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Education Builds Peace, Right? The Complicated Answer for Today’s World

Education Builds Peace, Right? The Complicated Answer for Today’s World

In 2015, the United Nations ran an open survey called MyWorld. Nearly ten million people from around the world voted online to rank sixteen essential needs. From a list including jobs, health care, affordable food, an honest and responsive government, action on climate change, and so on, what ranked first in every age category from countries that rank lowest on the Human Development Index (HDI) to the very highest? “Getting a good education”. A broad spectrum of people across the globe put enormous faith and hope in education. These aspirations for education are also popular in the peace and conflict arena.  Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid leader and first black President, is often quoted for having called education “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” (1990). Likewise, the world’s youngest Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousafzai—who was shot by the Pakistani Taliban on her way to school in retaliation for her activism—advocates “Let us pick up our books and our pens, they are the most powerful weapons” (2013).  The last panel on display at Rwanda’s main genocide memorial echoes this same belief. It says:  “Education has become our way forward” (King 2014, p.1). 

Despite its importance, education is inadequately studied by scholars and students of political science, peace and conflict studies, and international relations.  Some years ago, I counted the number of articles that referred to education in some of the top journals in these fields.[1]I found that from 1994 to 2010, fewer than 1 percent of articles substantively referred to education or schooling in their title, keywords, or abstract (King 2014). I also found that when scholars in these fields do write about education, the focus is usually on education in the goal of peace.When education and conflictare written about in concert, the focus is usually on the disruption to education wrought by conflict. I argue, however, that additional relationships between education and violent conflict need also be considered to effectively deploy education as a tool of positive social change. In this short article, I present four key relationships between education, peace, and conflict (see also King 2011, King forthcoming), illustrate with contemporary examples, and conclude by suggesting some ways that readers may meaningfully move forward knowledge about education, peace and conflict. 

Education Can Prevent Violent Conflict and Build Peace

Consistent with Mandela and Yousafzai’s quotes above, it is widely held in scholarship and practice that education can help prevent violent conflict and contribute to (re)building peace in its aftermath. There are two main ways in which education is theorized to play these roles. First, with educational access, schooling can provide a sense of normalcy to students amidst the unpredictability of conflict (Winthrop and Kirk 2008). It can signal to people that the government cares about them and their futures (Thyne 2006). Equitable access to education for different ethnic or religious groups, or people from different regions, can reduce the horizontal inequalities that often increase grievances between groups (Stewart 2005). Educational attainment can increase the opportunity costs of participating in violence, meaning youth would have too much to lose to involve themselves in violence  (Collier and Hoeffler 2004; Humphreys and Weinstein 2008).  Second, educational contentcan have positive effects on children and youth’s attitudes and behaviors. Such educational content can include peace education, human rights education, civics education and the like (McGlynn et al. 2009; Bajaj and Hantzopoulos 2016). Individuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments are so committed to the importance of education that they often call for its inclusion in post-conflict peace agreements (Dunlop and King forthcoming).  While much of the literature I cite is written in reference to intra- or inter-state war, the themes resonate with other types of violence as well, including terrorism, where education plays an important role in discussions of countering violent extremism.

Violent Conflict Can Disrupt Education

That wars disrupt access to education is also well-recognized. Access to education in conflict-affected contexts is much lower than global and national averages.Children and youth in conflict-affected countries are 30 percent less likely to complete primary school and 50 percent less likely to complete secondary school compared to their peers in countries that are not affected by conflict (Education Cannot Wait 2017). In a recent study with two New York University (NYU) PhD candidates, Emily Dunlop and Jo Kelcey, alongside University of Nairobi Professor Caroline Ndirangu, we studied access to secondary education in conflict-affected contexts across sub-Saharan Africa. We found that girls have lower access and completion rates compared to boys, and that ethnic marginalization, poverty, and living away from urban centers also compounds already-significant challenges of access and completion in conflict-affected countries. Conflict is also particularly disruptive to internally displaced persons and refugees whose access to schooling is typically much lower than non-refugee populations (King et al. 2019). According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, two-fifths of Syrian refugee children of school-age are not in schools (Karasapan and Shah 2018).

