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Paths to Peace

Bringing pacifism to schools

Editor’s note: Colman McCarthy, former columnist for The Washington Post, is a pioneer in the field of peace education. He has developed and taught courses on nonviolence at the high school and college level since 1982 and is the co-founder of the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. The following is an excerpt from his latest book, I’d Rather Teach Peace (Orbis).


By rough estimate, I’ve had more than 5,000 students since that first high school class in 1982. I’ve felt blessed. With all of them, from the brainiest third-year law students on their way to six figure beginning salaries to 14-year-old illiterates locked up for hustling drugs, I emphasized one theme: Alternatives to violence exist and, if individuals and nations can organize themselves properly, nonviolent force is always stronger, more enduring and, assuredly, more moral than violent force.

Some students opened their minds to this immediately. They understood Gandhi: “Nonviolence is the weapon of the strong.” They believed King: “The choice is not between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.”

Other students have had doubts that I encouraged them to express. They did, repeatedly. Nonviolence and pacifism are beautiful theories and ideals, they said, but in the real world, where muggers and international despots lurk, let’s keep our fists cocked and our bomb bays open.

All I asked of the realists was to think about life’s two risks: Do you depend on violent force or nonviolent force to create peace? Not just peace in some vague “out there,” but peace in our homes where physical beatings are the leading cause of injury among American women, or peace in the developing world where some 40,000 children die every day from preventable diseases, or peace in those parts of the world where more than 40,000 people die every month in some 59 wars or conflicts -- mostly the poor killing the poor -- or peace where the U.S. Congress gives $900 million a day to the Pentagon, which is nearly $11,000 a second and four times the Peace Corps budget for a year.

Literature of peace

At all schools, my course was based on the literature of peace -- the writings of past and current peacemakers. I created my own textbooks -- Solutions to Violence and Strength Through Peace -- that run deep with essays by Gandhi, Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Gene Sharp, Jeannette Rankin, Joan Baez, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sargent Shriver, Jane Addams, Carol Ascher, Helen Nearing and Daniel Berrigan, and ranged from nonviolent resistance to the Holocaust to animal rights. The book was published by the Center for Teaching Peace, a nonprofit my wife Mavourneen and I began in l985. With generous foundation support, our work is to help schools at all levels offer courses on the methods, practitioners, effectiveness and history of nonviolent conflict resolution. In my classes, essays are read, discussed and debated. My goal was not to tell students what to think but how to think: gather as much information as possible about nonviolence, and then either embrace or reject it. I went with the thought of Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist who advised students in Mutual Aid: “Think about the kind of world you want to live and work in. What do you need to build that world? Demand that your teachers teach you that.”

The students I’ve been with these 20 years are looking for a world where it becomes a little easier to love and a lot harder to hate, where learning nonviolence means that we dedicate our hearts, minds, time and money to a commitment that the force of love, the force of truth, the force of justice and the force or organized resistance to corrupt power is seen as sane, and the force of fists, guns, armies and bombs insane.

The other side

Over the years, I’ve had suggestions from other teachers to offer what they call “balance” in my courses, that I should give students “the other side.” I’m never sure exactly what that means. After assigning students to read Gandhi I should have them also read Carl von Clausewitz? After Martin Luther King’s essay against the Vietnam War, Colin Powell’s memoir favoring the Persian Gulf War? After Justice William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall’s views opposing the death penalty, George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein’s favoring it? After a woman’s account of her using a nonviolent defense against a rapist, the thwarted rapist’s side?

What I have surety about is that students come into my classes already well educated, often overeducated, in the ethic of violence. The educators? The nation’s long-tenured cultural faculty: political leaders who fund wars and send the young to fight them; judges and juries who dispatch people to death row; filmmakers who script gunplay movies and cartoons; toy manufacturers marketing “action games”; parents in war zone homes where verbal or physical abuse is common; high school history texts that that tell about Calamity Jane but not Jane Addams, or Daniel Boone but not Daniel Berrigan.

I can’t in conscience teach the other side. Students have already been saturated with it. No, I say, my course is the other side. With me, they will have a chance to examine solutions and alternatives to violence. The course is still well short of offering balance. One semester in 12 or 16 or more years of education is a pittance, not a balance.

