Transformative Education As a Soft-Power Approach Against Extremism

This article was written by Pedro Lagonegro, a staff writer for Shield. He has more than 15 years of professional experience between the private and public sectors. He has worked for several different companies and NGOs, and has been an international civil servant of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Pedro recently completed an MA in Intelligence and International Security at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. His ongoing research focuses on the potential of transformative education to act as a soft-power tool to counter hate, prejudice, and extremism.

Since the concept of transformative learning, or transformative education (TE), was conceived in 1978, transformation theory has been the central paradigm of various transformative learning initiatives mainly intended for adult education. Nevertheless, the concept has evolved over the last three decades into a more hybrid context/content-oriented approach to address different issues, including the advocacy of tolerance, human rights, dignity, and peace –  not only for adults, but for other age groups too. The main distinction between the earlier TE approach and the hybrid modern one is that the latter focuses on advocating a given principle, like human rights for instance, rather than on the transformation process itself as it is shown in the initial TE works. In the modern method, the same transformation process still takes place but subconsciously, without necessarily having the subject aware of the phases that they may go through. This evolution allows TE to be applied in the broader scope of practical applications, including its potential to serve as an instrument for anti- and de-radicalisation processes aimed at countering extremism and extremist violence. 

The TE concept was created in the late 1970s by sociologist Jack Mezirow, who conducted studies with young women re-entering university after long-periods of maternity leave. Fundamentally, transformative education is about instigating change within an individual’s mindset and attitude with the goal of developing “a more critical worldview as we seek ways to better understand our world”. My aim is to assess the extent to which TE may be effective if used as a soft-power tool to counter radicalisation and extremism that can lead to violence. In other words, I propose TE as a direct solution to counter radicalisation, which in turn is an indirect preventive measure against violent extremism. In this piece I draw on empirical evidence and associated findings from my MA dissertation for the Intelligence and International Security programme at King’s College London (KCL).

Mezirow’s model was influenced by early educational theorists like Paulo Freire and Jurgen Habermas. He primarily focused on transformation theory, and the technical aspects involved in transforming a person’s “frame of reference” or “meaning structure” through comprehensive self-reflection embedded in a “disorienting dilemma”.[1] This process, Mezirow argued, would “transform problematic frames of reference – sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mind-sets) – to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally capable of change”.[2] In other words, by subjecting someone to a process of mental discomfort, they could be made to reappraise a problematic worldview.

In recent decades, the whole concept has become more context-oriented as modern authors like Christman, Abu-Ghazaleh, and others have distanced themselves from transformation theory paradigm and adopted a content-based platform more directly focused on teaching principles such as human rights, peace, tolerance, compassion, human dignity, and so on, instead of going through a more abstract transformation process where the focus was on the psychological factors involved in the transformation itself. Otherwise speaking, early TE initiatives would instigate transformation by having participants working with the psychological aspects of the process rather than with the context in question, whereas modern initiatives do it subconsciously by shifting the educational focus entirely to context and content and therefore leaving the transformational steps out of the subjects’ awareness.

Following such reasoning, my methodology is centred on a hybrid TE system, whose design considers both transformation theory as well as context-based principles, to be tested as a soft-power tool against the radicalisation and extremism that often leads to violence. 

Radicalisation expert Peter Neumann defines extremism as “ideas that are diametrically opposed to a society’s core values”. Political scientist Roger Scruton refers to it as “taking a political idea to its limits” and “intolerance towards all views other than one’s own”. Even though no universal definition of extremism has been agreed upon, the relevant point is that extremism undeniably involves aspects of intolerant and radical attitudes and ideas. In this sense, radicalisation is the process that leads to an individual becoming an extremist. This, in turn, risks turning into a path of violent extremism. The TE soft-power approach that I suggest is aimed, therefore, at preventing rather than reacting to these exact paths, as shown by the Inverted U of Extremism chart in Figure 1. The idea is to introduce TE as a complementary solution to extremism, directly tackling the roots of the issue rather than its symptoms. Military, police, and intelligence operations are principle means to counter extremist symptoms like halting a terrorist attack. TE, on the other hand, shall counter the very extremist sentiments behind these violent trends. It is therefore possible to posit TE as an additional counter-terrorism measure to complement conventional approaches. 

