Education Chat

Peace Educator Colman McCarthy

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, wants to give peace more than a chance by placing it in the curriculum and thus students' minds.

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Peace Educator Colman McCarthy

About the Guest: A former Washington Post columnist, Colman McCarthy has taught courses on nonviolence to more than 6,000 high school school and college students in the Washington, D.C. area, and has crisscrossed the country giving speeches to urge other educators to do the same. He runs the Center for Teaching Peace, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing information about peace education and is the author of the book I’d Rather Teach Peace (Orbis Books).

Colman McCarthy, the subject of the current Teacher Magazine cover story, doesn’t just want to give peace a chance; he wants to give it a place in the curriculum—and in students’ minds. A prominent and controversial peace educator and author, Mr. McCarthy argues that schools need to teach students as much about history’s peacemakers as they already do about history’s military leaders. Mr. McCarthy’s pacifism carries over to his teaching philosophy: He does not give tests or grades in his classes because he believes they’re “forms of academic violence” that coerce students to learn by fear. Instead, he urges students and teachers to “question the answers” and to reconsider what they think is possible—in the world and in the world of the classroom.

Rich Shea (Moderator):
Welcome to Teacher Magazine’s Talk Back Live. I’m the executive editor of the magazine. We’re fortunate to have with us today the subject of the October issue’s cover story, Colman McCarthy, a peace studies teacher in several Washington, D.C.-area high schools and colleges, a former Washington Post columnist, and the author of the memoir I’d Rather Teach Peace. Mr. McCarthy is also director of the non-profit Center for Teaching Peace. We’re going to let him make an opening statement, then get right to your questions.

Colman McCarthy:
Dear Friends: Largest of thanks for taking time to join in. Let’s have a lively dialogue. Note: that’s dialogue, not monologue!

Question from Patrick S, US Army:
What steps do you take to ensure that your students learn to develop their own opinions and not simply adopt your philosophies? Do you present alternate viewpoints for them to consider?

Colman McCarthy:
I encourage plenty of classrooms debates and discussions. The more stuents who disagree woith me the better. A good teacher doesn’t propaganzie or indoctrinate. Kids can’t tell when their being inflicted wioth the teacvher’s opinions. But I do think it’s acceptable for a teacher to express an opiniion, while at the saame time letting students know they have nothing to fear if they challlenge it or say it’s pure baloney. As for alternate viewpoints, students get them all the time in the media: when presidents advocate warmaking, when the Supreme Court justifies executions, etc.

Question from Cynthia Clingman, Instructional Consultant, Ottawa Area Intermediate School District:
I am frustrated by the cascading intolerance of diverse points of view in schools and classrooms. What is your response to teachers who say, “I would like to teach about peace, but I’m afraid I would lose my job”?

Colman McCarthy:
Sure, peace studies scares a lot of school boards, principals and parents. The way to diffuse it is to present courses not as antiwar theories but as conflict resolution. Thatr covers a lot of ground: family violence, schoolyard violence, and eventually governmental violence.

Question from pam robbins, curricululm coordinator, skyview school, prescott, arizona:
What an inspiration! How would you apply your philosophy to K-8 classrooms in public schools?

Colman McCarthy:
Start telling the children in the earliest grades about the peacemakers: stories about Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day, Jeannette Rankin, Jane Addams, Einstein, A.J. Musty, Sojourner Truth, and a long list of others.

Question from Edward Hass:
What else is a deterrent to aggression, other than a strong defense?

Colman McCarthy:
Desmond Tutu said recently in a speech in Boston that the strongest defense for wealthy Western nations is to begin to share that wealth with the poor and marginalized of the world. Until that wealth is shared, the chances for reconciliation and peace are small. Right now the United States is 24th out of 25th of industrialized nations in the percentage of its GNP shared with the developing world.

Question from Jeff Edmondson, Program Associate, KnowledgeWorks Foundation:
I had the pleasure of working with Mr. McCarthy at prisons, law schools, private and public high schools. My question is: Are the message and delivery Colman presents the same for all the different populations at these institutions, or do they need to be changed to reflect the social and economic realites of the different students?

Colman McCarthy:
Sure. You have to teach a bit differently to 3rd-year law students than to 15 year-olds in a large public high school or 18 year-olds in a maximum-security prison. But the literature is the same: An essay by Gandhi is the same for any group, any age, any classroom.

