Teaching Peace 'Literacy'


It is just after 8 a.m. on a warm spring day that is bright with sunshine and promise, and Colman McCarthy is hectoring his students.

"How many of you have ever been to 1305 T Street, N.W.?" he demands, scribbling the Washington, D.C. address on a

blackboard. "You haven't been there? None of you? How many of you even know what's there? You don't, right? Right?"

Mr. McCarthy pauses and looks off into the distance. His students shift uneasily. They are in a social studies class at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, in an affluent suburb of Washington.

"Well, it's a homeless shelter," says Mr. McCarthy at last. "You should go there. You should talk to the people there."

"If you go among victims," he says slowly, "you soon realize there is something not right with our economic system, our political system."

Mr. McCarthy, 55, is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post, which gives him ample opportunity to get his message across. His message: Ours is an inherently violent society, in part, because each of us is "illiterate" about peace. There is a continuum of violence, he says, that begins in the home with domestic assault, spills out into the streets with violent crime, and stretches out across the planet with the U.S. government's willingness to use force on the world stage.

"Here you have a country that is obsessed with using violence to solve problems," says Mr. McCarthy. "From the waging of wars . . . to the selling of weapons -- we sell arms to 142 of the 180 governments on this planet; to record homicide rates in the cities; to record rates of spouse and child abuse in our homes, we are the most violent nation on earth.

"How could it be otherwise?" continues Mr. McCarthy. "Since we not teach children alternatives to violence to resolve their conflicts in our schools, how could we be surprised that they are unable to find alternatives when they get to be adults -- whether they are parents or national leaders?"

Ten years ago, Mr. McCarthy began teaching about history's great peacemakers in Washington area high schools. In 1986, he founded the Center for Teaching Peace in the hopes that nonviolence will someday become a permanent fixture in the curriculum of the nation's schools. He estimates he has taught 3,000 high school and college students. He has given speeches about the need for peace studies to 20 organizations a year and raised some $700,000 over the past seven years for his cause. The Center for Teaching Peace has a newsletter and a home study course. Peace-related studies have been adopted by a number of high schools and a handful of prisons. Since 1970, the number of colleges offering a degree in Peace Studies has grown from one to 70.

"It is hard work," says Mr. McCarthy, "but I can't say we are not making headway. The message is to teach children that there are other ways to resolving a conflict other than fists, guns, armies and nukes."

You might say Mr. McCarthy represents a back-to-basics movement among the peace community -- and it comes not a moment too soon.

These should be boom times for peace: the Iron Curtain has fallen. The Soviet Union has disintegrated. The apartheid regime in South Africa is in retreat.

Instead, the U.S. has been involved in one military adventure after another, and members of the peace movement find themselves on the defensive.

Early in the Persian Gulf crisis, for instance, the International Policy Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference sought to interject moral guidelines regarding the U.S. use of military force. In a letter to the Bush administration, the bishops outlined six criteria that would define an ethical use of force, including whether a "real and certain" danger existed and whether all peaceful alternatives had been explored.

Now, while opinion polls show that most Americans are reluctant to commit troops in the Balkans, and while our European allies hesitate, the debate in Washington appears to center around when and what kind of military force to use.

"You cannot ask pacifists to put out the war when it's already out of control," protests Mr. McCarthy. "The time to seek alternatives is before the slaughtering starts. The solution is to stop selling weapons to anyone and everyone and then to purify our hearts."

Mr. McCarthy argues that we have dysfunctional homes, dysfunctional cities and a dysfunctional national government; that the adults in our society are addicted to violence as a means of resolving conflict.

He makes a very compelling case that the only long-term solution is found in the words of the old spiritual: "Ain't gonna study war no more."

Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

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