Schools Can Be Targets in Violent Conflict

Despite the United Nations Security Council (2011) recognition of “schools as safe havens for children”, attacks on education are common. The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attackraises awareness about attacks on students and teachers at schools and universities, recruitment of schoolchildren into war, the use of educational facilities by armed groups, and more. It reports that between 2013 and 2017, upwards of 12,700 attacks on education occurred in more than seventy countries (GCPEA 2018). The 2014 kidnapping of 276 female students from a secondary school in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram—an extremist group whose name translates as “western education” or “non-Islamic education” is “forbidden”—is a poignant example amidst, unfortunately, many others. 

Education Can Contribute to Conflict

That education can contribute to conflict is the least well-recognized of the four relationships discussed here.  Indeed, when I speak about my book From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda(King 2014), in which I study the ways education can, and has, contributed to underlying intergroup conflict in Rwanda from the colonial period to the present, audience members often endeavor to correct my title with comments like “You mean from ‘Classrooms to Peace,’ don’t you?” In fact, schooling can contribute to conflict in a number of ways. In parallel with the ways that I organized education’s potential contribution to peace in the first subsection above—via structure and content of schooling —I study who has access to schools, how schools are set up, and as what is taught in schools. In my book, I show that different ethnic groups —Hutus or Tutsis— had better educational access at different times in Rwanda’s history depending on which group was in power, prompting important grievances. I also show the historical narrative taught in class invoked stigmatization and stereotypes with exclusive identities that focused on differences between Hutu and Tutsi Rwandans (see also King 2017).  

Education does not only contribute to conflict through national or locally-provided schooling. In her book, Education for Conflict or Peace in Afghanistan (2014), my NYU colleague Professor Dana Burde recounts Cold War-era American support for pro-mujahideen textbooks aimed to mobilize Afghan children against the Soviet Union. In a chapter called “Jihad Literacy”, she explains how a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded project implemented by the University of Nebraska created textbooks, teaching the alphabet with examples including “T is for topak [gun]” (p.77).  

The ways in which education can contribute to conflict are often subtle. In my work in Rwanda, for example, I emphasize that education is not “a smoking gun” (King 2014, p. 164) in directly teaching hatred or mobilizing students to violent action. Indeed, I often learn about other not obvious, but potentially destructive, educational processes from people who read my book or hear me talk about my work. When I was recently teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi, for instance, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of schoolteachers from across the Emirates. One approached me after listening to me speak about the issues in this article and told me that at the elementary school where she teaches in Dubai, when it is time for Arabic language lessons, the teachers call the students “Arabs come here”, “non-Arabs, come here” to direct them to their next classes.  She admitted she had not thought about this practice through peace and conflict lenses before—explaining they did not mean “Arabs” so much as Arabic speakers—and that she and her fellow teachers did not mean to divide the class in such exclusive or identity-based ways. In thinking about the potential for education to contribute to conflict, though, she left tasking herself to urgently speak about the potentially deleterious nature of this practice with her colleagues. 


Given education’s importance to people around the world and the varied ways in which education and conflict intersect, there exists a strongcase for deeper learning and research centered around these concepts. There is far more we need to understand in each of these relationships. Readers here at NYU will find a number of opportunities to become directly involved in this pursuit. Undergraduate readers may be particularly interested in NYU’s cross-school interdisciplinary minor in Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS) that includes restricted electives focused on education, peace, and conflict. Graduate-level readers may take such classes offered through NYU Steinhardt’s International Education program. NYU is also home to the Journal on Education in Emergenciesthat publishes articles, podcasts, and book reviews on education in contexts of conflict, crisis, and other humanitarian emergencies. All readers may find these resources of interest and NYU students can also look out for opportunities to intern with the journal. Finally, readers should stay attuned to the many events related to education, peace and conflict around New York City at the United Nations, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and numerous NGOs.  Education can and should “become our way forward”, as the Rwandan genocide memorial museum attests, but in a way that involves critical examination of the links to both peace and conflict. 


