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If We Don’t Teach Peace, What Are We Teaching?

Nonviolence, peace, and justice are not utopian dreams but real and practical ways in which humans can affect the world around them.

Earlier this year, I walked into the university classroom where I teach a course in Peace Studies. Seated in a circle around the room were seniors just shy of graduating. They would soon become doctors, social workers, teachers, community organizers, executives, and leaders.

To open our semester together, I wrote a simple, three-word question on the board.

What is peace?

Silence. Stumped by this tiny question, no one spoke. They did not have an answer, and I would later discover why: It was the first time in their life a teacher had asked them to define peace.

Each year in the United States, millions of students graduate from high school and college, their diplomas certifying years spent studying the principles of science, mathematics, literature, and writing. These are the subjects we value as a society, and therefore we insist that our young people develop knowledge in these areas. Imagine if we graduated seniors who couldn’t read, or do simple math, or write basic paragraphs. Outrageous, right?

Yet these very same students will graduate without ever once studying conflict resolution. During their entire academic career, they will never be required to take a course on making peace, building community, or forgiving an enemy. The principles of violence and nonviolence will not be analyzed, the philosophy of Dr. King will not be discussed, and satyagraha—the practice of nonviolent resistance, which Gandhi called the most powerful force in the universe—will remain ignored.

We are neglecting to teach our students the most fundamental and urgent lesson: how to make peace in the world around them. And by forgetting to do so, we are promoting violence. As my friend and fellow peace educator Colman McCarthy once said, “If we don’t teach our children peace, someone else will teach them violence.”

So each day, in the classrooms where I teach middle school, high school, and college students, I work to counter the violence, spark the conscience, and liberate the thinking mind. I teach peace.

Dismantling the Violence

At the most basic level, to teach peace is to teach that violence does not have to happen.

For too long in the West, we have acted as if violence is inevitable, a natural part of the human condition that sticks to us like the skin on our back. Nonviolence is written off as an afterthought—viewed, at best, as do-nothing-passivity and, at worst, as a long-haired fantasy of Woodstock. Responding to violence with violence is seen as the only practical solution, and the result is greater violence.

But this is changing.

Hundreds of colleges and universities across the globe now offer degrees in Peace Studies, with some universities reporting enrollment size doubling in the past few years. At the heart of each program is the declaration that nonviolence, peace, and justice are not utopian dreams but real and practical ways in which humans can live and affect the world around them. Violence and its dynamics are examined alongside the history, philosophy, and principles of nonviolence. The treasure chest of stories is opened, and like some reverse-Pandora’s Box, the ideals of peace-making are unleashed onto classrooms as students study the examples of Cesar Chavez and Vandana Shiva, Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan, Gandhi and Gene Sharp.

From a broader perspective, this academic trend towards peace-making is part of the widespread awakening—what David Korten calls “The Great Turning”—happening in response to the problems of our time.

Those problems are many.

The United States leads the First World in the following categories: prison population, drug use, child hunger, poverty, illiteracy, teen pregnancies, firearms death, obesity, diabetes, recorded rapes, use of antidepressants, income disparity, military spending, production of hazardous waste, and the poor quality of its schools (Paul Hawken, who published this list in Blessed Unrest, also points out that the U.S. is the only country in the world besides Iraq with metal detectors in its schools).

For the peace educator, this list is no surprise. Violence spreads like a virus. Contagious by nature, it follows a spiritual law that says that violence plus violence only equals more violence. Violence can never lead to peace, and the more we respond with violence, the more violence we create.

So teaching peace means dismantling this list. One great crowbar comes simply through asking questions.

To Teach Peace is to Teach Gandhi

“Could nonviolence have stopped Hitler and the Nazis?” I ask middle school students in my U.S. history course. Having already examined the philosophy of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the students create imaginary European nations whose mission is to develop nonviolent strategies to stop invading Nazis. After they present their plans, I tell them about the citizens of Denmark—so many of them teenagers barely older than my students—who monkeywrenched the entire Nazi plan through nonviolent noncooperation.

