If You Want Peace, Work for It

When it comes to peace education in the schools, we have dropped the ball. Youths are asking for such programs. We promised them, and teachers need support to do the job

By Penny Sanger | 2003-07-01 12:00:00

A bumper sticker on my friend's car reads "If you want peace work for it." Teach Peace stickers in day-glo colors cheer up an information table at teacher conferences in Ottawa. The idea behind both is that peace won't just happen when and if we achieve disarmament, justice, equality and a decent system of international law in the world. It "cannot be achieved without intentional, sustained, and systematic education for peace." (Global Campaign for Peace Education, Hague Appeal for Peace)

But what is peace education ? Is it being taught in our schools, and if so how?

Seventy years ago Italian educator Maria Montessori lamented that schools are better at educating for war than for peace. Those years have seen the Holocaust, World War II, the Korean War, and all the bloody wars thereafter in which children have been both war's victims and sometimes its participants. Most recently millions of the world's young people, expressing their revulsion against US-led violence and bombardment of civilians in Baghdad and Basra, vividly confirmed humanity's demand for peace in TV images seen across the globe. How are the classrooms coping ?

Reactions: Blank Stares

The answer is complicated. On one hand peace education per se barely exists in Canadian schools, though some universities teach peace studies. Educators often react to the phrase with blank incomprehension or tolerant smiles. On the other hand, global education, which includes human rights, environment, anti-racism, and media education, is now generally endorsed by ministries of education and is expected to be integrated into world issues, social studies, or civics courses. Similarly, conflict resolution and anti-violence programs, in which students themselves are trained to mediate arguments and bullying in playgrounds and lunchrooms as well as classrooms, are being implemented by many schools and school boards. At their best, these initiatives can help teachers and students transform their classrooms into small communities whose young citizens learn how to work cooperatively and understand and care for each other.

Ministries of Educational Slash-and-burn

The trouble is that provincial education ministries' slash-and-burn offensives against most public school systems in Canada in the past decade mean that these components of peace education are undervalued. Few teachers are given enough training to research global education or conflict resolution in any depth, let alone the time needed to integrate it into their classroom teaching.

So some teachers, parents and school boards look outside the system -- to NGOs like Oxfam, conflict resolution practitioners, non-profit activists and large agencies such as UNICEF -- to fill the gap. This curricula may be excellent but this is essentially a fix-it approach. It fails to recognize the scope of change needed in public education. Ministries of education that have the capacity to institute long-term changes through school boards and faculties of education, are let off the hook.

Worse, many direct and immediate threats to peace may be avoided by teachers who have not had the materials or time to research them or are nervous about dealing with contentious issues. Here are five such issues:

High School Students and Solving Issues

Peace rallies opposing the war against Iraq showed the passions and organizing skills of young Canadians about such dangers, about global injustice generally and our own complicity in it.

But do high school students really know anything about how to solve these great issues? How can good teaching turn their frustration and anger and energy toward peace building? And maybe even get them to vote?

Good teaching about these issues is happening now, by a few committed teachers who use their own time and money to prepare and respond to their students. In my community these teachers are in constant danger of burning out. As happened during the Cold War, they are finding media-informed kids ready for debate, often scathing about the capacity of politicians to handle the world they see before them. These teachers encourage dialogue and help their students become informed about all facets of an issue. They provide a forum for all their students, whom they encourage to try to reach consensus. To them, saying, "That's just the way it is" is not a valid argument."

They prompt students to talk about discrimination they have witnessed. They value racial/cultural differences in their classes. They help students express and recognize feelings. They suggest such activities as launching a petition or inviting an MP to visit the class.

Some teachers develop curricula based on study units devised by Dr. Betty Reardon, who used to head the Peace Education Program at Teachers' College Columbia University. (Dr. Reardon, the doyenne of peace education, is an advisor and writer for UNESCO's Culture of Peace initiatives and travels the world working with teachers on its message and that of the Hague Appeal for Peace's Global Campaign for Peace Education.) She has designed a study unit in which a class "images" a peaceful world, listing its values and agreeing, through a process of small group discussion, on how it might be achieved, say in the next 30 years. What are the international agreements and global conditions that would have to be in place by then? How can these be achieved? What are the present barriers? What are the roles of international institutions, governments, individuals, civil society organizations -- including faculties of education and schools such as theirs?

