Harold Behr

Education as an Antidote to Prejudice

The term ‘education’ is a catch-all. In his book, ‘Education for Death’, the American journalist John Gunther tells about Nazi techniques for indoctrinating children into their mad ideology, which included fostering a Hitler-worshipping cult, instilling hatred for Jews and preparing their youth for the supreme mission of achieving martyrdom for ‘the fatherland’. It makes for chilling reading and in today’s arenas of conflict it makes for even more chilling comparisons.

In apartheid South Africa, where I was brought up, black children were denied the education given to white children. The white minister for ‘Bantu Education’ felt that there was no need to prepare blacks for anything other than unskilled labour, and South Africa is still suffering from the effects of that policy.

School education is shaped by a curriculum, which is crafted by teachers who are answerable to higher authorities, either secular or religious. Parents play a part in educating their children, too. Like most of my South African Jewish compatriots, I was educated in two worlds. As a white schoolchild, I was taught the two languages spoken by whites: English and Afrikaans. Whites were largely ignorant of the lives of black people, who comprised the vast majority of South Africans. Along with their languages, customs and traditions, blacks resided in an alien wilderness. Seen through a childhood lens, they were mostly domestic servants and manual labourers, to be treated kindly in their subservient roles but otherwise to be ignored and kept in their lowly place. This was a perception reinforced by legislation.

Jewish and non-Jewish children mixed freely in the playground but when school was out the Jewish children kept their own company, encouraged by attendance at synagogues, Cheder classes and Zionist youth movements. As a pupil at a predominantly non-Jewish High School and the child of parents who were only lukewarm about the religious side of Jewish life I was less prone to the magnetic pull of Jewish communal activities than most of my Jewish friends. At school, I obediently recited ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and sang Christian hymns but I never succumbed to the temptation of embracing another faith. My tightly knit family life had immunised me against that.

In the privacy of the family home, I led a sort of Marrano existence. I was taught about Jewish festivals and imbued with enthusiasm for the Zionist cause but at the same time I was encouraged to broaden my educational horizons beyond the Jewish sphere. Some of my playmates were non-Jewish and so were most of my teachers, while at home I was privately coached in Hebrew by my father, a teacher who had one foot in a state school and the other in Jewish education. Out of this brew, I distilled my secular Jewish identity but I was also conscious of the need fill in the lacunae of my ignorance about other ethnic groups.

Prejudice can be defined as the false perception of groups other than one’s own, based on ignorance, distortion and simplistic over-generalisation. My question now is, how can education be deployed to weaken this three-headed monster? Today’s children become tomorrow’s parents and teachers.

The way forward, as I see it, is to bring together children from different religious and ethnic backgrounds for educational purposes. If this cannot be done formally because of religious or state prohibitions, it must be done informally, by reaching across cultural divides and setting up mixed groups in which these children can socialise and be taught together.

This calls for parental cooperation, so we may only be addressing a minority of families in the first instance, but in the right climate, respect and understanding grow more rapidly than prejudiced assumptions.

Any subject can be taught in such an integrated educational environment. Music is a great unifier at all ages, so singing, dancing and playing an instrument can easily be incorporated into the curriculum. The teaching of languages is important, too. Learning to speak and write in a language other than one’s own inspires respect for those whose medium for self-expression is different to one’s own. Cooking and eating together also teaches children about one another’s dietary customs, and this extends to an awareness of different cultural festivals and their meaning.

The teaching of history is inevitably a thorny issue. Different narratives frequently clash, but it should not be beyond the competence of sensible educators to design a syllabus which allows for the compassionate understanding of competing narratives. When it comes to rapprochement, children are often more imaginative than their hard-bitten elders at discovering solutions.

The teaching of science and maths is a less contentious area in which projects can be worked on collaboratively. And sporting activities which allow for integrated teams to train and play together can also be a stepping stone to intercultural harmony.

The aforementioned might sound like a prescription for cloud-cuckoo-land, but the alternative – the relentless strengthening of barriers behind which to shield prejudice and hatred – is too awful to contemplate.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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