Overcoming violence is one of the great intellectual, moral, and spiritual challenges we face as a human community — yet U.S. schools rarely see peace-building as their goal. It’s high time for us to rethink our understanding of the purpose of education.
Despite our deep hopes, the Obama administration has continued on the same path for schools: one that emphasizes more testing and more competition, values only a narrow range of knowledge types, envisages teaching as mainly preparation for work and meeting corporate needs, and forgets education’s responsibility for nurturing the deeply thoughtful, spiritually sensitive, and morally concerned citizens of our future world.
The Insidious Culture of Violence
Today violence goes far beyond individual or even collective acts of terror or brutality. It is insinuated into the very texture of culture, invading our thoughts and sensibilities and warping the nature of everyday life. Globalization sweeps away the bonds of community and ways of living and working developed over generations. It disrupts and destroys the fabric of trust, interdependence, and sociability upon which ordered and viable human life depends. Alongside the wonders and extraordinary powers of technological change is a darker reality — one that makes masses of human beings expendable and replaceable by machines, and that is making our environment increasingly inhospitable to continued life on earth. Consumer capitalism invades every aspect of our waking lives (as well as our dreams) with its message of materialism and money. Under its influence, every aspect of our humanity becomes a saleable commodity. Human beings learn to view themselves and others as performers vying to make the right impression and present themselves in the most alluring, successful, or compelling way. Sociability becomes a matter of gaming and strategy. A capitalist ethic more and more defines our lives around egoist self-interest. In every social arena children and adults are urged to see themselves and their needs as the sole focus of their concerns. Other people become viewed as obstacles to our own selfish pursuits, whether on roads, in workplaces or schools, or even in our intimate personal relationships. And the pervasive presence of competitive individualism in our lives makes human interaction increasingly characterized by aggression and invidious comparison. Our world becomes a place where we quickly become the objects of others’ envy, resentment, or even murderous intent.
We must, as a result, see violence as something that is present in more than those visible acts of physical harm. Violence is present in the very way we treat one another — in our work situations, schools, families, sports, and social lives. It is present wherever we see or treat others as beings to be exploited, made invisible, jettisoned, manipulated, objectified, connived against, outmaneuvered, ridiculed, bullied, or cheated. And yet we must also recognize that resistance to violence also grows, giving us hope that brutality and destruction are not our inevitable fate. Who can forget, for example, the extraordinary events we recently witnessed in Cairo, where young people powerfully insisted on the path of nonviolence as they successfully faced down a brutal dictatorship?
Education for What?
How strange it is that, when we talk about educating our children, so little of all this seems to enter into our private or public discourse. Nothing is now more important to human beings than our need for a more peaceful, less violent world (and violence understood here in all of its manifestations). Yet when parents, politicians, or educators talk about the educational needs of our children, questions about peace are almost never on the agenda. Of course given the fear of guns and shootings in schools, security is a concern, and plans for how to detect and search for weapons, as well as the need for adequate psychological monitoring and counseling of students, are a priority. Yet the issue of violence is considered here only in the most limited and palliative form. It rarely goes beyond the immediate concern to seek out the potential perpetrators and secure buildings. Where, we may ask, are the demands for a more intensive engagement with our students about violence in our society and in our world? Where is the curriculum that seeks to explore the pervasiveness of violent behavior among human beings and the possibilities for creating more peaceful and non-antagonistic cultures? Where are the opportunities for young people to question the degree to which societies like our own invest such huge resources in the development of weapons of war, and to question why there are so many people in our world engaged in military activities?
On one level it is certainly not hard to see the way that schools play shy at engaging young people around matters that directly bear on their lives as future citizens. Such “relevant” matters necessarily raise social, moral, and political concerns that almost certainly generate passionately held views, and touch on beliefs that are rooted in family, community and religious convictions. Yet if we are to take seriously the role of education in democratic society, classrooms must indeed become places where potentially contentious matters that reveal conflicting values and perspectives can be debated and critically interrogated. A visit to just about any high school class quickly makes clear the boredom and detachment that most learning now produces, as students find little in their day-to-day education that speaks to matters of compelling interest or passionate engagement. Most of the emotion generated in classrooms today is the result of students’ fears and anxieties about test scores or grades rather than the kind of emotion produced when students are asked to reflect upon, and struggle with, the really crucial issues that confront human beings in today’s world. Even when social or moral issues are raised by teachers, they are invariably approached with the same purely instrumental attitude that students bring to solving an algebraic equation or parsing a sentence of language.
