[The following article is reprinted with permission from X. Yuan.]
Fearless Conversations in Curriculum as a Wayfinding Amid Russian Invasion of Ukraine
JCACS Musings, Apr. 19/22
I fear many things amid the crisis in Ukraine when the immediate future is so unknown. Being immersed in mainstream news media makes me even more fearful. As a graduate student in Education, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the uncertainties of global consequences makes me very pessimistic about curriculum reform these days. At a time when collective trauma and fear coexist within the bodies of the world’s citizens, stories symbolizing backwardness are constantly told, and voices of hope for global justice are silenced. With the current nuclear terror in Europe, information warfare, the deteriorated NATO-Russian relationships, and the Taiwan Strait Crisis, news media induces a global mass hysteria of World War III. While people around the world stand in solidarity with Ukraine and others who are affected by Putin’s tyranny, I fear that humanity is headed for a more nuclearized, militarized, competitive, and backward situation. While looking at history, I realize that many of the decisions that led the world to being in an arms-race situation could have been avoided long ago. Decades of mistrust between the U.S. and Russia destroyed any hope for turning Russia into an ally and for democratic reform in Russia. Russian civilians’ distrust of the hypocrisy of democracy and freedom of speech has been reinforced since it does nothing to prevent millions of children from being malnourished, starving and dying.
To be fair, I’m writing this post out of fear. As someone born in an authoritarian state like China, I have always been discouraged to raise adverse opinions of sensitive issues on any platform. Especially in the face of the invasion, Chinese leaders have been siding with the aggressor, and have mass media intensifying toxic nationalism against the West. After an in-depth discussion with renowned fear scholar R. Michael Fisher, I realize that we could explore opportunities in fear. In Chinese, we often say Weiji (危机) — opportunity in crisis. I like how this transforms the relationship to fear rather than assuming a reductive and functional view that defines fear and supposes that it’s the best way to make sense of things (Fisher, 2010). We must understand fear, not run from it. The mainstream news media coverage of the current crisis in Europe has left us with a victim-type of fear, building curriculum that does not endow or inspire any practices of fearlessness. The American imperialism of news outlets has been inducing mass hysteria of nuclearization and Russophobia across the globe. It is not the future that haunts us but the fear of the future. But isn’t that what we fear every day? We fear what we are not prepared for (that we lack agency and readiness), but isn’t that the point of curriculum, to prepare us to face those fearful uncertainties during our apprenticeships, rather than spoon-feeding our ways out of fear?
Economic and political competition might seem like a ‘game of thrones’ for many conventional wisdom holders, and to many who view history as an objective truth. But I think of curriculum as being ‘agentic,’ a way-finding that can shift the narratives we tell of the past. A lot of us might be let down by the injustice in the world today, but we need to continue to find our ways amid fear, acknowledge and feel the fear inside of us, and then become courageous to face the fear. During this invasion, countless netizens, activists, and civilians around the world rose against Putin’s brutal actions. The borders between nations are no longer defined geopolitically, but agentically by conversations. In an internationalized and democratic world, conversations enable us to readjust and destabilize the conventional, now ever-changing borders (Pinar, 2004). The next step of curriculum for us is to define borders ideologically with depth imagery. An authentic conversation requires “going beyond the surface to take into account ‘unspoken’ and ‘taken-for-granted’ assumptions, including ‘ideology’ […and] must be guided by an interest in understanding more fully what is not said by going beyond what is said’’ (Aoki, as cited in Pinar, 2004, p. 159). So far, our democratic discourse/conversations have been based on denouncing Putin’s behaviour, which can be done intuitively and without much effort to engage in deeper conversations. Many who are sceptical of the ideal of democracy perceive it from the frame of reference of cognitive imperialism — ‘fast-food-like’ pedagogy embedded in empty words that lead people into a fallacy that they are endowed with greater freedom than institutions actually allow. Cognitive imperialism largely obscures the construction of conjunctive ‘inter-space’ in conversations while diverting public attention to shallowness of conversations — freedom of expression and individual liberty. What is beyond the unsaid, however, requires a curriculum of critical literacy in which people work together to co-create reciprocal and complex conversations. Our curriculum needs to create democratic agents, not agents in a democratic political structure. Conversation represents a relationship between spaces (not just ‘spaces’), where people engage in mutuality rather than dichotomous struggles of viewpoints. Therefore, when world crises happen, we do not just condemn the aggressor with empty words but act ahead to prevent it. This is how our curriculum can truly be agentic rather than being reactive (to fear).
From the emergence of COVID-19 to the humanitarian crisis in eastern Europe, it has become more necessary than ever for curriculum changes to address how the trauma of war, the separation, and the isolation of life, have lived in and affected our bodies, so we can hold each other’s hands and find our way out of the hardships collectively, rather than kill each other. Ironically, we can learn a lot from coronaviruses; even viruses know how to converse with each other and change according to different situations to achieve their survival goals (Chambers, 2022). I don’t know what the curriculum will look like in the future, but I do know that our curriculum should inspire people to share difficult knowledge, memories, stories, and to explore and confront their fears, not run from them. The purpose of this post is to find ways to encourage people to lift the veil of these unspoken fears, to engage in deep (as opposed to dichotomous) conversations with each other, and to prevent hatred, phobia, and mistrust toward others. To end this post with an excerpt from an interview done with University of Lethbridge professor Cynthia Chambers (2022), “The truth about maps is they’re only useful when you’ve already been somewhere, they’re not really helpful when you’ve never been anywhere [… We have to] find our way collectively and to learn together [under difficult circumstances], rather than looking to authorities for the final answer or being angry that nobody knows” (26:44).
Rise up, Ukraine. We stand with you!
Fisher, R. M. (2010). The world’s fearlessness teachings: A critical integral approach to fear management/education for the 21st Century. University Press of America.
JCACS Curriculum Without Borders. (2022, February 23). JCACS interviews Cynthia Chambers: Curriculum as wayfinding. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNAxSJbdBPo
Pinar, W. F. (2004). What is curriculum theory? Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.