For some time now, I, like so many others, have been struggling with how to make sense of the many crises and dysfunctions our world today presents to humanity. I am reminded of the lyrics of David Byrne’s Psychokiller (Stop Making Sense, 1984) song: “I can't seem to face up to the facts. I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax. I can't sleep ‘cause my bed’s on fire. Don't touch me I'm a real live wire.”
I grieve for the victims and hostages caught in the vicious cycle of violence and displacement that has effectively trapped civilians in many communities around the world. I worry about the unintended consequences of escalating violence in the Middle East and elsewhere but also about the reality that many, if not most, such conflicts are a continuation of a long history of struggle and contestation, where history seems to be condemned to repeat itself, over and over, again. As a scholar of international security and conflict transformation, I also grieve for the many millions of civilian victims in other conflict zones that keep getting pushed off the front pages by the latest crisis.
Closer to home, we find ourselves caught up not only in crises of morality and perceived helplessness that the long arm of war has sown, but also in less violent, but still impactful divisions. These social, economic, and political divisions feed on a lack of understanding and respect for the other, on top of histories of systemic harm – whether between Indigenous and settler communities, between Francophone and Anglophone populations, between citizens of any given province and outsiders – just to name some.
So where do we begin to make sense of it all? And what role can educational institutions such as universities play to help us understand, overcome and move beyond division? To me there are two important ways in which we can and must do so: providing space for, and education in, empathy, as well as evidence-based critical analysis. According to one scholar, Adam Stibbs, “[e]mpathy is a fundamental skill in developing trusting, respectful relationships, which is a required capacity for many ... graduates upon entering the Canadian workforce”. It also is an essential balancing ingredient in a respectful freedom of speech and expression. Educational institutions at every level – from nursery school to universities – ideally will foster empathy as one of the core skills students acquire and hone throughout their learning journey. Empathy does not eradicate differences and conflict, but it can be a starting point for finding common ground. And finding common ground is one of the foundational building blocks for sustainable co-existence and peace. We can cultivate and strengthen our empathetic skills virtually in every classroom and every workplace, through the way in which we study history, cultures, languages, organizations, and politics; through careful scientific experimentation and discovery; through the way in which we make decisions that affect our daily lives.
But in a time of so much mis- and dis-information it also is essential that we take into account all data and evidence and evaluate objectively their accuracy before judging or drawing a conclusion, to do what we typically call ‘critical thinking” and “critical analysis”. We are overwhelmed by information and ‘news’ that may place us in an echo chamber where opinions are indiscriminately reproduced. Again, in the words of David Byrne, “You start a conversation you can't even finish it. You're talkin' a lot, but you're not sayin' anything.” We ourselves repeat and disseminate – adding to that ecosystem of news and knowledge production – and therefore carry a responsibility to do so as objectively, rationally, and critically as possible.
Formal and informal learning of critical thinking skills is a cornerstone of a university. Critical thinking not only helps us understand key concepts – say in data analysis for complex systems or legal translation – but to make sense of this world with empathy and to seek common ground so that we and future generations might live in greater harmony.