No doubt there are teachers in Canada who have already used a version of this exercise to help students think about the war in Iraq, and explore how it might have been prevented in a world.

Start in Kindergarten

Teaching peace should start with children learning, in their first kindergarten year, what a peaceful world might look like in the classroom. On their way through school they learn many of the skills needed to map their way toward the goal of a peaceful world. These include understanding the barriers to peace in our own selves, as well as learning concepts and skills of the best global education: justice, human rights, gender and racial equality, environmental and cultural awareness.

This long-term process challenges students and their teachers to change the way they view the world and their responsibilities in it. Teachers need time, training, and incentives to come to grips with it, as well as the support of their students' families.

But the perplexing question surely is, why is there so little demand that our schools teach peace?

Since 1995 all ministers of education in Canada have been obligated to advance education in peace, human rights, democracy, international understanding and tolerance, under the terms of UNESCO's declaration and framework for action at the 44th session of the International Conference on Education. Every six years the Council of Ministers of Education is supposed to report on their progress.

Compare to Gender, Environment Studies

We know that fundamental changes in teaching can be mandated just by looking at the ways gender justice and environmental awareness have begun to be integrated into schools' curricula in recent years. Both these values are important lenses through which peace education is understood.

A short three years ago many of us were looking back on the bloody 20th century, "one of the most violent in recorded history" (Isaiah Berlin), and vowing to do better. In fact, the United Nations dedicated the first decade of the new millenium to "The Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World." The Canadian Commission for UNESCO encouraged certain initiatives and distributed kits across the country explaining what this culture of peace and nonviolence means and how to implement it.

Peace education is not a new concept. One hundred years ago people in Europe and the USA were thinking about it and organizing conferences. The Nobel Peace Prize was first awarded in 1901. Its first laureates were pacifists, advocates of international law, or peace activists (Educating for a Peaceful Future, David Smith and Terrance Carson, Kagan and Woo Ltd Toronto and Vancouver, 1998.)

Today, looking at the shambles of our hopes three years ago, we can see much of what went wrong. For one thing, democracies need alert citizens who go out to vote. Not enough of us realized the magnitude of the change needed in our own school systems, or demanded explicitly and loudly that our children be taught to build peace.

Perhaps the past six months of living next door to the full-blown imperialism of the USA, and watching so many Canadians, especially young people, strongly oppose its actions and policies, is really a sign of hope. There are others: the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Education will hold its first peace and global education conference for Ontario teachers, "Teaching for Peace and Global Awareness," this October 3-4. Canadian Centres for Teaching Peace is planning its second annual conference,"A World Fit for Children," at McMaster University in November. Also in November, the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a conference,"Learning and the World We Want" for "all concerned with the role of learning in calling forth and creating a sustainable global community and a peaceful world."

In Toronto the non-profit organization "Classroom Connections" believes public education and parents are the two greatest forces shaping the change needed in our world. Responding first to the crisis in Ontario schools, its teaching resources are now used by most schools in Canada. In Winnipeg, "Project Peacemakers," a local Project Ploughshares group, develops resources for schools on war and children, among other topics. "The League for Peaceful Schools" in Nova Scotia, Alberta's wide-ranging "Safe and Caring Schools" project and the long-term work in global issues by BC Teachers' Federation -- especially by its "Peace and Global Education" group -- are other hopeful indicators.

Just as we teach literacy and numeracy, today we must teach students to learn to think critically; respect diversity; understand global, cultural and economic interdependence; analyze the media, examine the nature of violence and learn ways for us all to live more peacefully. (The Hague, 1999). It has to start with teachers. And they need all the support we can give them.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2003, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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