Question from Marlena Gal, teacher:
What assessment style does Mr. McCarthy recommend, if he rejects grading?

Colman McCarthy:
At the end of the course, or sometimes halfway through, I ask the students, in class, to write down what they learned so far and how it has affected their thinking and acting. A self-assessment can be more valuable than a authority-assessment.

Question from Earl Hoffert:
With Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich advocating a cabinet-level Department of Peace, would you support him as President? Or would you criticize the fact, as you allude to in the magazine, that he took an oath to protect a violent Constitution?

Colman McCarthy:
Of all the Democrats running for President, Dennis Kucinich is clearly the peace candidate. He’s the only one who speaks regularly about lowering the Pentagon budget. He’s also against the death penalty, and the only one talking about a Department of Peace. Would I vote for him? Wish I could, but I can’t. Because he still believes in having a military. And he will be sworn in to uphold, protect, and defend the Consitution which sanctions a military and a President as Commander in Chief. I know that viewpoint comes off as absolutist and extremist, but it is based on a conviction that violence is both immoral and in effective.

Question from Grace McMillan, Editor, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:
When I was a student at Oberlin College, I heard you speak and was impressed by the power of your message. I seem to remember that you said you and your wife disagreed on some political matters -- was/is she a Republican? pro-choice? -- but you nevertheless agreed on the same basic values and ultimate goals. Is that correct? I have often thought of that as a model for human interactions, thinking that people of good will can respectfully disagree about how best to solve complicated problems and still live in harmony.

Colman McCarthy:
What a memory you have! All husbands and wives disagree, even lovers I’m told. You don’t think I’d want to be married to someone who thought like I do all the time, do you?

Question from Robert Williams, Instructor of Language and Literature, Coordinator of Teacher Education, Moberly Area Community College:
In order to be faithful to your ideal, shouldn’t you stop paying taxes?

Colman McCarthy:
My current income is plenty low enough, so I am not paying more taxes. This is war tax refusal, which is something different from tax evasion.

Question from Sharon Hicks, Loyola University, School of Education:
1. I am an Elementary Education major and I believe that teaching peace is important in elementary schools, too. However, in inner city Chicago, children are besieged with violence in their own their own homes. Where do I begin teaching worldwide peace when their world of 1 square mile is just as violent?

Colman McCarthy:
I agree. You need to talk about conflict resolution within the family, teach mediation skills, and let the children know that the same methods for peaceful coexistence at home are the same ones used among nations.

Question from Lydia Lopez, Bilingual Teacher, La Mesa Elementary Albuquerque Public Schools:
As an hispanic educator I get very perturbed with the negativism surrounding the acknowledgement of Columbus Day. How should one remain objective but present the historical facts?

Colman McCarthy:
I would suggest passing along the information in “The People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. His argument is that too often we teach history from the winners’ point of view. While it should also be taught from the victim’s point of view.

Question from Roberto Angel, Coordinator, California Mini-Corps:
We see military recruiters in high schools. Wouldn’t it be neat to have PEACE recruiters too?

Colman McCarthy:
Neat? It would be ecstatic!!

Question from Will Driscoll, concerned parent:
What does nonviolence teach us about how to handle the problem of bullying?

Colman McCarthy:
All bullies were once small children. At some point, they were taught how to be violent, and at a later point, they acted on what they learned. Violence is a learned behavior. So, unless we teach our children peacemaking, someone else will teach them violence. A peace education is prevention before the bullying begins.

Question from Deborah Perkins-Gough, Senior Associate Editor, Educational Leadership:
I understand the reasoning behind your refusal to vote for any candidates within the current system, but doesn’t this provide an impractical, all-or-nothing model for young people? Do you really believe that we’d be as bad off today if Al Gore had become president?

Colman McCarthy:
That’s the lesser of two evils argument. The trouble with it is that we’re still settling for candidates who believe in militaries, who believe in the death penalty, and who believe in keeping the U.S. an imperial and dominating global power. Gore, Bush, -- what’s the difference?

Question from Lewis Gollub, Emeritus Psychology Professor, University of Maryland:
When Mr. McCarthy taught at Betheda-Chevy Chase HS in Maryland he required students to do “voluntary” work--but only at liberal, left-leaning organizations. My daughter had to fight to work at the National Institutes of Health--and then McCarthy put a damning letter in her school folder. If you are a “peace” advocate, should you be achieving your ends by force and retribution against powerless students?

