Not Just a Gourmet Academic Item: Getting Peace Studies into High Schools Is an Uphill Battle

By McCarthy, Colman | National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Not Just a Gourmet Academic Item: Getting Peace Studies into High Schools Is an Uphill Battle


McCarthy, Colman, National Catholic Reporter


Those who value the study of pacifism and nonviolence have found colleges and universities to be the most receptive to course proposals and the funding of degree programs. Though still small and often kept to the academic margins compared with a school's business or science programs, peace studies does have a place in higher education that it didn't 20 years ago.

It isn't that way in the nation's 31,000 public or independent high schools. Since 1982, when I began volunteering at a Washington public high school, I have seen from the inside the difficulties of cracking secondary education with peace courses. In addition, after more than two decades of contacts with teachers around the country, either through correspondence or speaking at high school student assemblies, I have learned the truth of the old saying: The trouble with a good idea is that it soon degenerates into hard work.

The difficulty begins with negative perceptions about peace courses, whether projected by school boards, principals, parents, students or politicians posing as school reformers.

Peace studies can be seen as subversive. Fifteen years ago at a meeting of school board members in Montgomery County, Md., I was invited to pitch the idea of peace studies. I thought I was making progress. Board members listened politely and asked relevant questions. My goal was to move the board to get one peace studies course in each of the county's 22 high schools--just one course, for just one period a day, an elective only for seniors. Nothing grandiose.

At the end of my talk, a board member had a problem. Peace studies, he said. Is there another phrase? The word studies was OK, but peace? It might cause concern in the community. t envisioned a newspaper headline: "Peace Studies Threatens Stability in the County," with a subhead: "School Board Tables Alarming Proposal." And this was in an allegedly liberal, bluer than blue county.

Unable to rally the school board, I tried again with the school system's curriculum office. I had edited a textbook, Solutions to Violence, a 16-chapter anthology of 90 essays that included works by Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Gene Sharp, Tolstoy, Barbara Deming, Joan Baez, Dan Berrigan and others. After some half-dozen meetings with assorted desk barons, as well as conferences with social studies teachers at several high schools, I began to realize that public schools are government schools. Teachers are government workers. Caution prevails. It took six years to get the book approved so that any social studies teacher in the county's 22 high schools could use it. I'd already been using it myself for 10 years in one of those schools, slipping it in like contraband.

If peace studies is not subversive, then, assuredly, it is a gourmet item. In the supermarket of ideas that is the American high school, the shelves are stacked with required fare: four years of English, four of math, three of science, three of history, four of this, three of that. Plus the advanced placement courses on which--so it is thought by gullible parents and gulled students--everything rides, including, for sure, getting into an Ivy League or Little Ivy school. Up against the pressure of requirements or the fear of not having enough advanced placement credits, peace studies is seen as a luxury, academic caviar.

Students who sign up for peace courses must often defend themselves against the criticism of their friends or parents for being a tad too idealistic for this world torn by terrorism, crime and violence. More than one of my high school students has heard Mom or Dad sigh, "You actually think you'll get a job someday as a peacemaker?"

If students are pressured, so are teachers. In this time of Leave No Child Untested and Leave No Teacher Unwatched, schools are measured less by their abilities to rouse students to the joys of learning than by the number of their students who ace exams because they were well drilled. …

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