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Columnist Launches a Course on Nonviolence

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WASHINGTON--On a chilly autumn morning, Colman McCarthy, the syndicated columnist and peace educator, was warming up his barely conscious honors class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School just outside this city with an exercise on conflict resolution.

"Sally had just about had it,'' reads a handout that describes a particularly harried day of a dual-career couple with two children. Sally's husband, George, comes home and "barks that the house is a mess,'' the scenario goes, and the students are asked to choose from a smattering of Sally's possible responses, which might placate, negotiate, or escalate the conflict.

"If she stands for that she's a pathetic slave,'' shouts Lauren, a senior, who chose the confrontational reaction.

"Why can't you just ignore it?'' asks another 12th grader, Rebecca, who prefers the silent treatment.

"If you don't deal with the stones in your shoe, they get bigger and bigger and they fester,'' responds Mr. McCarthy.

The debate is par for the course for the 54-year old writer and activist. When he is not churning out his weekly syndicated column for The Washington Post, Mr. McCarthy is on the antiwar path, trying to spread the gospel of nonviolence to the next generation.

"We are peace illiterates,'' he asserts, "and yet somehow we only start to begin to figure out that our curriculums need to include peace literacy as a basic, along with math, science, and English.''

Taking his commitment to heart, Mr. McCarthy personally teaches two classes daily each semester, and supplies teachers to a third of the high schools in this city alone.

And as the founder and president of his Center for Teaching Peace, which he runs out of his home here, Mr. McCarthy has dispatched peace educators to teach in high schools across the country, from poor urban schools in East St. Louis to wealthy suburban schools in California, in an effort to educate students about nonviolent alternatives to conflict.

A dozen instructors are teaching his alternatives-to-violence course this semester. And with a three-year, $300,000 grant the center received this year from the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, the center plans to re-energize its outreach efforts to make courses in nonviolence a staple of any curriculum.

To Wilma Bonner, the principal of Wilson High School in Washington, which has offered the course since 1987, nonviolence education is essential.

"Our students have learned [in this course] about living in a humane society,'' she says.

Idea Is Catching On

To Mr. McCarthy, the need for a nonviolence curriculum is obvious.

"We have the most violent government on the planet,'' he contends, rattling off some disturbing statistics: Some 20,000 murders are committed annually in the United States. One in 12 teenagers has attempted suicide. Wife beating is the leading cause of injury among American women.

With students shooting off weapons and brandishing knives, and a media saturated with violent programming, Mr. McCarthy felt there was a need to offer up an alternative.

"We are great at solving problems across the ocean, but not problems across the living room,'' he says.

To help correct that, Mr. McCarthy began teaching nonviolence courses in high schools and college classrooms a decade ago, and since then, the idea has spread rapidly.

He says he receives hundreds of requests from school boards, teachers, and parents wanting information on how to set up a peace-education program in their schools.

After Mr. McCarthy made an appearance on "Donahue'' in April 1991, the center received an avalanche of over 5,000 requests for materials. And his 115-page correspondence course already has 300 subscribers.

In the past month, Mr. McCarthy has conducted two conflict-resolution workshops for teachers in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

"I am amazed at the interest,'' he says. "Educators are finally figuring out that, unless we give kids the understanding and skills to solve conflicts, then the violence will continue.''

The idea has caught on in higher education as well, with nearly 2,500 "peace courses'' cropping up in colleges nationally.

In the last decade, 70 colleges have started conflict-resolution courses. And 95 percent of American law-school programs now have a course on nonviolence, compared with 14 percent in 1980, according to Thomas Fee, the acting director of the National Institute on Dispute Resolution.

A Strategy for Peace

In Mr. McCarthy's view, a nonviolence curriculum essentially means positive prevention before a crisis, rather than negative intervention afterward.

He believes that role-playing--like the exercise about Sally and George, the disgruntled couple--is an excellent vehicle to zero in on the roots of conflict.

But the course also stresses the theory of nonviolence and conflict resolution, and it includes a heavy recommended reading list of over 60 essays on the topic. The list includes works by such renowned figures as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Henry David Thoreau, as well as some by lesser-known writers.

The syllabus is designed, Mr. McCarthy says, to overcome that fact that most students can easily identify generals like Norman Schwarzkopf and U.S. Grant, but draw a blank at at the names of pacifists like the journalist and reformer Dorothy Day and the abolitionist Addin Ballou.

"We are mostly ignorant about nonviolent forces of negotiation, compromise, organized resistance to corrupt power,'' says Mr. McCarthy.

Students in the 15-week course must submit two analytical papers from readings in two conflict-resolution textbooks.

"It has to be academically rigorous, or we get dismissed as tree huggers from the 'high-tide full-moon society,' '' he says.

Though he has been seen as a zealot and is famous for his left-of-center commentaries, Mr. McCarthy is no time-warped flower child, but an intellectual with a deeply felt passion that stems from religious convictions and an activist past.

He was an English major at Spring Hill, a Jesuit college in Alabama, and was hired as an editorial writer at the Post in 1969.

His Center for Teaching Peace has an advisory board of dignitaries, including the singer Joan Baez, the historian Roger Wilkins, the Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, and several members of Congress.

With his cadre of well-connected supporters behind him, Mr. McCarthy plans to lobby President-elect Bill Clinton to establish an office of peace education within the Education or Health and Human Services department.

In an ideal world, children would get their first peace-studies course in 1st grade, Mr. McCarthy says. But he concedes that, even with a peace class in every school in America, he will not obliterate violence overnight.

Many students come from dysfunctional families where they are witness to psychological as well as physical abuse, he says.

"It's like coming into a burning building with a squirt gun,'' he says.

So he leaves his students at the end of a course with a lifetime reading list that includes treatises on nonviolent theory, militarism in America, and Biblical pacifism.

"Otherwise, it's just a strategy to get through the next fight,'' he argues.

'He's Planted Some Seeds'

Though it is difficult to assess the effect of this type of curriculum in decreasing violence, many of Mr. McCarthy's allies believe it has an immeasurable impact.

"It's a very progressive thing to do. We are supplying courageous people as models,'' says Michael Nagler, a political-science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who teaches an undergraduate conflict-resolution course.

"He's planted some seeds of peace and contentment, and if one of [his students] becomes the President or the Pope it might help,'' says U.S. Rep. Andrew Jacobs, D-Ind., a member of the center's advisory board.

For Mr. McCarthy, the mail he receives from his students daily is the most convincing evidence that he has had an impact.

"It is up to my generation to bring peace to the communities we live in,'' wrote one student.

"I learned that I have to speak out if I want to change things for the better,'' wrote another.

Despite such accolades, some students remain dubious.

"He's completely nuts,'' says a Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior when asked about her unusual instructor.

But perhaps Mr. McCarthy can take solace in the words of T.S. Eliot, who wrote: "In a world of fugitives, the person who runs in the opposite direction is seen as the madman.''

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