Colman McCarthy:
I don’t remember ever writing a letter like that. If you have a copy, I’d be glad to see it. Send it to me c/o Teacher Magazine.

Question from Bob Kelly:
What do you think of George Bush’s policy of “No Child Left Behind,” and how would you change it to make it conform to your beliefs of teaching non-violence?

Colman McCarthy:
The fact is children are being left behind. I see them in my classrooms all the time. So long as Bush or any other president continues to spend more than $1 billion dollars a day, which comes to about $12,000 per second on military programs, and only nickels and dimes on public education, the talk about leaving no child behind is phony.

Question from Carie Rothenbacher:
Please tell us about the Center for Teaching Peace. What and how is this run and what are the goals?

Colman McCarthy:
It’s a nonprofit I started in 1985. We help teachers, school disticts, parents, students, and anyone else seeking either to begin or expand academic courses in peace education. We publish two textbooks--"Solutions to Violence” and “Strength Through Peace: The Ideas and People of Nonviolence.”

The address is: Center for Teaching Peace
4501 Van Ness St. Washington, D.C. 20016 202-537-1372

Question from :
Gore, Bush, -- what’s the difference?

Kucinich? Don’t you think having a candidate win who more closely represents your beliefs is preferable to losing an election to someone who completely opposes those beliefs? This way we are at least not moving away from where we want to be.

Colman McCarthy:
Unless we hold out for the ideal, we’re committed to keep settling for pretty-good, for the good-enough. Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher, argued: “Unless you strive after the impossible, the possible that you achieve will be hardly worth the effort.” So let’s get striving.

Question from Dr. Robert Lecheler, Principal, Pacelli High School, Stevens Point, WI:
How can I continue to be critical of America’s obsession with military force without being regarded as unpatriotic or anti-American? Thanks for all your great work. I use excerpts of your book “All of One Peace” in a graduate course I teach.

Colman McCarthy:
Who cares if someone calls you unpatriotic? You might want to read Leo Tolstoy’s enduring essay on the evils of patriotism. He said patriotism is no more than a form of national egotism. If someone in your neighborhood endlessly saying “I’m number one. I’m a superpower,” would you call him a patriot or an egomaniac? That’s all the U.S. is. an international egomaniac.

Question from Jordan Dodge, Administrator:
How would you have us react to the terrorist acts that have beseiged the united States? Do you also suggest we throw out the Constitution?

Colman McCarthy:
I would re-read Martin Luther King’s APril 4, 1967, speech in which he said the United States as the world’s leading purveyer of violence. Since that speech, Congress has funded U.S. invasions of Libya, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, among others. To the victims of all that violence, the U.S. government is terrorizing. So let’s begin to look at our own extravagantly funded violence before we get overly obsessed with events like 9/11.

Question from Peggy CoZi, College Instructor, College of St. Joseph, VT:
I find behaviorial modifaction to be so prevalent that my college students preparing to teach soon cannot move beyond this type of teaching. They were taught this way and they don’t see anything wrong with the ends (the grade) justifying the means...What can I DO that will change their thinking, their actions concerning the value of intrinsic rewards, the value of cooperation and equity?

Colman McCarthy:
There are two types of teachers in the classroom: those who want power over their students, those who want power with their students. The second kind are the more effective teachers and are the ones students are looking for. We either learn by fear--which is what grades, homework, and exams represent-- or we learn by desire, which has little to do with the conventional and useless measurements of academic success. Keep pushing to get this philosophy across to the future teachers.

Rich Shea (Moderator):
Hey, folks. We’ve received lots of great questions, and Colman has been more than willing to answer many, so we’ll probably go an extra 10 or 15 minutes. Please stick with us. Thanks.

Question from Derwin Don Francom EDD:
What is wrong with a child defending him/herself when confronted with violence?

Colman McCarthy:
There are plenty of ways to defend yourself without using violence. If we keep teaching our children to fight fire with fire, they probably won’t ever learn that you should fight fire with water. The water is peace education. The water is mediation skills. The water is conflict resolution skills. Does this guarantee that violence will stop immediately? Obviously not. But it does increase the chances that we can begin to decrease both interpersonal violence and international violence.

