, and null curricula in concurrent implementation. Look anywhere else and we see similar intricate productions in the works.

For instance, consider the following cultural exhibits:

From the 2006 documentary The Ground Truth, we are told of how U.S. military training in the latter half of the 20th century was recalibrated to teach soldiers to kill proactively and at close range. Fast forward to the aftermath of 21st-century warfare, and we have memoires from returning soldiers detailing the “Crazy” with which they live, after having been made into effective killing instruments programmed with distinct moral coding. In this broad-stroke scenario, there is “pedagogy” at work, toward precise habituation of technical knowledge, although not without fundamental rewiring of worldview and moral-ethical compasses. Religion lurks in the backdrop as we hear reports of problematic Christian proselytizing on military bases, or conflation of patriotism with religious ideologies in public discourse: “for God, for Glory, for Gold.”

In 1970s Cambodia, a high school compound in Phnom Penh was converted into the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21) under Khmer Rough regime, where tens of thousands were detained, tortured, and executed.  The site is now memorialized as Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, though the historical trauma is increasingly lost up-on post-Pol Pot generations, and merely a faint blip in the memory of the global community when discussing genocidal violence on educational grounds.  One wonders, what cultural languages and religious imageries are employed to depict and even preserve violence in such a memorial site that is the remains of both a place of schooling and a place of killing?

In Kenya, “(Christian) Religious Education” is a requisite subject matter in all primary schools, public or private—a vestige of British colonial education. It is said that non-Christian students may take RE in their own respective traditions, but given prevailing lack of certified teachers who can teach, for instance, Islamic Religious Education or Hindu Religious Education, “Christian Religious Education” becomes the default subject matter for standardized tests. Against the backdrop of the country’s enduring cultural, ethnic, nationalistic, and religious struggles, the situation should raise some curiosity: How might the teaching of Christian values in public schools intersect with the ongoing inter-tribal, Christian-Muslim, or Kenyan-Somali conflicts? How might the teaching of “Christian approaches to sexual behaviors” (an actual topic discovered in the scope and sequence of a national syllabus on ethics and human sexuality) intersect with the sexual assaults experienced by women and girls in camps for IDPs (internally displaced persons) in the aftermath of their violent 2007 election?

Bringing things back closer to “home” here in the U.S., within the domains of everyday life, when human bodies are violated, we see how religion is employed to teach why/how the “will of God” ultimately trumps human grievance. When puzzling over the economic violence of financial cliffs, we hear analogs of “prosperity gospel” in moral instructions about bootstrap-pulling personal piety and coat-donating versions of social care. When the media (or social media) brings to our attention instances of youthful violent “play” (e.g., raping in Second Life, accidental discharge of firearm employed as toy gun), we hear fierce cultural disagreements about what is the harm in such “recreational” activities, while seeing continued permutations of such trends as “muscular Christianity.” And as politicians and religious professionals debate the proper place of religion in the public square, in-house scholars of each religion wrestle with the irony of sacred texts teaching adherents to both love and hate….

Yes, my empirical descriptions above may be rhetorically hyperbolic and analytically far-fetched, but I beg to propose them to argue for the following premise and to press for new interpretive angles. The late philosopher Hannah Arendt had reminded us that “violence…always needs implements[1]—and they are not limited to the tools and technologies of warfare. Rather, more often than not, it is imbedded ideologies, attitudes, behaviors, and daily practices unexamined and taken for granted which abet violence’s “production” in everyday life. To press further, social constructionists have long argued that “violence” is not an innate or inherent feature of human behavior—it is learned.[2]  And because it is learned, it is also taught. In this vein, I hope to press on how the mechanisms of religion and mechanisms of education have served as “implements” in the making of various forms of violence, so that we could discover together more efficacious remedies for violence’s unmaking.

Religious Education (RE) as a field and the Religious Education Association (REA) as an organization with 110 years of history have at our core a responsive instinct to current, exigent issues inscribed in/by the intersections of religion and education.  A retrospective of conference themes over the last five years gives evidence: we puzzled over cultural-religious “otherness” (2009), we mapped global flows of religious learning (2010), we queried after human capacities for creativity and empathy (2011), we documented historical moves toward justice and freedom (2012), and we marked religion’s footprints in public domains (2013).  In all of this work, we RE scholars have endeavored to give expression and form to new in(ter)ventions between religion and education for the flourishing of the global community and planetary life.

One could say that RE and REA’s ultimate telos is the advancement of human rights, civil liberties, and religious freedom, specifically through pedagogic attention to peace, reconciliation, restorative justice…. However, before we rush toward “declaring peace when there is no peace,” let us wrestle hard with how religion and education (and expressions of “religious education”) have been complicit in the MAKING of violence in current times.

Possibilities abound, but I invite us to look for material concreteness. I invite us to examine incidents and contexts less familiar and still relatively under-studied. Some paradigmatic questions still require answers:

  • What is violence?
  • How do religious educators define violence?
  • What does violence do to our capacities to teach and learn?
  • How do we teach and learn violence in ways explicit and implicit?

I am eager to see what our collective inquiries would generate.

Mai-Anh Le Tran
2014 Program Chair

[1] On Violence (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1970).

[2] James Waller, Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

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