Professor Elisabeth King

Elisabeth King is Associate Professor of International Education and Politics at NewYork University and Founding Director of NYU’s interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in Peace and Conflict Studies (see: Her research interests include peacebuilding, development, and education in ethnically diverse and conflict-affected contexts. She is the author of From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda, named an Outstanding Academic Title by the American Libraries Association.


Bajaj, M. and M. Hantzopoulos (eds). (2016). Peace Education: International Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury. 

Burde, D. (2014). Schools for Conflict or for Peace in Afghanistan. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Collier, P. and A. Hoeffler. (2004). Greed and Grievance in Civil War. Oxford Economic Papers,56(4), 563-595.

Dunlop, E. and E. King. (forthcoming). “The Structure and Content of Education in African Peace Agreements from 1975-2011”. 

Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. (2018). Education Under Attack 2018: A Global Study of Attacks on Schools, Universities, Their Students and Staff, 2013-2017. New York: GCPEA.

Humphreys, M. and J. Weinstein. (2008). Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War. American Journal of Political Science, 52(2), 436-455.

Journal on Education in Emergencies. Available at:

Karasapan, O. and S. Shah. (2018). Syrian Refugees and the schooling challenge. Washington DC: Brookings. Available at: 

King. E. (2011). “The Multiple Relationships between Education and Conflict: Reflections of Rwandan Teachers and Students.” In Karen Mundy and Sarah Dryden-Peterson (editors), Educating Children in Conflict Zones: A Tribute to Jackie Kirk. New York: Teachers College Press, 137-151.

King, E. (2014). From Classrooms to Conflict in Rwanda. New York: Cambridge University Press.

King, E.( 2017). “What Framing Analysis can teach us about History Textbooks, Peace and Conflict: The Case of Rwanda” In Michelle Bellino and James Williams (editors), (Re)Constructing Memory: Education, Identity and Conflict. Rotterdam, Boston & Taipei: Sense Publishers.

King, E., E. Dunlop, J. Kelcey, and C. Ndirangu .(2019). Secondary Education for Youth Affected by Humanitarian Emergencies and Protracted Crises. Toronto: Mastercard Foundation.

King, E. (forthcoming). “Education, Conflict and Peace”. In Manish Thapa and Scott Nicholas Romaniuk (editors), Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies. London: Springer Nature.

Mandela, N. (1990). Speech at Madison Park High School in Boston. June 23. 

McGlynn, C., M. Zembylas, Z. Berkerman and T. Gallagher (eds). (2009). " Peace Education in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies: Comparative Perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Stewart, F. (2005). Policies towards Horizontal Inequalities in Post-Conflict Reconstruction. CRISE Working Paper.

Thyne, C. (2006). ABC’s, 123’s and the Golden Rule: The Pacifying Effect of Education on Civil War, 1980-1999. International Studies Quarterly,50(4), 733-754.

United Nations Security Council. (2011). Resolution 1998. Available at:

Winthrop, R. and J. Kirk. (2008). “Learning for a Bright Future: Schooling, Armed Conflict, and Children’s Well-Being”.Comparative Education Review52(4): 639-661.

Yousafzai, M. (2013). Speech to the United Nations. July 12.


[1]I focused on Journal of Peace Researchand Journal of Conflict Resolution, arguably the two top peace and conflict-focused journals, and the five journals published by the International Studies Association (International Studies QuarterlyInternational Studies Review, International Studies Perspectives, Foreign Policy Analysis, and International Political Sociology). 

Vol. 24 - Spring 2019

Vol. 24 - Spring 2019

Figuring Out Who Governs When Trying to Improve Transportation

Figuring Out Who Governs When Trying to Improve Transportation