Question from Vera Baker, Director of FIne and Performing Arts, Springfield Public Schools:
Many districts have “narrowed” curricula to focus only on math, reading, and test-taking strategies. In many cases, this reduces or eliminates arts classes, but the arts can have a positive impact on issues of peace, respect, and tolerance. What impact do you see with the reduction of arts classes?

Colman McCarthy:
It’s lamentable. Large numbers of artistically gifted children are being stifled. They go to schools where they are being processed like slabs of cheese, and the schools ought to be called Velveeta High or Cheddar Middle School.

Question from Stewart Farley, teacher, Santa Fe High School NM:
With the current and continuing discontent with public education in the US, what do you think it will look like in 10-20 years?

Colman McCarthy:
If all of us peace agitators have our way, there will be no more schools named after Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, Winston Churchill, or any other warrior. Instead, we’ll have hundreds of Gandhi Highs, and the school mascots will not be the Vikings, the Panthers, the Warriors, but the Doves. That day is fast arriving, right?

Question from Robert Williams, Moberly Area Community College:
Could you give us a specific example of how you might respond to a violent situation?

Colman McCarthy:
I took my high school class into Virginia’s Death Row one time. We spent the day speaking with the inmates. One of the students asked a prisoner what she should do if she were threatened with death by a street criminal. The prisoner said, “Look the attacker straight in the eye, and say ‘Jesus loves you and so do I.’” That may sound surreal, but the inmate said that you have a much better chance of getting out alive with that defense than by fighting back violently.

Question from Sharon Hicks, Loyola University, School of Education:
Please talk more about your position about pet owning. It is such a big part of the lives of children.

Colman McCarthy:
Caring for animals is fine. But we need to teach our children that the caring should extend to all animals--including cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, fish, turkeys, and all the other 12 million a day that we slaughter for food. We separate animals into those that are cute and adorable and those that are ugly and edible. All animals, regardless of their utility to human beings, should be free from human domination.

Question from Corinne, Education Major, SUNY Oneonta:
How much influence do you think T.V. has on violence and young people? How do you think we can change that as educators and/or parents?

Colman McCarthy:
Senator Paul Simon, the Illinois Democrat, had hearings on children’s television violence a few years back. He found out that 95% of all childrens’ television programming had violent themes. The solution? Decrease the amount of television time for children.

Question from Sylvia Bereskin, Education Officer, Ontario Ministry of Education:
Just as we’ve had Schools of the Arts and Science Schools for some time, do you think the time is right to start lobbying for Peace Schools?

Colman McCarthy:
Don’t just lobby, organize a citizen’s strike. How do you do that? Next time there’s a school board meeting, round up all your agitating pals, lie down and block the school board parking lot. Make them walk to the meeting that night. It will get their brain cells activated.

Question from Sarah Matteo, student teacher, Allen Street Elementary, Lansing, Michigan.:
McCarthy has referred to conventional features of Western schooling as a kind of “academic violence.” In this regard, would he say that schooling itself is a form of “violence”? That is, can a system of schooling exist that does not employ methods of oppression against students?

Colman McCarthy:
Socrates, who had a thought or two about education, told his students to come to class as long as they wished. When they learned what they wanted to learn, they should go. It should be their decision. That would be the ideal way. Can you get a job that way? No, yet you can get a life that way--a life of independent thinking.

Question from John Burruto, Retired High School Principal:
Mr. McCarthy, why are you responding only to questions that provide you with prompts for your goal of surrender by means of indoctrination to pacifism?

Colman McCarthy:
Listen Brother John, I suspect you think the game is rigged, that I rounded up all my tree-hugging, high-tide, full-moon, rainbow-seeking peaceniks to throw only softball questions that I can hit home runs with. In fact, we’ve been scouring the list of questions in hopes of finding a few dissenters from my views. So, next time around, get all of your pals to show up.

Colman McCarthy:
Thanks for all your lively questions. Next time you are in Washington, come by to any of my classes. I’m teaching at three public high schools, three universities, and a law school, so you have plenty of choices. The first class starts at 7:25 a.m. for all of you early risers. And I’m sure all of you are!

Rich Shea (Moderator):
Well, time’s up folks. Thanks very much for your many thoughtful, provocative questions. We got so many, in fact, that we didn’t come close to answering them all. Thank you, Colman McCarthy, for your candid answers. Please check for the transcript of this chat. Thanks.

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