During our year together, these 12-year olds have surveyed the landscape of U.S. history. But where most history courses ignore the deep tradition of American nonviolence, my curriculum examines Jeremiah Evarts as well as Andrew Jackson, AJ Muste as well as Harry Truman, Henry David Thoreau as well as Teddy Roosevelt. My course features nonviolence alongside every story of violence. Students develop a long exposure to the people in our history who have resisted violence by following their conscience.

“Which is stronger: love or hate?” I ask high school students in my Democracy Studies course. We’ve already finished the biography of Gandhi, discussing at length the ideas behind satyagraha. Gandhi is the Thomas Edison of nonviolence—he switched on our understanding of this universal force more than anyone prior, and to study and teach peace is to study and teach Gandhi.

Gandhi was skilled at civil disobedience, but he was even better at promoting practical solutions. Gandhi resisted injustice by creating alternatives, what he called “constructive programmes.” His favorite was the spinning wheel, which allowed Indians to forgo British cloth while actively spinning their own.

With a nod to Gandhi’s idea, I ask my students to create their own constructive programmes. Find a problem in the world around you, I tell them, and then create its solution. Further freeing them from traditional academia, I liberate the grade book and allow them to assign themselves a grade. They dive in, and create some powerful actions.

 

  • One student handed out copies of Gene Sharp’s revolutionary (and in some countries, illegal) 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action to people on the streets.
  • One student created dialogue between two opposing groups—the mayor and some frustrated citizens.
  • One student served vegetarian pizza to the homeless community in town.
  • One student planted a garden.
  • One student began providing food and clean water to migrant workers crossing the brutal desert. She was arrested for her work.
  • One student began collecting long-distance phone cards for U.S. troops overseas.
  • One student forgave her enemy.
  • One student began to pray and meditate regularly.

Schools do not have to create a formal Peace Studies course. Just like writing or note-taking, it is an academic skill that can be infused into almost any current course.

But when schools do formalize a Peace Studies program, the door opens wider. At the university where I teach Peace Studies, students read a biography of Gandhi and then Michael Nagler’s formative The Search for a Nonviolent Future. We spend many days wrestling over the practice of forgiveness before measuring the effect inner peace has on external circumstances. Understanding the practice of war-making consumes several weeks, as we examine the media’s role in promoting war, the reasons why war gives us meaning (in the words of Chris Hedges), and also a presentation from local U.S. Army colonels.

Peace Studies does not shirk away from opposing viewpoints. It does not practice partisanship. The study of peace is radical in that all are welcome, for peace is about more than politics. I can teach for months without ever speaking about George Bush and Barack Obama or red and blue states. Peace Studies gets underneath the surface, going deeper into what it means to be human.

And that’s why so many students cram into my classroom to take these courses. Not because of me, but because they are so hungry to study peace.

“I Understand What Making Peace Is All About’’

A few years ago, a student of mine who delved as deeply into understanding peace as anyone I’ve ever taught was participating in a march for reproductive rights in Washington. Thousands were there, including the counter-protestors shouting from the barricaded sidewalk. One man in particular caught her attention.

“Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!’’ he shouted, staring right at her.

Breathing deeply, she put down her sign (it read: “Equal Rights for All”) and walked over to him, smiling softly. She put her arms around him and hugged. Then she walked back, picked up her sign and kept marching.

The story does not end here. Months later, at another march, she spotted him again. Again, she was marching, he was shouting. But their eyes locked, and in that moment, all the animosity melted away. He stopped shouting. He softened. He may have even smiled.

“It was in that moment that I understood what making peace was all about,’’ she later told me.

And that is why I teach peace.

David Cook wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He lives with his wife and two small children in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he teaches courses on Peace Studies, Democracy Studies, and American Studies. He received his masters degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College, and his work has been featured in The Sun, Geez and truthout.org. He can be reached at david.cook@mail.com.

