Sad Anniversary of Boko Haram Kidnapping

A year ago many of us were outraged at the kidnapping assault on more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. Boko Haram aimed to destroy the education of girls and women through ferocious violence. There have been more attacks since then, but a year ago there was hope that a global campaign might increase pressure on the Nigerian government, perhaps in concert with other countries, to find a way to rescue the girls and put an end to Boko Haram’s terror. Nothing remotely like this has happened.

I wish I had an idea about what we might do to increase the likelihood of rescue, or at least to decrease the likelihood of further attacks. I don’t. But I do know it’s important to remember those who have been victimized by violence. I do know that we must keep alive the memory of these girls, and their dream of an education. And so I mark this day.


Why They Attack Schools

I posted this on HuffingtonPost yesterday.


Yesterday’s horrific news came from Pakistan. Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar, killing at least 145. Children were gunned down in their classrooms, or as they attempted to flee. Teachers and other staff members were murdered in cold blood.

Several months ago we watched in horror as Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in Nigeria. As a worldwide campaign demanded to “bring our girls home,” the terrorists expanded the diabolical domain of their cruelties. Most of the girls are still far, far from home.

This week we observe the anniversary of the shootings in Newtown Connecticut that killed 27. The revulsion at the time energized some to demand stronger gun control laws, at least universal background checks. And efforts were made to improve mental health services. Most of the work failed to result in legislation as outrage faded to apathy (and worse) among politicians.

Since Newtown there have been somewhere between 75 and 100 shootings at American schools. Many of these were acts of violence not directed at the schools or students per se, but CNN still concluded that 15 of the incidents were similar to Newtown or Oregon — a minor or adult actively shooting inside or near a school. One school shooting every five weeks. CNN breaks down the kinds of shootings here.

Of course, there are shootings at plenty of other locations, and the motivations of the Taliban attacking a military school are very different than those of a mentally ill young man who attacks an elementary school.

But the fact that these murders occur at schools increases their visibility, and intensifies our own revulsion at the destruction of innocent lives.

Why are schools and universities the scenes of such violence? Is it because schools, with all their problems, remain for us places of hope and optimism? Places of education are spaces for people who still believe in possibilities for positive change. We send our children to school because we hope that they will learn about themselves and the world in ways that will enable them to thrive – not just to navigate more effectively but also to flourish.

We look to colleges and universities to empower students to support themselves, to be sure, but also to make meaningful contributions to their communities. We invest so much time, treasure and emotion in our educational institutions because through them we hope to build cultures of learning, of inquiry, of appreciation and engagement. Schools face the future; violence cuts the future off.

Attacks on schools are meant to undermine our core values and our belief in the possibilities for a better future. When we defend education from violence, we reaffirm our faith in the power of learning to combat destruction and to create meaning.

Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel laureate put it this way: “Innocent children in their school have no place for horror such as this.” She went on to say: “I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters — but we will never be defeated.”

Schools represent hope grounded in learning. They represent a culture’s aspiration to enhance individual potential and to build in students a capacity for living fuller, more meaningful lives in concert with others. Attacks at schools are attacks on this aspiration.

May the memory of those killed at schools inspire us to defend our hopes for learning beyond the threat of violence.


Full Access to Education for Girls and Women

This week we sadly remember the three-month anniversary of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls from Chibok. The world’s attention for these victims of brutal terrorists has underscored that the battle for equality in the developing world is inseparable from the battle for access to education for girls and women. Unfortunately, no hashtag campaign, no matter how popular, will liberate the girls from an army so convinced of its religious superiority that it rapes, tortures and murders with impunity. An international military effort is needed to defeat Boko Haram — otherwise a protracted civil war in Nigeria will further immiserate the poor in the entire region. Only when these terrorists are defeated will the people of the region have a chance to to share in the benefits that education brings.

Providing a safe place for girls and women to pursue their education is the best vehicle we know for combating poverty, disease and economic injustice. The demand that girls and women have a right to a full and equal education is not a parochial Western value — it is a fundamental human right. It is worth fighting for the ability of girls and women to have a safe, equitable and inclusive education wherever that right is compromised by the dogmatic assertion of male privilege.

Many in the United States have been focused recently on the ways our own culture denies girls and women equal educational opportunities. And the issue isn’t only one of gender. Gay, lesbian and trans students are often vulnerable to attacks — from the subtle to the most extreme. Violence against women, especially sexual assault, has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education. Sexual assaults are dramatically underreported across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. This will only change when survivors know they will be treated with respect and care, and when the process for pursuing their claims is fair and timely. Schools have a responsibility to work with judicial authorities, but they also have a duty to ensure the safety of their students beyond what police departments and the criminal justice system can do. On my own campus, we know that any assault is deeply painful for the survivor and a serious blow to the community’s ongoing mission to create a challenging but safe environment for learning.

Violence of any kind has no place on campuses, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it can have long-lasting traumatic after-effects and insofar as it plays on stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. When women, or any group, are made to feel more vulnerable, they are less able to receive the full benefits of learning. Activists across the country should be supported in their efforts to empower students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with the mission to promote fair and equal access to education.

The free inquiry at the core of a genuine education often leads to challenges to traditional hierarchies. Genuine education challenges privilege and can empower people to change their lives. That’s why the girls in Chibok went to school, and that’s why American students demand access to educational opportunity without the menace of violence. Yes, Chibok is a long way from my university, Wesleyan, and the lives of women in the two places are so very different in many respects, but when we remember our commitment “to bring our girls home,” we remember too our commitment to fight everywhere for the rights of girls and women to claim an education free from the threat of violence.