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What Does it Mean to Teach Peace?

Depending on your age, people associate peace with protesting the Vietnam War, songs, movies and marches of the 1960’s, the time before 9/11, quiet getaway retreats, or their yoga class. So what does it mean to teach peace and howwould one do it? I think the whyis obvious.

I have been teaching all my life – first more than a decade at the high school level and after that, college students. Most of my courses were writing, composition, and literature, but at a certain point in my career I heard about the field of Peace Studies, and I wanted to learn more. I went back to school, completed the most meaningful coursework I have ever undertaken, and began teaching peace. People frequently ask me what it means to teach peace, or even what specifically I teach.

Here’s the short version. Conflict is not bad; conflict is necessary for all people to have a voice, but conflict is not the same as violence. Violent conflict is not inevitable. Just as people can be taught to kill in the armed services, they can be taught to use other methods of interaction. Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution includes concepts, history, and strategies so that people can learn to stop being violent. My goal is for people to stop killing each other.

Course readings reveal misleading anthropological research which is currently undergoing revision. Humans likely do not come from such violent beginnings. This is a well-entrenched myth, but one that is easy to maintain by those whose plan is to perpetuate armed conflict. The course includes the Harvard Negotiation Project concepts, which delineate roles for individuals and groups to use to prevent, resolve, and contain conflicts, large and small, in ways which bring about satisfaction for everyone. The curriculum includes readings by Thoreau, Gandhi, King, Gene Sharp, Roger Fisher, Bill Ury, the Dalai Lama, Jane Addams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Margaret Mead, and about the United Nations and Vision for Humanity. We read, discuss, listen, analyze, agree and disagree, reach conclusions, and discuss more.

A crucial goal within the course is to learn nonviolent ways to bring about needed change in people, societies, communities or countries. Conflict is expected. Most political science courses focus on war, not peace, but courses in peace studies do not necessarily focus only on historical peacetimes. Peace does not mean the absence of war; that is called negative peace. Positive peace is based on eight factors according to the Institute for Economics and Peace: acceptance of the rights of others, low levels of corruption, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, good relations with neighbors, sound business environment, well-functioning government, and equitable distribution of resources. To work for a sustainablepeace, people focus on factors to generate positive peace, rather than simply to avoid violence. A more peaceful world, or at least a less violent one, seems like a dream worth envisioning to me, and my students agree. What if peace has not been achieved only because people thought it was unattainable? Whydo I teach peace?  Because I believe it is possible.

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Ellen Birkett Lindeen is an Emeritus Professor of English at Waubonsee Community College where she taught Peace Studies & Conflict Resolution and Human Rights & Social Justice.

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