May 15th, 2015 at 10:18 am

Schoolchildren Speak with Scotland’s Top Religious Leaders

STV hosts student question time event with Scotland's top religious leaders.

from  STV.TV

School pupils have been given the opportunity to ask some tough questions of Scotland’s top religious leaders at an inter-faith event.

The event, hosted by STV at its Pacific Quay HQ in Glasgow, was attended by representatives from the country’s leading faith groups, including Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders.

Scottish Inter-faith council organised the event, hosted by STV’s news anchor John MacKay, to give schoolchildren the chance to talk directly to religious leaders through a virtual video link.

Pupils from Holyrood Secondary School were also invited into the studios to sit around the table with the leaders to ask them their questions.

Click here to read the full article

IFYC Hosts Summer Interfaith Leadership Institutes in Chicago and Philadelphia

from Interfaith Youth Core

What if you were equipped to mobilize a movement for interfaith cooperation on your campus? Join us at one of our Interfaith Leadership Institutes (ILIs) for students, faculty, and staff. You’ll return to campus with the core skills of interfaith leadership, ready to organize Better Together.

Join us from June 18-21 in Chicago or July 16-19 in Philadelphia for an ILI. Click here to apply by April 16. (Apply by March 26 and save $50). If you have any questions, email leadershipinstitute@ifyc.org or look below for more information.

Faith Inspires: The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

from Huffington Post

This week’s Faith Inspires highlights the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development (ICSD), a Jerusalem-based organization of inter-religious leaders who promote environmental consciousness and responsibility together. Through their Seminary Students Sustainability Program, Muslim, Christian and Jewish students learn side-by-side about sustainability and co-existence. The organization leads “eco-tourism” trips throughout the Holy Land. And on March 19, ICSD will host the Interfaith Climate and Energy Conference, which will bring together a diverse group of religious leaders to talk about the religious imperative to protect the earth.

Click here to read the full article

Muslim Students Have a Right to Privacy

By Erica Shaps
From Huffington Post

When I was on a Brandeis University Hillel first year retreat, it never crossed my mind that the police might be watching me. It sounds silly and irrational. However, after the Associated Press disclosed a New York Police Department (NYPD) program monitoring and investigating college students involved with Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) last week, this worry is entirely legitimate, especially for my Muslim peers across the Northeast.

I am a Jewish undergraduate born in the Chicago area attending college in Boston. Why does this matter to me?

I think about how much I cherish my campus’ religious diversity. I recall the distrust directed at the Jewish community historically and feel obligated to speak out. As a student involved with religious life on campus, when I read about the NYPD’s surveillance program I can’t help but feel violated.

I was most appalled while reading that an undercover officer joined City College of New York Muslim Students on a rafting trip, wrote down their names and recorded how many times a day they prayed. On my retreat two years ago, I prayed three times a day. Does this make me more threatening? If I were Muslim and not Jewish, would my name be on a list filed with my local police department? My ability to send e-mails to the Hillel listserv without concern that someone may be reading them feels like a luxury.

It is particularly upsetting that these secret investigations happen on college campuses. Call me idealistic, but I see the university as hallowed ground: a unique space for young adults from incredibly diverse backgrounds to form a community around the shared values of education and open-mindedness. Two weeks ago, Brandeis Hillel and MSA hosted their second annual joint Shabbat dinner and Friday evening program. We exchanged stories and traditions and built relationships over shared food. This event, in direct contrast to the suspicion caused by excessive monitoring, represents the epitome of American values and academic ideals.

Yes, the NYPD has legitimate security concerns and a right to investigate potential threats. However, a broad surveillance of university MSAs, including those outside of New York, is excessive and unwarranted. Justice Louis Brandeis, my university’s namesake, was a firm believer in the right to privacy. He was among the first to provide a legal framework for this concept in his landmark dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States.

