Ellen Birkett Lindeen
Apr 11 · 3 min read

What Does it Mean to Teach Peace?

By Ellen Lindeen

Depending on their age, people associate peace with protesting the Vietnam War, songs, movies and marches of the 1960’s, the time before 9/11, quiet getaway retreats, or their yoga class. So what does it mean to teach peace and how would one do it? I think the why is obvious.

I have been teaching all my life — first over a decade at the high school level and after that, college students. Most of my courses were about writing, composition, and literature. At a certain point in my career I read the book, The Peaceable Classroom, by Mary Rose O’Reilly, recommended at a conference, and realized that my subconscious, underlying motive had always been to teach so that people stopped killing each other. Not long after that revelation, I discovered the field of Peace Studies. I had never heard of it before the 2000’s. Quickly and with much research, I realized this coursework is by no means a new discipline, having been birthed with the use of the “bomb” in World War II. However, this is field is not well known in the military industrial complex we live in. How many people are aware of the ROTC programs in higher education and not aware of peace courses and degrees? Some colleges have been teaching “peace” since their founding over a hundred years ago, especially the “peace colleges”: Earlham College, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers); Goshen College, Mennonite; and Manchester University, Church of the Brethren. Yet, early on this discipline was not limited to religious colleges. The University of Michigan began majors in nuclear disarmament shortly after the World War II, and Georgetown University, American University, and George Mason University have offered majors in peace and conflict resolution for decades.

I began my search for nearby colleges and universities where I could learn more and hopefully bring this coursework to the college where I currently taught Composition and Shakespeare. I attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for classes, while teaching full time, completing the most meaningful coursework I have ever undertaken. I earned a Certificate in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, and in 2009, I offered the first Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution course at Waubonsee Community College, a public 2-year, Associate Degree granting college in the western suburbs of Chicago. Since then, people frequently ask me what it means to teach peace, or even what specifically I teach in this course.

Here’s the short version. Conflict is not bad; conflict is necessary for all people to have a voice, but conflict is not the same as violence. Violent conflict is not inevitable. People can be taught to kill in the armed services, and they can be taught to use other methods of interaction as well. Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution includes concepts, history, and strategies so that people will stop being violent. My goal is for people to stop killing each other.

Course readings reveal fallacious anthropological research which is currently undergoing revision. Humans likely do not come from violent beginnings. This is a well-entrenched myth, but one that is easy to maintain by those whose plan is to perpetuate armed conflict. The course includes the Harvard Negotiation Project concepts, which delineate roles for individuals and groups to use to prevent, resolve, and contain conflicts, large and small, in ways which bring about satisfaction for everyone. The curriculum includes readings by Thoreau, Gandhi, King, Gene Sharp, Roger Fisher, Bill Ury, Dalai Lama, Jane Addams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Margaret Mead, and about the United Nations and Vision for Humanity. We read, discuss, listen, analyze, agree and disagree, reach conclusions, and discuss more.

A crucial goal within the course is to learn nonviolent ways to bring about needed change in people, societies, or countries. Conflict is necessary and expected. Most social science courses focus on war, not peace, but courses in peace studies do not necessarily focus only on historical peacetimes. Peace does not mean the absence of war; that is called negative peace. Positive peace is based on eight factors according to the Institute for Economics and Peace: acceptance of the rights of others, low levels of corruption, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, good relations with neighbors, sound business environment, well-functioning government, and equitable distribution of resources. To work for a sustainable peace, people must focus on factors to generate positive peace, rather than simply on ways to avoid violence. A more peaceful world, or at least a less violent one, seems like a dream worth envisioning to me, and my students agree. What if peace has not been achieved, because people thought it was unattainable? Why do I teach peace? Because I believe it is possible.