Teaching Profession

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?

By Samantha Stainburn — October 01, 2003 23 min read
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Pacifist teacher Colman McCarthy doesn’t vote, give out grades, or tell students what to think. Instead, he makes them question the answers.

Colman McCarthy knows an easy way to get people riled up. He merely suggests they consider peace.

One morning this past May found the journalist-turned-teacher attempting to get the 15 or so juniors in his “Alternatives to Violence” class at School Without Walls, an experimental public school five blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C., interested in media literacy. It was an unseasonably hot day two weeks before summer vacation, and the students sitting in the circle of desks just couldn’t get excited about counting the number of articles about violence in the newspapers in front of them. Coming across a story on the Democratic party, McCarthy—a 65-year-old with owlish glasses whose lanky frame was arranged awkwardly in a beat-up chair—decided to pique their interest by making the lesson personal. He started asking rapid-fire questions about the political affiliations of students’ families.

“My mom’s a registered Republican,” one girl answered.

“A registered Republican!” McCarthy exclaimed.

“One of my uncles just converted to become a Republican,” another girl volunteered. “The whole family hates him now.”

“They hate him now?” said McCarthy. “Well, maybe they should talk to him more, maybe they can bring him back.”

“That’s what I said,” the girl responded.

“What party are you from?” a boy asked McCarthy—a challenge as much as a question. Before the teacher could answer, another student ventured a guess: “Anarchist, right?” she said.

“I am a conscientious nonvoter,” McCarthy revealed. “I don’t cooperate with the voting system because anybody sworn into office is sworn in to uphold and defend a violent constitution. How can you vote for people who believe in armies? As soon as we get a new constitution that says we’re going to solve our problems through nonviolence, I’ll be there to participate.”

Wide awake now, the class erupted into a din of scandalized voices.

“But what could you do by not voting?” demanded Martha, a café au lait-skinned junior, sitting up and slipping the hood of her black sweatshirt off her head.

“I’m not cooperating with violence,” McCarthy said.

“What if there’s a candidate who says no to violence?” she probed.

“He’s still sworn in to uphold a document that advocates violence!” he responded, his voice rising.

McCarthy’s rationale for teaching students about peace, which he’s been doing at Washington-area high schools, universities, and other educational organizations for the past 21 years, is simple and compelling: “If we don’t teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence,” he says. But his classroom digressions make it shockingly easy to write off his classes as the indulgence of a 1960s liberal who’s unaware that the times they havea-changed. They occur so frequently and stray into such radical territory that he often appoints a student to the post of “digression monitor” with the task of steering the class back on course when it wanders too far afield.

This particular discussion didn’t come back. “Well, what if there’s, like, two candidates, and one would be a violent leader and one would not?” Martha persisted. “By not voting, the more violent one gets elected. How are you helping nonviolence?”

“We’ve had 42 presidents so far, and the military budget goes up, up, up, up, up,” McCarthy countered. “When are we going to get someone else with all this voting? I haven’t seen it yet.”

“Well, if you’re teaching kids to try to change the whole way this thing is, you need us to vote. You don’t want us to vote?” Martha asked incredulously.

Ellen, a white girl in a mismatched Far Side cartoon T-shirt and a dirndl skirt, chimed in: “If more people like you had voted in the last election, we probably wouldn’t have gone to war with Iraq because we wouldn’t have Bush or Cheney or”

McCarthy cut her off. “You don’t think Al Gore, who believes in the death penalty, believes in the military budget, says we’ll have a strong defense—when they talk about a strong defense, we know what they mean: They’re going to bomb you if you disagree, and we’ve been doing that all along.”

“You can’t just eradicate the Constitution,” Martha said.

“Why not?” McCarthy asked.

Martha spluttered, and a boy who’d seemed to be only half-listening to the exchange came to her aid: “A lot of people like it,” he intoned in a deep baritone. Martha nodded fervently in agreement.

“All right. Then I can’t change your mind. Am I getting anywhere?” asked McCarthy.

“No,” Martha answered, sounding annoyed.

The teacher shrugged, seemingly accepting defeat. “I don’t worry about being a success story. I worry about being faithful. And you can dismiss it as, oh, up in the air, idealistic—a fantasy world.” Then his eyes glimmered, and the kids realized the argument was not over yet. “Well, the fantasy world, people, are those who say, ‘Well, one more war, and we’ll have peace.’ I mean, keep voting for people who believe in armies. They want us to vote. They want us to vote!”