Factories of Conformity
The ideology of moral and social conformity is by no means the only force shaping education today in ways that exclude a serious concern with questions of war, violence, and dehumanization. More and more teaching is gripped by the mania of measurable outcomes, objectively assessed performance, and standardized testing. Fueled by the panic of falling standards and inadequate accountability, politicians, business leaders, and others have driven our schools into becoming testing factories in which only those things that are quantifiable have any real curricular value. And a regime that stresses constant measurement of student achievement shapes life for our children.
The grim consequences of all this are now well documented. Students face ever-mounting pressure to succeed in a hothouse competitive environment. It is no surprise that we see increasing signs of stress and anxiety among young people. (In the UK this mounting level of anxiety has led to well-publicized calls for a change in direction away from the emphasis on high-stakes testing). More and more teachers are forced to make the classroom a place in which test performance is the central activity. Preparation and rehearsal for the test occupies much of classroom time. The relentlessness of this process drives away some of the best and most creative teachers who are looking for something more stimulating and humane in their work.
And, most sadly, this regime of demonstrable accountability empties education of anything that cannot be measured and tested in a standardized form. The result is a curriculum that becomes increasingly narrow and constrained, eliminating anything that might demand more complex, interpretive, or imaginative responses from students. The arts and other forms of creative activity become marginalized or left out entirely. Or they too must be transformed into more rigidly structured and “objective” forms of learning. There is less and less time in the classroom for those things that depend on dialogue, discussion, and the development of respectful and tolerant social relationships. In other words, there is little time for the skills and dispositions that are necessary for an engaged and reflective civic life. The classroom becomes a place less concerned with students as holistic beings or educating individuals in the totality of their lives as moral, intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual persons. In this sense the goal of peace education, which demands educating students in the fullness of their humanity, is negated by the limited and narrowly defined focus that today subsumes our schools. The call to focus on peace in our education is necessarily a call to re-envision the very way we educate young people away from the deadening and confined forms that presently dominate our classrooms.
Much of educational reform in recent years has been driven by the demands of business for an adequately trained and prepared work force. Again and again we are informed that our economic future as a state and a nation depends on schools producing individuals with the skills needed by corporate employers. In many ways, business executives working with politicians have driven the “train” of educational reform in the United States, helping to shape and define the goals and purpose of education. Whether Democrats or Republicans occupy the White House or State House, there is wide agreement that the first priority of schooling is to ensure increasing productivity and economic competitiveness. In the light of this it is easy to see why, for example, math and science are given far greater emphasis than other areas of the curriculum. Or why, in higher education, general or liberal education is increasingly supplanted by a focus on job skills and knowledge. Indeed the university has become more and more an adjunct of business in its funding, research aims, and curricular focus.
It is not hard to see why the notion that education is primarily about work and vocational or professional opportunities should find support more widely within the community. Certainly it is understandable today that parents would be concerned about the future employment prospects for their children. For most adults financial security depends on the acquisition of those skills and qualifications that can promise future jobs and a decent income. The instability and rapidity of change in the global economic situation makes parents’ concerns even stronger.
Yet in defining education in this limited way, something very important is being lost. This is a larger vision of education that speaks to us as citizens of a democratic society. When education is reduced to the process of simply preparing us for work, it denies our role as beings that have a moral responsibility for helping to shape and determine the world in which we all live. Education that is all about jobs and work represents a truncated view of what it means to be human. It ignores the fact that human beings must learn to live with, and care for, one another, in our families, communities, nation, and globally. It says nothing about our responsibility for sustaining the earth. And it offers nothing that teaches us how we, collectively, and with respect for our differences, are able to determine and manage our shared world. In short, an educational vision that is all about job preparation and training is based on an impoverished understanding of the meaning of being human.
