I can’t help but worry for the future of Colombia, and it’s not a concern rooted in the conventionally accepted reasons for our violent strife. The way we raise and nurture our children is directly linked to why this armed conflict has yet to run out of breath. Our indoctrination and educational practices create generation after generation of ignorant masses. When faith is hailed as the highest virtue and history and scientific/philosophical thinking are rejected, el pueblo is easily deceived and exploited. Nevertheless, hope for a better tomorrow can be found in how we choose to deal with the decerebration of the masses.
“An ignorant people is the blind instrument of its own destruction.”
Social structures put in place by the Catholic Church since Spanish colonial times and the government since the birth of the nation have steered Colombians into ignorance. Such mental poverty is directly linked to detrimental changes made to the education of our citizenry and the type of subjects the government and Catholicism have historically demanded of us. (90+ per cent of Colombians self-identify as Catholic.) Both variables have been significantly influential for creating a cultural attitude and societal disposition that roll out the red carpet for conflict and/or fundamentalist practices.
For instance, it has been almost thirty years since the Ministry of Education removed History from the curriculum; thereby making “Colombia one of the countries in the world that places the least amount of attention and effort into teaching history.” Most history texts we do have are quite ancient and tend to hold a very Conservative bias since the large majority were written during the period regarded as the ‘Conservative Hegemony.’
Further, if to be a member of an institution individuals must suspend reason and replace it with blind faith—as one is conditioned to do as a Colombian Catholic— then the direct result is a people who don’t sincerely care if what they believe is true or factual. If they did care, they would demand higher levels of evidence and proof than, say, simply what they have been told is the word of God by preachers and the Bible.
We can extend this idea to the traditional two-party system of Colombia. Historically, Colombians have been born either Liberal or Conservative in the same way most are born into a religion. One was then indoctrinated—many still are—to toe the party line on faith as if it were a holy book, and to take the party’s leaders’ words as holy orders by the high priests without question. Even in this century, we’ve seen this kind of polarizing dichotomy with the “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorist” forms of rhetoric often flowing from the mouth of former President Alvaro Uribe.
The kind of individuals and collectives created by this ahistorical-blind-faith-praising cocktail puts us all in a complicated predicament. We become a society easily available for manipulation and herding. In a way, we are born and nurtured ready to be used as pawns for war or for helping create and perpetuate conditions for conflict. A country that neglects its history and suppresses its analytic faculties sacrifices its future and is more apt to repeat the worst moments of its past.
Is it any surprise violent and fundamentalist social practices are dominant? Is it any wonder that peaceful conflict resolution practices have widely been failures? If limited, distorted, or false beliefs and opinions are accepted as absolute truths, and such absolutes are taught to remain unquestioned and accepted on faith, it is no wonder this relationship has been a hindrance to establishing lasting and enduring security and peace. A society that proclaims and imposes absolute truths—be it from religion or politics (capitalist vs. communist dogmas, for example)—sets the foundation for conflict.
It is not surprising that when Colombians themselves forward similar critiques as the one I am forwarding that they are not taken too seriously or are ostracized from society. Let us look at Piedad Cordoba and Ingrid Betancourt as examples. Cordoba’s interpretation of the condition of Colombian culture is that the country is “absolutely blind and ignoring the cruel reality.” Similarly, Betancourt has claimed, “There exists a species of ‘consensus’ in the country that obliges people to follow an opinion without questioning it.”
Though these two women have been largely ostracized from society by mainstream media and administrations for different reasons, we should not reject everything they have said simply because we do not like the individuals who spoke. They have provided us with valuable insights that point to some of the major obstacles of the armed conflict. Constructing a fair and just society and resolving conflicts in a peaceful manner become difficult endeavors if the population is blind, ignoring the cruel reality, and, on faith, follow opinions without questioning them.
A modest proposal
For these reasons we must also unpack and dissect the frameworks of Colombian society—those lenses that pass as common sense—that are not sincerely questioned and/or effectively analyzed, and, as a result, may hinder the conflict resolution process. This is why we should also shine a spotlight on the roots of Colombian consciousness—its backdrop, social structures, agents, institutions, unspoken assumptions, and taken-for-granted ideologies—that make resolving conflicts a challenging enterprise. If not, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way.”
All hope is not lost, however. There is still time to move out of our own way. We can begin by challenging and changing current social practices and social structures.
As a start, I advance a modest proposal to (re)introduce the following three disciplines into the mandatory education system: (1) Philosophy, (2) World Religions, and (3) World and Colombian History.
First, philosophy would instill basic analytical and critical thinking skills that would aid in the process of safeguarding many from manipulation and exploitation. Education in philosophy would also help increase the demand for higher levels of evidence from not only our leaders but also from our very selves. One of the most common Colombian expressions provided as a response when people are asked to support their claims is “that’s just what they say.” This is indicative of a society run on unfounded assumptions and faulty opinions. There is a false notion that democracy means one person’s ignorance is just as good as another person’s knowledge. Such confused thinking results in an anemic and sick democracy. As the adage goes, just because you’re entitled to your own opinion does not mean you’re entitled to creating your own facts. Philosophical/scientific thinking helps reduce conflict by weeding out claims not grounded in reality, fact, or truth, and by providing an environment where reasoned discussion and debate are favored over faith-based assertions.
Along with philosophy, a quest of world religions would introduce our youth to the different ways other cultures have historically answered the big existential questions. Not sheltering our children from other ways of thinking and ways of interpreting personal relationships with the self, others, nature, reality, and so on, can be quite conducive for co-existing peacefully in a plural world. The more we understand (or at least are open to understand) our surroundings and ourselves, the less fearful we will be of others and of specific situations. Lowered anxiety and fear tend to result in lowering the risk of conflict.
Lastly, a reintroduction of history into the educational repertoire helps prevent potential repetitions of previous conflicts. The better we are at gathering facts on the ground, the more effective we can be at describing, explaining, and predicting conflict. Such knowledge can then aid in constructing adequate strategies to tackle the direst issues facing Colombians today. It is difficult to deal with a conflict if we incorrectly interpret its causes, origins, and reasons for its existence. The more we know about our own history and the history of others, the better prepared we are for creating the lives we want to lead. The point is to learn from our past and the paths of others so we don’t make the same mistakes.
Though there’s a fine line between education and indoctrination, there are major distinctions worth highlighting. Indoctrination appeals to authority and suspends critical thinking. Education appeals to reason, fact, and logic. Indoctrination is often grounded on faith, which is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved. Instead, the education I’m proposing is based on scientific and philosophical thinking that adjusts its views based on what’s observed and tested.
If the latter is rejected and the former embraced, conflict is almost sure to surface. If those engaged in conflict do not care about knowledge or facts—if they do not even care if what they themselves believe is true (yet, they believe their interpretation of reality to be an absolute truth)—then resolving conflict peacefully becomes laborious and even dangerous.
We should not be so eager to spit on our ancestors or push each other off the shoulders of the great giants who got us this far. It is not too late to move out of our own way.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.