McCarthy’s belief that peace can only be achieved through peaceful means is what drives him; it underlies every facet of his being. It is, for example, the foundation of his peace studies courses. Post-9/11, after suicidal terrorists attempted to kill as many people as possible with planes turned into bombs, does anyone honestly believe that “evildoers” can be stopped with peace, love, flowers, and not voting? McCarthy does. His courses examine the roots of aggression in the many forms they take—racism, sexual assault, poverty, patriotism, war. In each case, he argues that violence can be defanged with pacifist resistance.

Career pacifist and volunteer teacher Colman McCarthy could easily be written off as a holdover from the ‘60s. There’s just one catch: In this uncertain time, his students think otherwise.”
—Photograph by David Kidd

“Peace through peaceful means” also explains McCarthy’s classroom management style. He calls homework, tests, and grades “forms of academic violence.” So, while he typically assigns two papers a semester and asks students to read essays by pacifists such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Leo Tolstoy, and Catholic social worker Dorothy Day, he doesn’t require them to do anything. They don’t even have to sit through his class if they don’t want to be there, he tells them. And at the end of the course, McCarthy lets students choose their own grades.

Peace also informs McCarthy’s lifestyle. He is a vegetarian who does not wear leather because he abhors the killing of animals, and he bikes to his classes from his home in northwest Washington to reduce the harm inflicted upon the environment by gasoline fumes. He deliberately maintains a moderate income to minimize the amount of tax money he gives to a government that, he claims, perpetrates violence. (His examples include capital punishment and the war in Iraq.) He also carries a passport-size copy of the Bill of Rights in his inside-right jacket pocket just in case reminding people of their rights might help him win an argument about nonviolence. And, in a move that indicates the intensity of his commitment to promoting peace, he teaches his high school courses—all electives whose content has been approved by local curriculum committees—for free.

Free or not, you can bet parents complain. A few years ago, McCarthy was teaching a peace course at an all-girls private school in suburban Washington. “At the end of the year,” he recalls, “one of the mothers called me up, a little curious—she didn’t see her daughter slaving over any homework for my class. She said, ‘How did my daughter do in your class?’ I said, ‘How would I know? I’m her teacher.’ ‘Did I hear you correctly?’ she said. I tried to explain what we were doing. I told her Walker Percy’s great line: ‘You can earn all A’s and go out and flunk life.’ That didn’t calm her at all. ‘I want her to go to an Ivy League school where her father went and I went,’ [she stated]. So I said, ‘Listen, I understand your difficulties, but if you want to find out how your daughter did in my class, there’s an easy way to find out: Ask her.’”

While McCarthy balks at classroom conventions, it’s difficult to dismiss him once you hear what his students think. Comments on the evaluation forms he received from one of his classes this past spring would have any rule-following, grade-dispensing teacher breaking open the champagne:

“It was hard to think of arguments to combat other great arguments by my classmates. Even if one didn’t argue, it was hard to hear views against everything in your life, even down to one’s diet. But ... I had a lot of fun expanding my mind and realizing that there are other opinions out there.”

“I’m really glad that I had this class with some of my best friends....The discussions we had that were inspired by this class were so real, and I really enjoyed talking about things that matter in life.”

“I can’t explain how much you have changed my way of thinking....There are issues I want to learn about now, and I think I am much less afraid of what might happen if I don’t conform and follow all the rules.”

In an academic year bookended by snipers terrorizing the Washington, D.C., region and an American invasion of Iraq, it appears that McCarthy was able to accomplish something remarkable with these kids: He sent them off into an uncertain world feeling comfortable with uncertainty. Maybe teaching peace is an idea whose time has come—again.

Born in 1938 into a socially conscious Catholic family in Old Brookville, New York, Colman McCarthy always thought pacifism made sense. But after neglecting his studies at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, while playing professional golf as a senior, he graduated with a yearning to develop his beliefs more fully. He found the time to contemplate his future at a Trappist monastery in Conyers, Georgia, an austere place where he joined cloistered monks in rising at 2 each morning to milk cows. He ended up staying for five years, reading the complete works of a different writer each year: First Tolstoy, then Fyodor Dostoevsky, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, and Gandhi.

‘The first day of every semester, I tell my students that, in this class, no one is allowed to ask questions. Don’t ask questions, question the answers.’

Colman McCarthy,
Career pacifist
And volunteer teacher

In 1966, he left the monastery to try his hand at freelance writing. He wasn’t a freelancer for long: After Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver read a McCarthy article that criticized him, he invited the journalist to join his speechwriting staff in Washington, D.C. It was a lucky break for McCarthy in more ways than one—he met his future wife, Mavourneen, on Shriver’s staff; they married within one month of meeting and, in quick succession, had three sons. In 1969, the Washington Post hired McCarthy to contribute to its editorial page. By 1978, he was writing a syndicated column—marketed by Post execs as the ideas of “an unreconstructed, unrepentant, unyielding liberal"—that often served as the lone pacifist voice in the 70-plus newspapers that ran it.

