At Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, nearly 40 students are taking an academically credited course called Peace Studies. A year ago the course wasn't offered. How this change came about is a story of practical idealism and gritty persistence as practiced by a member of last spring's graduating class, Jeremy Fischer.
Creating a foothold for peace education -- whether in elementary, middle or high schools, or colleges and universities -- almost always is traceable to one singularly resolute person who says, "This will happen and I'll make it happen." The peace movement is more than marching in antiwar rallies or denouncing militarism. It also includes the lone lover of long shots -- sometimes a student, teacher, principal, school superintendent, or parent -- who sees the value of studying nonviolence as the sane, moral and effective alternative to violence -- in all its forms, from governmental wars among nations to living-room wars among spouses and families.
Somewhere along the educational way, Jeremy Fischer came across the writings of Peter Kropotkin -- the early 20th-century Russian pacifist, communitarian and author of "Mutual Aid" -- who advised students: "Think about the kind of world you want to live and work in. What do you need to build that world? Demand that your teachers teach you that."
So Jeremy Fischer became a demander -- as a sophomore, three years ago -- when he embraced the idea and ideal that the kind of world he wanted was peace-based, not violence-based. He didn't see that as overbearingly too much to ask of his teachers, considering that all human hearts yearn for peace and all governments keep claiming they seek only peace.
Jeremy didn't realize it then but he was about to learn the oldest lesson of social reform: The trouble with a good idea is that it soon degenerates into hard work. His degeneracy began quickly.
"Save for a few idealists," he wrote in an essay about waking up and shaking up his school, "most people took the idea of a peace studies course to be fine in principle but unworkable and unimaginable for our school. Many students were apathetic. Counselors and administrators seemed busy enough without another goal to pursue. The faculty told me that if this course was to be created, I would have to organize support for it."
That he did. Jeremy wrote articles for the school newspaper. He wrote letters and made phone calls to school officials. He endured brushoffs, runarounds, frowns, yawns and countless can't-you-see-I'm-busy looks from big desk rajahs. But he didn't go away. He had learned to hang on, hang in, hang out -- everything but hang it up. The peace education he wasn't getting in the classroom was acquired by his own reading of such books as Gandhi's autobiography and "Nonviolence in America," edited by Staughton and Alice Lynd. He embraced the philosophy of pacifism, quickly understanding that pacifism is not passivity or appeasement but is taking direct nonviolent action to prevent or stop violence.
"Violence is not only physically attacking others," he has written, "but is also leaving the poor unassisted, allowing racism to flourish, and imprisoning those who are most in need of assistance. Pacifism does not seek merely to end all violent international conflicts. It seeks to transform our everyday world into a compassionate family, void of racism, hatred, violence and misunderstanding. I know I can't do it alone, but this means I must keep trying to persuade others to help."
A payoff came: In the spring semester of his senior year at Walter Johnson -- his 9th inning -- Jeremy found Ty Healey, a sympathetic faculty member ready to teach the course. About 30 students enrolled, far more than scoffers had predicted.
As happens, education reform came from below, not above. It took one student's energy at one school to get one course in place. For all the opposition, it was as if his proposal was for a course in bookmaking, not peacemaking.
Healey, 26, is in his second year at Walter Johnson, after earning a master's degree in education at George Washington University. He isn't surprised by the high enrollment numbers: "Feedback from last year's students has been very positive. They saw the benefits, both in their personal lives and in having the rare opportunity to discuss contemporary issues involving peace and justice."
In all his 18 years of education, Healey had never taken a class similar to the one he now teaches. "This course," he says, "has been a worthwile experience for me, to begin learning about something truly important."
When the course ended last spring, the students collectively wrote a letter to their schoolmates, hailing peace studies as "one of the most beneficial experiences of our high school careers." They said peace studies is "one tangible solution to the problem of violence in our community and schools."
In nearly 20 years of working in the field of peace education -- including classroom teaching of more than 5,000 students, running a nonprofit, conducting teacher training workshops in conflict resolution, lecturing at schools and colleges -- I've seen more than a few reformers laboring the way Jeremy Fischer did.
Customarily, they come up against two brick walls thickly laid by conventional educators. The instinctual reaction of a school administrator when someone proposes that a course be offered in peace studies is, "What's the cost?" and not, "What's the benefit?" Money decides. When school shootings occur, and the inevitable call goes out "to do something," dollars are spent on metal detectors, hallway police or ID badges for the kids -- not textbooks on nonviolence or salaries for potential peace studies teachers. An unimaginative school administrator is like a prison warden: Why improve the place, a steady population is guaranteed.
The second objection to broadening curricula to include courses in nonviolence is the alleged one-sidedness of peace education: Students need exposure to both sides. I have heard this argument from many of my own students after they have been assigned to read essays by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Jane Addams, Tolstoy, Gene Sharp or Joan Baez. "Why doesn't this course give us the other side?" they ask.
The answer? This course is the other side. Most history texts -- with such exceptions as Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" -- showcase the events and makers of war, not of peace.
Through their actions and speeches, political leaders are teachers -- routinely instructing the young that governmental violence is necessary and good, from the waging of wars to death row executions. Children from dysfunctional families have been ably taught by example the ways of violence.
Still another non-classroom teacher is the television. With more than 90 percent of Saturday morning TV cartoons having violent themes -- former senator Paul Simon of Illinois has reported this -- children are educated early by media violence. Got a problem? Belt somebody.
From these multiple sources, students in the nation's 78,000 elementary schools, 32,000 high schools and 3,000 colleges are steeped in violence education. They deserve an intellectual rest in a class on peace education. Even then, it's usually minimal: one course, at most, in 12 years of primary and secondary education, and perhaps another in college.
Some school officials are grandiose in their claims to be peace educators. A principal who invited me to speak on nonviolence at a student assembly said afterward that his commitment was strong: Every year he organizes "peace day." Impressive, I said. But a question: Do you have math day once a year? Literature day? Science day?
To have any chance at all for a long-term decrease in violence -- in whatever form -- academic, for-credit courses in peace studies, mediation and nonviolent conflict resolution need to be offered every year of schooling. Every gunman mass-killing people in schools or workplaces, every spouse abuser, every street thug: They were all in first grade somewhere at sometime, then second grade and on up. Had they been exposed to the literature, methods, history, theories and practitioners of nonviolence, perhaps they would have had second thoughts -- rejecting thoughts -- about violence.
Every semester, I call on my students to go beyond merely asking questions. Do something bolder and braver. Instead of asking questions, question the answers -- those given by anyone who says the answer is violence. That requires courage, because it means taking on nearly an entire culture whose leaders justify war-making, gun-owning, arms-selling and other forms of legal institutionalized violence that exploits whole social classes.
It also can mean, as it did for Jeremy Fischer, taking on a school. I met him three years ago when I had been invited to speak at Walter Johnson. Jeremy hung around after the talk. He wanted a reading list for books on nonviolence. He wanted to know about groups I had praised in my speech -- the War Resisters League, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Peace Education Foundation. He asked about courses he might take. I invited him to enroll in one of my summer courses, which he did -- consecutive summers, and bringing along his father both times. I gave Jeremy full support as he labored to bring peace education to his school.
Jeremy Fischer -- every high school in America has a few students of firm resolve like him -- is attending Guilford College this fall on a full, four-year scholarship. Guilford, a peace-aware school well known for campus activism, had a slot for a student with proven talents to agitate, not merely cogitate. It found one.
Colman McCarthy founded and directs the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016.