A Holistic Vision
Educating for peace is always a holistic process. It means recognizing that if human beings are to move toward a less violent, more cooperative, more caring mode of existence, it will require the broad development of all our potentialities. It will demand change and development in our social consciousness and our capacity to reason; in our sentient life as feeling and embodied creatures; in our moral sensitivity and conscience; and in an awakening or enlargement of our spiritual awareness. The kind of education that schools are now focused upon is hardly capable of bringing about such change. The emphasis on performance and measurable outcomes leads to a denial of the relevance of anything that cannot be immediately turned into quantifiable data. An empirically driven education can have little relevance to the quest for moral and spiritual change with its more intangible but nonetheless crucial nature. Nor can it speak to an education that is about our emotional lives with its far more complex and interior qualities. The attempt to reduce human experience to a series of test bubbles rests on a simplistic, cartoon-like version of individual complexity. And can there be any doubt as to the conflict between a standardized education with its “one right answer,” and an education that seeks to encourage a questioning and challenging of a single truth and an appreciation for multiple ways of understanding the world and our lives?
Six Roots of Violence
Any approach to peace education is bound to be messy. It involves a multiplicity of approaches, interventions, and educational initiatives. There will be no “one size fits all” method. Yet out of this mélange of possible directions for leading young people away from violence, hate, prejudice, and misunderstanding, I believe there are certain shared principles and concepts. Let me try, briefly, to enumerate them here:
- There is my belief that violent conflict often follows when people view their understanding of the world as the only correct and acceptable one; all others are heretical or dangerous and must be fought and rejected. What follows is a Manichean worldview that divides the world up between those who have the right beliefs, and all others who threaten them. With this there is no acknowledgement that one’s “truth” might be partial and that others might have some understanding, knowledge, or beliefs that are worthy of respect. Nor is there recognition that truth and knowledge evolve and change. Instead there is only an intransigent and authoritarian fixation on what this group believes at this place and at this point of time. Built into such a view is an intolerance and disrespect for any other culture and way of life, which sooner or later is sure to inflame anger and conflict.
- I have come to believe, too, that the invisibility of certain human beings is a certain recipe for frustration and resentment that will inevitably break out into open conflict and rage. By invisibility I am referring to collective failures to fully appreciate and validate the presence of other human beings. Some groups are ignored or remain unnoticed, except in the most limited and exploitative ways, in the eyes of other groups. At the extreme end of this phenomenon, the very humanity of a group is withdrawn or denied. In these situations human beings have frequently been taught to see and believe that their own worth and value is much less than that of others. Invisibility represents an often quiet, but no less traumatic, form of violence perpetrated by one group of human beings on another. Beyond our material needs is a deep imperative to be recognized in the fullness of our humanity — to be seen and recognized by others as beings of unconditional value. The urge to have one’s own humanity confirmed in the face of an often violent refusal is, I believe, at the root of so many struggles and conflicts in history.
- The problem of invisibility is, I believe, a dimension of a larger process of social injustice and the domination of human beings by those with more power. This domination is always, in some way, a violent process. Whether through the overt use of might to maintain control over others’ lives, or through the less direct form of economic deprivation, social injustice always disfigures and undermines human worth, and limits our capacity to live full lives. There is no more powerful driver of anger and conflict than social inequality. History teaches us that social injustice is always accompanied by some form of violence that seeks to suppress the human desire for respect and dignity, and undermines or destroys the possibility of a decent life for oneself and those others who are part of one’s family and community. Again and again we witness violence used against those who struggle to demand fulfillment of their human and democratic rights — a violence which often, in turn, produces a counter-rage and a violent response by those who will no longer accept continued deprivation, humiliation, or denial of their humanity. We live in a world deeply scarred by social injustice and profound inequalities in the conditions of our lives. There can be no lasting global peace while such disparities continue, and where poverty, starvation, sickness, and malnutrition mean that so many barely survive.
- Social injustice, domination, and invisibility are linked to another phenomenon which is inevitably connected to violent behavior: the culture of competition. This competition is typically sustained by a “narrative” of scarcity that tells us life is a race, and that in order to get what we feel we deserve we must compete aggressively against others who are after the same thing. As a result invidious comparison rules all of our lives. Envy for what others have controls much of how we think and feel. We consider ourselves to be in a state of constant lack or inadequacy, and always threatened by what others have or are. The relentless propaganda of competition (found in every part of our lives, but nowhere with greater influence than in our schools) is a catalyst for always seeing other people as our enemy. “They” are people who want to harm, exploit, or manipulate us, to deprive us of what is ours, to demean us. And always for their benefit. In a world permeated by this competitive worldview, it becomes very difficult to see or imagine a planet in which compassion and connection, rather than fear and suspicion, shape human relationships.
