School Climate & Safety

Peace Educators Struggle With War

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 24, 2001 7 min read
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An 8-foot peace pole, with the entreaty “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” overlooks a main lobby at Catholic Central High School, a symbol of the commitment the faculty and students made two years ago to promote peace within themselves and their communities.

Throughout the school in Troy, N.Y., themes of virtue and character dominate displays, and classroom discussions often focus on developing peace of heart and spirit. Students have even been invited to make presentations on peace education to representatives of the United Nations.

Yet school administrators admit it’s been hard to maintain peaceful thoughts in the weeks since terrorist attacks on the United States launched a new kind of war.

“Peace is our thing, and we’ve gotten used to it,” said Sister Katherine Arsenau, the principal of the 550-student school. “As much as we say we believe in peace, when something like this happens, the human part of us jumps up and wants revenge.”

Questions and Criticism

A shattered peace poses challenges for even the most devout peace educators. The images of war that dominate the news and the overwhelming public support for the U.S.-led military response to the Sept. 11 assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are difficult to reconcile with the lessons they’ve been teaching about resolving conflicts peacefully.

“We just keep trying to emphasize the importance of the individual choices that we make in building world peace,” Sister Katherine said.

Teachers throughout the country who have worked at incorporating the tenets of peace education and conflict resolution into their curriculum have faced similar difficulties in recent weeks as they’ve debated the questions among themselves and with students: What is an appropriate response? Can the perpetrators of the violence be brought to justice without force? Will war eliminate terrorism?

Aside from posing a moral dilemma for such educators and their classes, the crisis of the past six weeks has made their mission a subject of controversy.

Some scholars and newspaper columnists have been critical of school lessons that might question too vociferously the U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan or suggest that shortcomings of the nation’s foreign policy are partly to blame for the terrorist attacks last month.

“There’s been a lot of anti-Americanism in peace education and global education and world history over the past 20 years,” said Gilbert T. Sewall, the president of the American Textbook Council, a New York City-based group that monitors history and social studies textbooks. “That might reverse itself very fast.”

Critics have also taken aim at multicultural education that emphasizes differences between groups based on nationality or religion, instead of cultivating national unity.

"[Some educators] have said that the events of Sept. 11 demonstrate the necessity for a multicultural curriculum,” Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a Commentary essay for Education Week earlier this month. (“Now Is the Time to Teach Democracy,” Oct. 17, 2001.)

"[T]he implication is that this unprecedented atrocity was caused by a failure in the schools’ curriculum, rather than by heartless, inhumane terrorists.”

Ms. Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. secretary of education, instead recommended more world history and an emphasis on the “virtues and blessings of our democratic system of government.”

Peace education has gone through fits and starts over the past century, but underwent a strong resurgence during the Vietnam War. Today, peace education activities are widely used in schools around the country.

And character education, with its emphasis on civility and respect for others, has received new attention in recent years, particularly after the spate of school shootings in the late 1990s. Many states— including Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia—have mandated character education in schools.

Wartime has long posed challenges to some components of the peace education philosophy.

As the nation geared up for the first and second world wars in the first half of the 20th century, for example, peace education was criticized as subversive and “un-American,” according to a paper by Marcia L. Johnson, an associate director at Indiana University Bloomington’s Social Studies Development Center.

“It is quite common that in the face of violence and extreme nationalism that the people who stand up to criticize [war] get criticized,” said Ian M. Harris, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the executive secretary of the Peace Education Commission, an international body that promotes peace education programs. “It’s always been hard for pacifists to stand up.”

Eventually, though, Mr. Harris said, peace education efforts would benefit from any anti-war movement that might arise from the conflict.

Conflict at Home

Mr. Harris and other experts suggest that lessons need not only focus on the international crisis. Teachers also should emphasize the problems of interpersonal, civic, and cultural violence within the United States, they say. Moreover, lessons about patriotism, community service, and moral action are especially timely.

Covering the more benign topics, however, does not necessarily let educators, particularly high school teachers, off the hook, Mr. Harris said.

“We try to teach children alternatives,” said Mr. Harris, who says policymakers and the news media have not focused enough on the potential role for the international criminal court created in 1998 to deal with suspected terrorists. “In a country that wants to go to war, educators need to point out that there is an alternative to this crisis.”

Other experts point out that teachers who embrace peace education need not be absolute in condemning war.

“There is the pacifist tradition that says that violence is never right,” said Thomas Lickona, the author of the 1992 book Educating for Character: How Our Schools CanTeach Respect and Responsibility. “But there is another tradition that speaks of a just war and lays out criteria that makes a war a just response to a serious threat of aggression.”

Indeed, the U.S. response to terrorism could prove something of a model of the conflict-resolution principles some educators promote, according to Blythe Hinitz, a professor of education at the College of New Jersey in Trenton. She is the chairwoman of a special-interest group on peace education for the American Educational Research Association.

In Ms. Hinitz’s view, President Bush gave a “measured response” to the attacks.

“The first thing he did was to mobilize the troops, ... [and] talk and get information,” she said. “The first thing was not to start fighting. That is what we tell children to do with conflict-resolution strategies.”

Students need to understand, Mr. Lickona added, that there is a moral right to self-defense. The end result, however, must not be worse than the initial offense, he said.

Though such complex topics may prove divisive, they should not be left out of the curriculum, Mr. Lickona said, because they often provide ideal opportunities for moral discussion and education in citizenship and democracy.

“It is helpful to kids to know that thoughtful people of good conscience disagree about a lot of issues, whether it be abortion, homosexuality, or stem-cell research,” he said. “It is a good opportunity to discuss those issues, but teachers have a responsibility to present them in a balanced way.”

To do so, teachers must not be left alone to defend the use of such controversial lessons, added Mr. Lickona, who is the director of the Center for the 4th and 5th R’s (Respect and Responsibility), a resource center at the State University of New York College at Courtland that promotes character education.

Policies on Controversy

Schools and districts, he stressed, can help head off the kinds of protests by parents and community activists that have cropped up over such classes in the past.

“As part of overall character education efforts, school districts need to have a policy on the treatment of controversial issues,” he said, “so that they aren’t vulnerable to the pressures of parents.”

At Central Catholic High in New York state, the debate and emotions stirred up by the events of Sept. 11 proved a difficult test for both students and faculty members, Sister Katherine said. But it was a test most passed, she said.

Students’ shock quickly turned to action. Within days, they had raised $5,000 for the American Red Cross relief effort.

“The faculty and I took great satisfaction in their response,” Sister Katherine said. “It showed that these kids have actually grasped the message that we’ve been trying to preach.”

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