In 1982, a teacher’s invitation to give a speech about writing at School Without Walls, where two of McCarthy’s sons were students, pointed the journalist in a new direction. He recounts the story in I’d Rather Teach Peace, a memoir about teaching nonviolence published by a Catholic mission movement: “After speaking to the English literature class about writing, I told the teacher how enjoyable her students were during the give-and-take discussion.... The teacher, seasoned and skilled in bluff-calling, said that if I really found the visit to her class so enlivening, why not come back in the fall to offer my own course. Go beyond gushing, was her message. ‘You could teach writing,’ she said. Impulsively I replied, ‘I’d rather teach peace.’”

The course McCarthy designed for the school and taught during his lunch break proved so popular that it became a repeat offering, and it inspired him to also teach peace at his other son’s school, Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in northwest D.C. McCarthy wrote about the classes in his columns and gave speeches at education conferences, which prompted a stream of requests for advice on how to create similar programs. To keep up, in 1985 McCarthy and his wife converted an upstairs room in their home into the Center for Teaching Peace, a nonprofit dedicated to disseminating materials about peace studies.

By the mid-1990s, McCarthy had trained additional volunteers, including his sons John, a baseball coach and former pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, and Jim, a public interest lawyer, to teach courses locally. But he was devoting more time than ever to peace education, leading classes at odd hours at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, Georgetown University Law School, American University, the University of Maryland honors program, the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, and the Oak Hill Youth Detention Center in Maryland. McCarthy didn’t ask for a break from the manic pace, but in 1997, executives at the Post gave him one anyway when they killed his column, claiming that declining sales—its syndication had fallen from 73 papers in 1981 to 27 in 1996—demonstrated that “it had run its course.”

By McCarthy’s estimation, he’s taught more than 6,000 students to date, about half at the college level, where peace studies is a growing field. About 300 of the 3,100 colleges and universities in the United States offer courses in nonviolence, and 71 schools offer peace-related majors. Thirty years ago, only one school, Manchester College in Indiana, offered such a major. Schools are responding to student demand for peace courses, according to Abdul Aziz Said, director of the Center for Global Peace at American University. In McCarthy’s opinion, there’s still a ways to go—three times as many colleges and universities offer ROTC courses, he points out—but American institutions of higher learning teach more peace than their tradition-bound counterparts in other countries.

At the K-12 level, though, it’s the reverse. While all Japanese schools require students to take “A-Bomb Education” and most students in Africa, Asia, and South America study the connections between poverty and violence, very few American schools offer courses covering the roots of violence or its alternatives. When they do, they’re rarely required. Ian Harris, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says administrators are pulled in two directions when considering adding peace to their curriculums. On the one hand, Harris says, it’s getting “harder and harder to have new courses or courses with a different focus that don’t meet No Child Left Behind or standardized test requirements.” On the other, he adds, the problem of student violence and the resulting push to create safer schools has encouraged a proliferation of classes in conflict mediation, which is one element of peace studies.

McCarthy argues that peace should be taught long before college, and American University’s Said agrees. “Oftentimes, when I work with college students, a good deal of time is invested in unconditioning their intellectual condition,” he says. “What they need to unlearn is a way of thinking that does not encourage their creative imagination. They have been acculturated in what I call cultural pessimism, that you really can’t make a difference, that you have to accept things the way they are.”

But by promoting pacifism, are teachers indoctrinating students in a particular political point of view? Harris, who’s done research on how college-level peace classes influence personal behavior, says such concerns are overstated. Very few students become activists, he says, although many attempt to lead more peaceful lives by becoming vegetarians, learning how to mediate, and the like. McCarthy doesn’t look to the research to justify his classes. He claims that teachers are already converting students to a political doctrine—that of violence—by not covering pacifist movements and their leaders in history classes. “We teach the safe, sanitized Martin Luther King—'I have a dream’ and all that,” he says. “Well, he wasn’t a dreamer, he was a doer. But textbooks rarely discuss his opposition to military action in Vietnam.” Peace studies, McCarthy argues, simply presents the other side of the story.

At the same time, he notes, teaching peace is not just a matter of introducing students to new material; it also requires pushing them to free their minds.