- Human beings are impelled by needs that go beyond material desires. And the suffering that turns into anger involves not just a lack of those resources that can guarantee us a comfortable and dignified life, but also the lack of possibility of a life with meaning. We know that meaning is as essential to human well-being as the availability of material resources. Pain and anguish can certainly come from material deprivation, but they are also the product of spiritual emptiness. Bereft of deep purpose and meaning, life quickly becomes a journey of despair. And despair provides a fertile soil for both the anger that is turned inward (as depression or self-destruction) and the rage that is focused outward on a world that seems to offer only endless frustration. We live in a world where there are powerful forces that undermine and corrode authentic sources of meaning; the globalization of capitalism, consumerism, and an ethic of hyper-individualism all contribute to a deep crisis of meaning. In such a world, militant assertions of religious beliefs or aggressive expressions of ethnic and national identity offer the consolation of compelling identification for those who feel adrift in a sea of purposelessness.
- We are confronted by structures and institutions that thrive on the machinery of war. Political and economic interests benefit hugely when people are taught to believe that they are always under threat and must give their uncritical support to those interests. The result in the United States is the military-industrial-political complex, which engineers military budgets that massively distort our nation’s priorities and investments. More than this, our citizenry is educated to believe that in situation after situation, war and military force is the necessary solution to global problems. And, as recent events have made clear, we are subject to the deception, deceit, and manipulation of those who lead the “national security state,” often abetted by an acquiescent media, that will ensure mass support for policies of death and destruction, foreign interventions, and imperial coercion. Again and again we are taught to accept a narrative of an implacable enemy that will understand and respond only to the language of bloody force. Added to this is the way that national purpose — in a time when all else seems a matter of individual self-interest — becomes found in the glory and sacrifice of a nation’s military.
Is Change Possible?
The short answer to this question is yes. But even if it were not, it would surely still be worth trying. The longer answer might begin with the story of the biblical Exodus — at least in the way that the eminent political scientist Michael Walzer tells it. He argues that the Bible offers two very different visions of social and human change, and each have their echoes in contemporary discourse and theories of societal change. One springs from the Bible’s apocalyptic imagery: a final battle between the forces of good and evil, the sudden revelation of God’s power, the division of the world between those who are transformed and are to be saved and the rest who must vanish from the earth. It is not hard to see the resonance of this tale in revolutionary political movements, with their intent to overthrow the existing evil and oppressive regime and replace it with a “new world” of transformed men and women liberated from the mentality and behaviors of the previous epoch. In contrast to this is Walzer’s depiction of the Exodus from Egypt. Here the end of bondage is not the result of a single apocalyptic happening. Nor is it an episode that occurs in one moment of time. Instead, liberation from enslavement is a long, slow process full of trial and error, moments of disillusionment and despair, as well as of hope and possibility. Liberation here involves both internal and external aspects. It certainly involves change from an economic and political regime that held the victims in its grip. It also meant liberation from the internalized beliefs that no world was possible other than the one in which they had grown up. The latter was a much slower process of emotional and psychological change. The two kinds of change were not entirely separate events: a dialectic of cause and effect linked them. As external events changed, there could then be changes in belief, feeling, and outlook. And changes in the latter also could deepen the conviction about the need for different kind of social relationships and structures.
Walzer’s Exodus metaphor is, I believe, a good one for how we can approach the question about the possibility for moving toward a world that is less violent and shaped less by war and militarism. We cannot expect change of this magnitude to happen in a single moment of change. More realistically it is something that happens as part of what the English social critic Raymond Williams once called a “long revolution”: a revolution that takes place in the practices and policies of our institutions; in our social relationships; and, not least, in the hearts of individuals. My view of peace education makes no absolute distinction between changes of consciousness and changes of conscience. Peace education, I believe, is at once a task that demands a critical intellect, an ethic of justice and compassion, and a spiritual recognition of the precious and inviolable nature of human life, as well as the web of being that connects all life. As educators we cannot regard our work as the sole catalyst of such change (this is too often the case when we expect education alone to solve our social problems). But, by the same token, educators can certainly make an important contributions to this revolution — through what we choose to teach and the methods we employ, the kind of relationships we create in our schools and classrooms, and the kind of role models we offer to those who are our students.