Having begun my thirtieth year of teaching high school, college and law school courses on the philosophy of pacifism and the methods of nonviolent conflict resolution, I was challenged again to decide where to begin this year’s course. Should I use the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to discuss nonviolent alternatives to the Bush/Cheney bents for bombs and bullets? Or pose this: would members of Congress, left or right, have voted to increase military spending so dramatically during the Bush years if they had studied peace and nonviolence in college? Would Barbara Lee of California’s 9th District have been the only member of Congress—one out of 535—to vote against the Bush war plans on September 14, 2001?
Should I discuss the influence of nonviolence on the protests of the Arab Spring, from Egypt to Bahrain? Or explore alternatives to more than a dozen forms of violence that put one or another group of victims at risk every day: military violence, economic violence, environmental violence, corporate violence, racial violence, homophobic violence, verbal violence, emotional violence, sexual violence, structural violence, street violence, religious violence, legal or illegal violence, video game violence, violence toward animals? Or how about a quiz? Identify: (a) Emily Greene Balch; (b) Jeannette Rankin; (c) Dorothy Day.*
I began teaching courses in what is generically known as “peace studies” out of curiosity. Are the ways of peacemaking teachable? And if so, why are so few schools—at any level—offering courses? For answers, I went in 1982 to School Without Walls, a public high school near my office at the Washington Post, to ask the principal if I could volunteer to teach a course on alternatives to violence. Give it a try, she said. The 2.5-hour weekly seminar became a discussion-based class, unmired in tests, exams or homework: neither Socrates nor Maria Montessori, my North Stars on how to navigate the seas of pedagogy, believed in such fake academic rigor. Two of my own children had been students at Walls, and they brought home stories about the school’s preference for experiential learning with internships, not theoretical learning from books.
The first courses went well. Teaching peace—reading, debating and discussing the literature and getting students to examine their choices regarding violence and nonviolence—was as easy as breathing. Some children came from violent neighborhoods and were hungry to explore the unknown landscape of nonviolence. Others were from moneyed families who had ample funds for private schools but not a taste for the insularity.
We adopted a motto for the course: Instead of asking questions, be bolder and question the answers. What answers? Those that say violence. Those that say that if we kill enough people, drop enough bombs, jail enough dissenters, torture enough prisoners, keep fighting fire with fire and not with water, we’ll have peace forever.
Enjoying it immensely, I accepted invitations from more schools: a daily 7:25 am class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in suburban Maryland and a daily 9:30 am class at Wilson High in DC. By the mid-1980s I had courses at Georgetown University Law Center, American University, the University of Maryland and the Washington Center for Internships. Since 1982 I’ve had more than 8,000 students. In recent years, it’s been eight classes at six schools.