“The first day of every semester, I tell my students that, in this class, no one is allowed to ask questions,” McCarthy says. “Questions are absolutely forbidden. Instead, be braver, bolder, be resilient: Don’t ask questions, question the answers. What answers? The ones that say the answer is violence. Questioning those answers takes imagination and daring. And we can get it by studying and learning the ideas and lives of those who have done it before us.”

This philosophy leads to some wide-ranging discussions— discussions that remain in McCarthy’s students’ minds long after graduation.

McCarthy’s wide-ranging discussions often require appointing “digression monitors.”
—Photograph by David Kidd

“I remember there were some athletes in my class who were strongly competitive and really defined by their sports,” says Chappell Marmon, who has taught high school English and social studies in Colorado and studied peace with McCarthy at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High in Maryland in 1994. “He was always questioning them about the competition and whether that was a form of violence and just getting them to think about their own choices. He asked us, ‘How many of you are slave holders?’ And we were all like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He was talking about having pets, and that pets were a form of slavery.... He was just willing to go that far, and be like, ‘Well, if you believe X, why can’t you believe Y, and then take it even further into Z?’”

Leah Wells, a former student who’s now a consultant at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a California-based nonprofit group that advocates for the abolition of nuclear weapons, says McCarthy’s willingness to listen is what makes his style of teaching possible. “I was in awe of how he connected with even the most ‘difficult’ students,” she says. Wells accompanied him to some of his classes at the Oak Hill juvenile detention center and recalls how one student there was swearing—"not necessarily at him, but not wanting to participate in the class. His reaction was not to be angry with her but rather to say, ‘Sister, why are you saying those things?’ It was the most disarming and priceless conversation, as she ended up really participating in the class. He was so sincere, not chastising at all.”

McCarthy says much of his work entails trying to lessen students’ cynicism. To do this, he strives to teach peace without hypocrisy, which, to him, means removing coercion from the classroom. “We teach kids mostly by fear—that’s where tests and homework and grades come in,” he argues. “You do away with them, it’s a little risky. They might blow it off. That’s all right. You do a good job in the classroom, they’ll think about it long after the class is over. You don’t do a good job, why should they think about it?”

As rigid as it sounds, McCarthy does not only live by this code—sometimes he dies by it, too.

Near the end of the school year at Wilson High, McCarthy prepared to teach a class about the military’s presence in schools through ROTC programs. But first he asked his students to hand in the essay assignment that was due that day. “If you did not write the paper, take out a blank piece of paper and tell me why you did not,” he said. “I’m always curious.” Five minutes later, he collected many more single pages than completed essays.

Leaning against the teacher’s desk, McCarthy flipped through the stack and read selected excuses aloud: “‘I didn’t write the paper because I came home late from night school and I forgot— seriously.’ ‘I didn’t write the paper because I am so focused on my other subjects.’ ‘I didn’t write the paper because I didn’t desire to do so.’” McCarthy held this page aloft and nodded approvingly. “I admire that.”

He was interrupted by a willowy girl, a student not enrolled in the course, who pushed open the heavy wooden door and walked into the classroom without acknowledging there was a lesson in progress. McCarthy looked at her bemusedly, then said, “Hi, sister, are you a peacemaker?”

“Yes, I am,” she answered distractedly.

“What’s the last peaceful thing you did?”

“I don’t know.”

“What’s your name?”


“Alisha, I want you in my class next year.”

The girl looked at him skeptically, then giggled. She was just there to pick up her friend so they could walk down to the assembly in the first floor library together, she explained.

“Assembly? What assembly?” McCarthy asked.

Ayanna Mackins, who a few years ago appeared on MTV’s adventure travel show Road Rules, was visiting to talk about self-esteem and the importance of community, the class told him. It was up to teachers to decide whether they wanted their classes to attend.

“Well, as you know, we believe in desire-based learning in this class,” McCarthy said. “If you desire to stay here and learn about peace, stay. If you desire to go to the assembly, go.” The students were packing up their belongings before he finished his sentence, and within seconds, they were clomping out the door in their heavy boots and high heels. A look of regret momentarily crossed McCarthy’s face. Then he called after the departing crowd, “Tell someone you love them on the way down!”

Wilson High’s principal, Stephen Tarason, isn’t bothered by McCarthy’s unorthodox ways. “Colman really challenges those kids to think,” he observes. He says the school also offers courses in peer mediation and conflict resolution. Wilson is a place where real-world experience is valued, according to Tarason, so the opportunity to include a regionally known activist is welcomed. “To have a person of his prestige and experience and commitment touch the lives of our kids is an incredible thing,” Tarason says.