Click here to read the full article

Jewish and Muslim Students Can Work Together Against Prejudice

By Nabil Ahmed
From the Guardian

There are more than 110,000 Jewish and Muslim students in Britain, but it’s not often their shared experiences are considered. Globally, Muslim-Jewish relations are a touchy topic, with the focus on political divisions (such as Palestine-Israel), and an assumption of historical enmity. I have felt this cold, polarising air from both communities, whose leaders seem unwilling to address it.

But born and raised in Alwoodley, Leeds, I grew up with more Jewish than Muslim friends, and realised our startling similarities. The National Jewish Student Survey in 2011 showed the day-to-day issues facing Jewish students. In the main these concerned passing exams and finding a job, but Judaism also played a strong role in encouraging them to support and give to ethical causes. Two out of five had experienced an antisemitic incident in the last year, although just 4% were “very worried” about antisemitism at university.

The Greater London Authority research into the experiences of Muslim students in 2009 suggested a similar experience, both of Islamophobia and of getting the best out of life on campus. Muslim students are engaging in social activism and are concerned about welfare needs, but have the same day-to-day concerns as other students. In summary, young Muslims and Jews want to enjoy their university years, get good jobs and make a difference.

But in 2012, there are troubled waters ahead. Internationally there is the threat of a war with Iran, which could stoke inter-community tensions – and antisemitism and Islamophobia have not gone away. January saw a vile Nazi-themed drinking game, on a ski trip organised by the LSE athletics union, which was rightly condemned. Also at LSE there was the Islamophobic harassment of a Muslim student after religious sensitivities were provoked by the Atheist Secular and Humanist Society and in Stoke – a place where Muslim students have been harassed by the BNP – an ex-soldier, Simon Beech, was recently convicted of setting fire to a mosque.

Click here to read the full article

The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue InterViews Rabbi Justus Baird

From the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue,

Learn what some of today’s most exciting visionaries, thinkers, advocates, and activists are doing in the field of religion. Watch exclusive interViews, and read responses from the next generation of graduate students, seminarians, and civic leaders.

Click here to read what the panelists had to say in response to Rabbi Baird’s comments.

Interfaith relationships deepen in Silicon Valley

by D. Andrew Kille

This week we have seen some significant steps taken to strengthen the relationships among the diverse religious communities of Silicon Valley.

For the past several months, two Faiths Act Fellows, Tim Brauhn and Hafsa Arain, have been stationed in San Jose to help build a network of students interested in cooperative efforts of service to address global poverty. Sponsored by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and the Interfaith Youth Core, Tim and Hafsa have been working with students up and down the Peninsula to join together in working to eradicate malaria.

As their term of service comes to an end, they have sponsored meetings in San Francisco earlier this month and again this last Monday, May 10, in San Jose, to report on their efforts and to lay a groundwork for continuing after they go. In the time they have been in this area, they have held fourteen gatherings, have gathered a “Hub” team of 25 people, and have built groups at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University, and Stanford.

Also this week, over forty people representing a wide range of religious and community organizations met at the South Bay Islamic Association center in San Jose and resolved to take the necessary steps toward building a multifaith organization that would enable the religious communities of the South Bay to take a more visible and active role in service to the wider community, engagement with governmental and educational institutions, and stronger relationships with one another in building a peaceable environment for all.

The new organization would take on the functions of Silicon Valley’s status as a member of the Partner City Network of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Click here to read the full article

Education from Top to Bottom

If we are “hearing each other” then we have the opportunity to learn from each other. With this in mind, the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (CPWR) is eager to enhance the educational opportunities available within and resulting from our Melbourne event.

First, we hope that students and teachers will attend the Parliament for their own personal growth and benefit; to learn about this opportunity, click here.

Second, teachers will be able to attend as representatives of their schools and organizations, as part of their professional development; to learn about this opportunity, click here.

Finally, the CPWR initiated Task Force of US Seminaries has created syllabi as a resource for religious leaders and as an expression of the profound need for interreligious cooperation; to learn more, click here.

September 18th, 2009 at 3:31 pm