CAN peace be taught? And learned? Earlier this year, a teacher at School Without Walls, a progressive Washington high school, invited me to her classroom to find out. We had common feelings about education, including the idea that if it was time to get back to the basics, as all the commissions and President Reagan are now saying, then the most basic subject of all is peace.
The teacher and I agreed: Unless America educates its children in the heroes, history and philosophy of nonviolence and peace-making, then the children haven't been educated at all. We have merely processed one more generation that will continue to settle disputes among individuals and nations with fists, guns, armies or nukes.
Come teach the course, my friend said. I agreed, provided an interest among the students was present. There was. Twenty-five sophomores, juniors and seniors enrolled in the twice-weekly 2 1/2-hour seminar.
The difficulty in creating a curriculum for a peace studies course is the breadth and richness of the available literature. Martin Luther King's essay, in which he wrote "the choice is nonviolence or nonexistence," could take years for a full and properly reverential analysis. A lifetime is needed to study the thought of Gandhi.
The children seemed amazed by the diversity of men and women who have both written about pacifism and committed their lives to it. The amazement was understandable. With exceptions, the schools promote the study of wars, not resistance to them. Yet for every Napoleon or Caesar in our history there is a Eugene Debs, William Penn, Tolstoy, Camus, Erasmus, Henry Miller, Sean O'Casey, Norman Thomas and A.J. Muste who advocated resistance against militarism.
Every class, we read aloud excerpts from a fundamental text, ranging from Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" to a Martin Buber essay. The students then wrote about the texts. From "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Erich Maria Remarque, we read the scene in which the French soldier has knifed the German soldier and is in the trench with the body.
The passage led several students to reach deep inside themselves. One girl, who plans to enter the military after graduation, wrote that "I know I want to die for my country, but I'm no longer sure if I will or can kill for my country." The excerpt and the class, she wrote, "has shown me another side--a side I believe the soldier in the story never realized before then. And that is the actual fact of killing not just 'Russians' but 'people' very much like ourselves."
Throughout the weeks of concentrated reading and writing, I emphasized one theme: Alternatives to violent solutions exist and, if individuals and nations can organize themselves properly, moral force is always stronger than violent force.
Some students opened their minds to this immediately. They understood Gandhi: "Nonviolence is the weapon of the strong." Others had doubts, which I encouraged them to express. They did, repeatedly: Nonviolence and pacifism are beautiful theories but in the real world there are the muggers and the Soviets.
All I asked of the "realists" was to think about life's two risks. Do you depend on violence or nonviolence to create peace? The history of pacifism leads to one conclusion, that the risk of injury, defeat and death from the use of well-planned nonviolent protest is much less than the risks run by using instruments of hate or annihilation. Some in the class believed the most persuasive essay we read was by Joan Baez in which she conceded that "so far [pacifists] have been a glorious flop. The only thing that's been a worse flop than the organization of nonviolence has been the organization of violence."
Every text we studied suggested that the "real world" argument made sense only if the individual let himself be led off to fight to preserve the world of presidents, kings and generals. The children didn't need to get into their heads what was already deep in their hearts: the haunting awareness that their future is threatened by the nuclear wipeout. Why should that world, some asked, be elevated as the real one?
In my childhood, the fear of bombs and the enemy was dealt with in school drills. The bells rang for an "air-raid practice" and we dove under the desks until "the planes" passed. Then the class resumed. Nothing was discussed--not the lunacy of our leaders nor our compliance. If we had fears, we held them inside.
This generation wants a healthier approach. It wants to read, write and talk about the alternatives, and then act on them. It wants the basics.