But in other situations, McCarthy notes, peace is a difficult sell. When he publishes freelance opinion pieces and articles about his courses in papers like the Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times, he quips, “I get a stack of mail this high from people who call me ignorant—and then I read my negative mail.” He’s equally aware that his teaching methods are out of step with the norms of an era in which schools are encouraging teachers to exhibit more control, not less. “All through school, teachers order [students] around—'Obey us or else,’” McCarthy says. “I don’t want power over people; I want power with them. Very few schools let you teach that way.”

Leah Wells unwittingly stepped over the line in a peace class she taught at a school in California last year. For a unit about power, she screened A Bug’s Life, the 1998 animated Pixar film that deals with issues of exploitation, and invited members of a farm-workers’ union to talk about their struggles to get a contract. “After two innocuous semesters of inviting them to class, I was told that they were not welcome anymore because the school was getting complaints from parents,” she says.

When America goes to war, administrators’ reluctance to encourage diverse political views becomes only more pronounced.

And when America goes to war, administrators’ reluctance to encourage diverse political views becomes only more pronounced. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, this past April, for example, administrators at three different high schools suspended or placed on paid administrative leave five teachers who had displayed antiwar posters in their classrooms, some created by students. Officials claimed they were violating an Albuquerque Public Schools policy that requires educators to maintain a classroom atmosphere free from bias or prejudice. One teacher resigned from the district following the incident. Two others, employed on annually renewed contracts, were not hired back by their school.

Yet hostility toward pacifism—be it from school officials or a government that decides to go to war—doesn’t depress McCarthy. He’s able to find something useful in any form of violence. Take the past school year, for example. “The sniper attacks, preparing to invade Iraq, and then the actual slaughtering, the death penalty stories, the white collar and corporate crime wave—all of this was a hand-delivery of relevance,” he says. “Class discussions were enlivened. The assorted gunmen, the militarists, the executioners, the boardroom frauds— they become your teaching assistants, offering lessons on how not to solve conflicts.”

It’s true that such a positive outlook is relatively easy for McCarthy to maintain: He gets to teach where he’s wanted, as a volunteer unfettered by contractual obligations. But while this situation sets him apart from teachers in the paperwork-filled trenches—and makes him reluctant to offer suggestions on how to work within a grade- and test-driven system—it also makes him the kind of guy who can reignite a teacher’s burned-out imagination at a conference or workshop.

That task is what brought McCarthy to the United States Institute of Peace, a federal organization that promotes international conflict prevention, management, and resolution through a host of educational programs, on a Friday evening in August. He arrived at the downtown Washington office toting a small suitcase full of copies of two anthologies of essays by pacifists; McCarthy edited and published them himself, and he uses the money from their sales to help fund the Center for Teaching Peace. It was the final day of the institute’s weeklong summer workshop on international affairs for high school social studies teachers, and the 24 educators sitting around a wood table in the glass-walled conference room had spent the previous six days listening to presentations on teaching about the Muslim world, war crimes, and the American military. McCarthy’s speech would be on teaching pacifism.

He spoke casually and freely, hitting on provocative ideas that recur throughout his articles and classes. “The United States spends $355 billion a year making war,” he said at one point. “That’s $11,000 a second.” He then counted off a series of seconds: "$11,000, $11,000, $11,000, $11,000—are we up to your salaries yet? Or did we pass that a few seconds ago?”

Later he added, “Here’s a quiz for you: In this list of countries that the U.S. has bombed since the end of World War II"—he held up a list of 22, including long-forgotten raids like “Congo 1964,” “Libya 1986,” “Panama 1989"—"in how many instances did a democratic government, respectful of human rights, occur as a direct result? None.”

And still later, he asked: “Why are we violent, but not illiterate? Because we are taught to read.”

McCarthy reluctantly wrapped up his speech at the 45-minute mark and was mobbed by several teachers who wanted to buy his books. Another group gathered in the back of the room to discuss what they’d just heard. While agreeing that McCarthy’s in-your-face comments wouldn’t fly with most school boards or parents, they excitedly talked about how radical pacifist ideas could enliven their own classes.

An elegant- looking teacher in her 40s wandered up and joined the conversation. The truth, she said conspiratorially, is that when you close your classroom door, you’re in charge and there’s a lot you can get away with. The others nodded in agreement.

Suddenly, the teacher registered with alarm that a reporter’s tape recorder was running. She declared that her comments were off the record and abruptly walked away from the group. Reconsidering their candor, one by one other teachers in the circle requested that their comments, too, be considered off the record. Peace may have a chance in America’s schools. But at least for now, the revolution will not be broadcast.


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