Thursday, August 6, 2009

Indicators of Peace

I've been thinking lately of definitions of peace, and how a particular community, nation, or school might know if they are making progress. In my review of the initiatives many school systems have made to create "peaceful schools", what many of them seem to mean is not what I would consider peaceful, but rather "safe". That is obviously a critical component of peace. I'll never forget the young man who came through my classroom here in the Detention Home after having gotten himself "a piece". (For those of us who need the translation, that's a gun.) As I recall the conversation I had with him, he'd told his dad he didn't feel safe walking to school or at school. (He lived in DC.) Dad apparently told him to "man up" (remind me to post on gender identity and peace sometime soon). So the kid armed himself, and landed in a prison classroom, writing about what had happened to him and how the prolonged illness and death of his mother from cancer had been the beginning of the end of it all for him. (Could this have been prevented if we had universal health care?) He did his time with us, got released and soon was re-arrested. He'd shot someone. Peace and security are inextricably linked. In a workshop of Johan Galtung's that I attended, he observed that conservatives often tend to start with security, believing it will result in peace, and that liberals tend to take the reverse approach.

What does this mean for schools trying to become "peaceful"? Clearly, as the above story suggests, there will not be peaceful schools without peaceful communities. You can't fix one in isolation from the other, in my view. Yet I also return to the classic conflict resolution definitions of positive and negative peace. Negative peace is the absence of violence. Positive peace is far more difficult to define and achieve. It involves the existence of just and equitable social, political and economic systems. It suggests the active presence of respect, inclusion and tolerance. Peace education, I believe, is the missing ingredient. We can (and must) "do" gang interventions, counsel kids against drugs, and model respect for diversity. But this is only half of what is possible, in my view. Experiential, interdisciplinary curriculum can empower kids (and teachers) to recognize and change the structurally violent systems in their communities (which are a large part of what causes kids to end up in a Detention Home to begin with). Being explicit about peace as a value is another important part of the recipe. This is often where political "push back" occurs, as it remains for too many such a subversive concept. It means facing our own national daemons, as MLK explained so eloquently in "Beyond Vietnam". He raises the question of how we can preach peace to our children while waging war on another country, in a clear demonstration of the sociocultural belief that yes, violence does solve problems. If that's where we are, let's at least be clear about it! This is why I argue that peace education is so necessary, despite (understandable) charges of bias.
No worries--we're already teaching war.

So what then might some indicators of a school system becoming more peaceful be, especially in light of the link between peaceful communities and schools?

I'd suggest we might consider some of the following:
1. the presence of some sort of democratic method (this includes the kids) for making school policy
2. interdisciplinary, experiential curriculum
3. the presence of multilingualism
4. a culture of community service and activism
5. a culture of classrooms "without walls" where partnerships with other schools and communities are the norm, not just "enrichment"