Peace education is in its infancy. In 1988, my center gave $15,000 in seed money to a university to create a peace studies program. In the spring of 2001, a major in peace studies was established, thanks to one professor and some students who doggedly kept demanding, as Kropotkin counseled. The effort took 13 years, a speed record in higher education, I was told. In the 1990s, I needed six years to persuade officials in Montgomery County, Md. -- school board members, curriculum committees, principals and assorted desk barons -- to approve my text Solutions to Violence for use in schools, including the one where I had been volunteering for 12 years. This was a supposedly enlightened, progressive county. Once a school board member who presented himself as politically astute said I would do well to come up with another name besides “peace studies.” “Studies” was all right, but “peace” might alarm some parents. I envisioned a newspaper headline: “Proposed peace course threatens community stability.”

The cycle can be broken

As a lifelong pacifist, my early hunches are regularly confirmed. Yes, peacemaking can be taught. The literature is large and growing. Yes, the young are passionately seeking alternatives to violence. Yes, our schools should be educating as much about peacemakers as peace-breakers. Yes, whether the killing and harming are done by armies, racists, corporations, polluters, domestic batterers, street thugs or boardroom thugs, terrorists, schoolyard bullies, animal exploiters or others in this graceless lot, the cycle of violence can be broken -- but only if choices are laid out, starting in the nation’s 78,000 elementary schools, 31,000 high schools and 3,000 colleges.

In 20 years, I’ve seen the issue of violence in the schools surface as a major public policy debate. Solutions range from metal detectors and police in the hallways to national conferences on youth violence. Suddenly we are awash with experts overflowing with opinions and strategies. As a journalist for 35 years, I don’t believe half of what they say, and of the other half I have grave doubts. As a classroom teacher, and as a pacifist, my experienced-based belief is that unless we teach our children peace someone else will teach them violence.

I had a student at the University of Maryland a while back who wrote a 13-word paper that for both brevity and breadth -- the rarest of combinations -- has stayed with me: “Q: Why are we violent but not illiterate? A: Because we are taught to read.”

This student, an imaginative lad named David Allan who went on to serve in Teach for America and is now a writer in San Francisco, didn’t know it, but he shared the genius of both Albert Einstein and Mohandas Gandhi. Einstein wrote: “We must begin to inoculate our children against militarism by educating them in the spirit of pacifism. ... I would teach peace rather than war, love rather than hate.” Gandhi: “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with the children. And if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle, we won’t have to pass fruitless resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace.”

Peace in history

  • 1909: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is formed to fight prejudice and discrimination; W.E.B. duBois, Ida B. Wells and Mary Terrell are founding members.
  • 1914: As World War I begins, the Fellowship of Reconciliation is founded by a German Lutheran pastor and an English Quaker, who pledge “to keep the bonds of Christian love unbroken across the frontier.”


Peace Education International
221 Palm Ave.
Miami FL 33139
(888) 672-3223
Directed by Fran Schmidt, the Maria Montessori of childhood peace education, it works with elementary and middle schools interested in teaching the basics of nonviolent conflict resolution. It offers a teacher’s guide, student activity books and classroom posters.

Little Friends for Peace
4405 29th St.
Mount Ranier MD 20712
(301) 927-5474
An organization dedicated to teaching peacemaking skills to children and families. It offers day camps, workshops, and training seminars for parishes and schools. It has an excellent library and resources to order. Internships available.

Center for Teaching Peace
4501 Van Ness St.
Washington DC 20016
(202) 537-1372
Founded in 1985, it works with schools and individuals to begin or expand academic courses on nonviolence in schools at all levels.

Friends of Peace Pilgrim
7350 Dorado Canyon Rd.
Somerset CA 95684
(530) 620-0333
An American sage who walked her talk -- in sturdy sneakers across the roadways of America -- Peace Pilgrim left behind an educational group that distributes books and films on the philosophy of nonviolence and pacifism.

Peace Education Foundation
1900 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami FL 33132
(800) 749-8838
More than 5,000 teachers, administrators and education professionals have attended its regional and on-site training programs in conflict resolution and mediation. It serves elementary, middle and high schools.

National Peace Foundation
666 Eleventh St. NW
Washington DC 20001
(800) 237-3223
Efforts include programs in schools for nonviolence, mediation and conflict resolution.

Playing for Peace
c/o Sequoia Bank
1629 K St. NW
Washington DC 20006
(202) 336-7103
Founded in 1999 by Sean Tuohey, a Catholic University honors graduate and Division III all-American basketball player, it has established a sports and conflict resolution program in Durban, South Africa. The purpose is to bring children together in the Durban area -- from all races -- to play basketball in the morning and study conflict resolution in the afternoon.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002