Figure 1. Extremist Trend and Transformative Education (Lagonegro, 2018)

The central argument is that TE can directly counter radicalisation and non-violent extremism, and thus indirectly impede the path to related violence. The process that takes place in the orange area introduces TE as a preventive measure for anti-radicalisation purposes where it would be used to directly counter radicalisation drivers, including “grievance, needs, ideas, people, (and) violence”. Conversely, the process shown in the red area introduces TE as a reactive approach for de-radicalisation purposes in order to transform an individual who has already been radicalised. This presents a key technical nuance that pioneer authors like Mezirow and Taylor did not believe to be possible. According to a handful of early TE theorists, once a frame of reference had been transformed it could not go back to its initial pre-transformation stage. Mezirow concluded that a frame’s transformational process was absolutely “irreversible”.[3] My findings, however, have shown that Mezirow’s conclusion may be true in certain cases but it is by no means an absolute truth. 

The results of a comprehensive de-radicalisation initiative by the Saudi government have shown that there are indeed psychological/contextual processes that are capable of re-transforming one’s frame of reference back to its initial stage but with a greater cognitive skill for resilience embedded. The project, which also involved financial and social measures, consisted of  a “psychological” context-based TE system. The results were seen by the Saudis as a great success “with 3,000 graduates and a 98% success rate claimed by the government”. Through the introduction of a “three-fold process” design: ‘crack’, prevention, and after care” the Saudi government has attempted to show that frames of reference can be re-transformed. The results support the position that the transformation scheme is not always an irreversible process. Nevertheless, further scientific research and analysis is needed to prove this assertion beyond reasonable doubt. 

It is also imperative to highlight that TE faces considerable technical limitations and challenges. First, based on every TE initiative that I have analysed, no systems or benchmarks are currently in place that may allow for accurate qualitative or quantitative assessments to measure the impact of TE initiatives. Even institutions that may try to assess the transformation process at the individual level, as in the case of the Saudi government, remain unable to tell whether such individual changes have made or will make an actual difference on the ground. A senior manager from the Jewish education transformative platform Encounter stated that its “participants presumably emerge with a broader, deeper ‘frame of reference’, one that is enriched both ethically and epistemologically”. Neither the methodologies used nor the implications or impact are yet clear, however. Another relevant limitation is shown in the questionable effect that TE may exert on the so-called behavioural radicalisation, which differently from the cognitive radicalisation that we have been focusing on, takes place through experiences embedded in “push” and pull factors respectively, like victimization through constant violence, traumas, “money, expressive incentives”, among others.

When considering the scope of behavioural radicalisation, it is essential to highlight that further challenging factors may also include non-technical aspects. These may be related to the actual security and political situations of a given region, such as whether there is a constant presence of violence, oppression, or political turmoil, for example. All of this might render a TE approach ineffective when considering the dire physical and psychological consequences resulting from the day-to-day traumas inflicted upon residents. When asked about the likely effectiveness of TE in the Gaza Strip today, a young Palestinian woman working for the United Nations in Geneva replied to me: “a seven-year-old from Gaza now has witnessed three wars, what do you want to educate them about?”         

There remains plenty to uncover regarding the true impact of TE as a soft-power approach. Its potential, however, should not be taken lightly. An educational instrument that can directly counter the very roots of radicalisation could become a valuable weapon in the near future. With that in mind, therefore, I can only hope that future studies will further assess the extent to which transformative education could be an effective soft-power tool against extremism. Although current limitations are significant, the true potential of TE is far from being fully understood. The development of this young concept is very much a work-in-progress.

Bibliography

Jack Mezirow, Learning as a Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000).

Jack Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1991, e-book).

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (Foreign Affairs, 2004), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2004-05-01/soft-power-means-success-world-politics.


[1] Jack Mezirow, Learning as a Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress(San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000).

[2] This action of ‘discriminating’ refers to the context of ‘discriminating,’ in the sense of distinguishing, for instance, what is right from what is wrong, what is acceptable within human society from what is not, what the difference is between disagreeing but still be tolerant and simply being intolerant, and so on.

[3] Jack Mezirow, Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1991, e-book).

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