Putting Conflict in the Curriculum

By Levy, Tedd | Social Education, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Putting Conflict in the Curriculum


Levy, Tedd, Social Education


One may conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men, yet he is the best of conquerors who conquerors himself.

--The Teaching of Buddha

After violence flared in a California school, Secretary of Education Rod Paige said that student alienation and rage is the biggest factor in school shootings and addressing that problem should be the country's priority. A few weeks later, in far away Afghanistan, Taliban vandals blasted away at the two giant standing Buddhas of Bamiyan, works of priceless ancient art carved in a cliff more than 1,400 years ago. A Taliban spokesman said "the Islamic government made its decision in a rage after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient work while a million Afghans faced starvation."(1)

If ending young lives and destroying historic treasures is caused by rage, the reaction is clearly outrage. Do we social studies teachers have a responsibility here?

Rage--with its forceful, violent, and uncontrolled expression--is only one aspect of the larger concept of conflict. Students need to know that rage is an inappropriate and dangerous human behavior. It is, regrettably, an attention-grabber. But students need to know, too, that conflict is a normal and important part of human social behavior. As an idea, we have often been reluctant to examine its potential for learning. For example, it is not singled out in any of the social studies standards guides. Yet, one cannot imagine human interactions without some conflict.

Conflict--a clash of opposing ideas, interests, or perceptions--can cause change for better or worse. It operates within and between individuals, groups and nations. It is, and has been, one of the major forces shaping lives throughout history and around the world. It is an everyday experience and a driving force for change.(2)

Sights and sounds of conflict surround us. In class, we often tend to gloss over it, treating the subject as a sort of necessary evil. Textbooks are even more cautious. Even where conflicts are dealt with, they are often treated as a bump on a road of progress, problems that are ultimately resolved in a spirit of cooperation. Or, when blood was shed, this was part of some sanitized historic, force, drained of human emotion.

Conflict is natural when people come into contact and compete for jobs, land, respect, or recognition. This is conflict motivated by need, greed, or creed. And when the conflict is between nationalistic, religious, or ethnic groups, it is not surprising that its resolution may be complex and difficult.

Every culture has developed routines and traditions for handling conflicts. …

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