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Q&A: Institute Director Discusses Teaching Peace, World Affairs

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The United States Institute of Peace was founded by Congress in 1984 in response to a citizen campaign calling for the creation of a "peace academy'' to counterbalance the military academies.

Intended to serve as a vehicle for the exchange of ideas among policymakers, researchers, and others interested in conflict-resolution issues, the institute has included school-related projects in its mission.

In addition to conducting an annual essay contest for secondary school students, the institute develops educational materials, holds workshops, and awards grants.

Samuel W. Lewis, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, has served as the institute's president since 1987.

He spoke with Staff Writer Meg Sommerfeld about teaching peace issues and world affairs.

Q. How has the study of conflict-resolution and international affairs changed over the years?

A. Ever since World War II, you could study international affairs and pretty well look at it ... through the optic of the cold war. Almost every international dispute had this we-they dimension to it that made it simpler for people at least to think they understood what the world was about.

Now with the cold war gone but the conflicts still bubbling up in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union and Africa and Asia, ... it's clear that our understanding of what causes conflicts and how you can contain or perhaps sometimes resolve them is a lot more intellectually challenging then it seemed to be during the cold war years.

So I think our students today, if they're going to be responsible citizens ... in this era, are going to have to understand a lot better the real nature of the challenges around the world.

Q. What benefit do you think learning about peace issues and conflict resolution can have for students in the short term?

A. Well, I hope that the benefit that they have is to interest the kids in professional pursuits and studies in college that lead them into more interaction with the world they're going to be living in.

International careers of a whole variety of sorts--private, nonprofit, and government--are going to be continuing to grow in the next decades and these programs that we're trying to support are all intended to fit people better for this era.

Q. And in the long term?

A. I think the United States has a very unusual history as not only a country that's been to war many times, but also that has been very active in trying to make peace.

I see this vocation of the United States as being an effective peacemaker as one of the things that matches not only our ideals and tradition but also our capabilities as the strongest power in the world.

Kids need to understand that we're a peacemaking nation, and we have capabilities to do things to help resolve conflicts that no other country has. And I think these programs in the long run really contribute to that.

Q. Do you think some teachers may shy away from discussing peace issues because of moral questions involved, or because of the complex nature of world affairs?

A. I think the answer is more that they understand that the world is going through a huge evolution and they don't have the materials or the background ... to explain it. The teachers really want to teach about the world that's coming, but they do not apparently feel very competent to do so because the textbooks are outmoded. But motivation is strong, and what's needed is good curriculum materials and help.

Q. What do you think about the use of video technology in education, such as Channel One and CNN in the Classroom?

A. I have to confess I've never seen Channel One, ... but the basic idea of introducing world affairs and current events electronically into the classroom makes good sense to me. [However], when you use these techniques the teachers have got to be well enough into the subject matter to be able then to discuss with the kids afterward what they've heard and listened to. Otherwise it just kind of passes across the screen like Saturday morning cartoons.

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