David Steele-Figueredo is president of Woodbury University in Burbank, California. Born in Venezuela of Latino heritage and a veteran international corporate business executive, he has gained wide experience on the influence of culture and education on social issues.
As the president of a small, nonprofit university in a city known for its ethnic diversity and transnational trade, I frequently ask myself the following questions: What is the role of higher education in helping to prevent world conflict? What should we teach our students to help prevent these conflicts from repeating themselves? And what are the drivers that create transnational wars? I believe it is crucial for university administrators to think seriously about these “what” questions and focus on developing and implementing solutions.
I was elated to find, on taking this position about two years ago, that we had a course called "Wars, Gods, and Revolutions." This course analyzes the historical, political, religious and social components of violent conflict and provides a global perspective that considers the multiplicity of human identity and how those identities are mobilized to wage war and revolution. The course has three student learning objectives: to provide an awareness of the major events, social processes, and historical events that have shaped the modern world; to develop a knowledge of the key terms, theories, and concepts that shape how we understand the histories, societies, and political behaviors of human societies; and to understand world geography and the cultures of various regions of the world.
Nurtured by the British educational system, I developed my own perspective on the origins of violent conflict. Having a mathematical mind, I could relate to a simple equation as I studied world history going back about 2,500 years: Territorial Desires, plus Economic Greed, plus Religious (or Ideological) Convictions, equals Conflict between Nations. Let’s test this theory with historical events.
Conflicts between the “great powers” has been a staple of human history. In his seminal work "War and Peace," Leo Tolstoy chronicles the war between France and Russia and the occupation of Moscow, including the widespread looting, fires, and savage horrors. At its essence, it was a war between nations with territorial ambitions and a thirst for power, both led by autocratic leaders (Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I). In my reading of this work, the central lesson was the power of ideology, economic greed and the irrational nature of human behavior.
Now let’s look at the origins of two other violent historical catastrophes. Firstly, the named Hundred Years War in the Middle Ages was a series of wars that lasted about 116 years (from 1337 to 1453) by five generations of dueling kings in England and France. In Europe, this period was basically driven by territorial desires and not by religion; but in the Middle East, the Crusades were both religious and territorial wars that resulted in inhuman brutality and carnage between Christians and Muslims.
Then there was a series of catastrophic wars that lasted over 100 years from 1914 to 2017, driven by territorial ambitions and new ideologies. The bulk of the destruction was again in Europe, but it also devastated Japan, China, and other Asia Pacific countries. This litany of wars can largely be traced to the start of the First World War in 1914 and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Then followed the Second World War, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Cold War, the conflicts between India and Pakistan, and more recently the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and against ISIS. Again, there was a religious element since these wars also involved Christians and Muslims. If this was not enough, this period also witnessed the genocides in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia that persecuted and murdered millions of innocent non-combatants.
Higher education has to be part of the solution to eradicating this recurring cancer of humanity. We must emphasize the lessons of world history, interdisciplinary studies, cross-cultural understanding (rather than domination) and conflict resolution techniques.
At our university, education is built on the idea of personal transformation that can positively affect others. Our job is to help our students make a difference in all that they do - in their classes, on campus, and in their communities. We harness the creative power of multiple disciplines and communities that broaden perspectives across academic boundaries. In addition, we emphasize on-campus and study-away student experiences to encourage diversity of thought; to appreciate racial and ethnic differences; and to give students an inner vision of themselves and their responsibilities as a member of society. These exposures encourage an understanding of the civics of being a global citizen. Our students mention their experiences abroad as truly transformational.
Going back to Tolstoy, when I first read "War and Peace" as a university student, it gave me a clearer view of the fundamental forces in history and the role of the individual in making enlightened choices for the preservation of mankind. This reading was probably my first lesson in the power of consciousness and a search for the meaning of life through human relationship.
The good news is that a university education can nurture a reasoning mind and provide insights into human behavior. The bad news is that we, as a species, have so far not been capable of acting responsibly on the lessons of history. Our belief is that a university education should develop in our students the ability, desire, and confidence to imagine new ideas; to create impact and make a difference; and to achieve civic fulfillment through the process of giving back. Our hope is that reason will triumph and avoid another world catastrophe.