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``What we know about peace is either wrong or insignificant.'' That's what a leading peace researcher says now. But he could be proved wrong in the future, as the current growing efforts toward peace education take effect. Among these, as explored in this special section:

The number of colleges granting degrees in peace-related studies has vaulted from five to more than 100 during the last decade, and in recent years peace education has shed the activist trappings of the 1960s to become a more hardheaded academic discipline [see continuation of this story at right].

Elementary and secondary school teachers around the country are bringing peace perspectives into their classes [Page B6].

At least 74 private foundations are now contributing money to peace studies, and over the last two years their grants have increased by more than 200 percent to $52 million [Page B7].

Soviet-watchers at US universities see small but significant signs of increased public discourse about war and peace in the USSR [Page B4].

The ideas of a preeminent teacher of the art of negotiation have been in demand from Camp David to South Africa [Page B3].

A computerized system for analyzing global conflict in the classroom is becoming more sophisticated [Page B3].

These developments are part of a larger effort to direct new ideas and resources toward helping humanity overcome its historic enslavement to violence and war.

The opening comment (at the left) was made in November at a peace educators conference held at the University of California in Berkeley. It suggests the feeling of many who study questions of peace in the less-than-peaceful modern era. But under the impetus of both nuclear escalation and new ways of thinking, many also feel that someday it will be possible to study war no more.

By far, the biggest developments in this field are occurring on college and university campuses.

A wide spectrum of schools -- from D'Youville College (Buffalo, N.Y.) and the University of Dubuque, to Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford Universities -- are offering degrees in such areas as ``Conflict Management,'' ``Peace Science,'' ``International Security, Law, and Justice,'' and ``Ethics and Social Policy'' -- subjects unheard of three decades ago and still somewhat controversial, despite their growing acceptance. `Peace studies' -- what's that?

The field -- known as ``peace studies'' -- varies widely from school to school. But most programs are interdisciplinary, employing faculty from fields as different as Soviet studies, law, and anthropology to examine causes of and potential solutions to conflict, aggression, and war.

Barbara Wein of the World Policy Institute, a research and public policy organization in New York, estimates that nearly 80 of the colleges that do not grant degrees in this area do offer courses in arms control, nonviolence, or conflict resolution. In 1982 Ms. Wein sent a letter to faculty across the United States asking for examples of peace curricula. She received more than 12,000 responses indicating that peace-related courses are also part of programs in women's studies, ecology, education, food, economics, religion, and science. Shortcomings addressed

Though they have gained legitimacy at many schools, peace studies have continually been criticized, both on campus and off, as having an ideological bias and as lacking in academic rigor.

Those inside the field admit such criticisms may have been warranted in the past. But they now say the majority of programs have addressed such shortcomings and add that many critics are unaware of the newer, more sophisticated approaches to peace education -- approaches that go beyond polemics about the evils of war to employ a broader range of source materials and to explore more penetrating questions such as these:

What are the attitudes and belief systems that define a state or culture? How are perceptions of war and peace formed? What role do the media play in promoting war or peace? How does military spending relate to levels of world poverty and hunger? How might security between the East and West blocs in Europe be redefined? How can women scholars contribute to an understanding of the problem of war?

Such cross-disciplinary questions were not generally raised in classes a half dozen years ago, say peace educators interviewed for this supplement.

Despite its wide usage, ``peace studies'' is a tag most serious academics in the field and many students do not like. As one professor puts it, `` `Peace' today sounds too much like a trendy thing to do.'' The field also suffers from a false popular notion that it was conjured up by old hippies. In fact, over its 30-year history, the field has been as diverse and changeable as Western society itself. A 30-year history

In the 1950s ``peace studies'' was a somewhat insular field of research given to debating fine points of international law and to conceptualizing various utopias.

By the 1960s, fighting in the rice paddies of Vietnam made such musings seem frivolous, and peace studies made a 180-degree turn -- became decidedly activist and mounted ``teach-ins'' aimed at stopping the war. Peace studies also involved ``research'' into jobs and life styles that would help students circumvent America's military-industrial complex.

The late 1960s brought a more formal course of peace research that dealt with arms control. But by the mid-1970s, East-West d'etente and the deescalation of the war in Vietnam nearly muted the impetus for peace studies altogether. Nonetheless, deeper currents were beginning to flow under the surface. In academia, many teachers were starting to ask how their particular fields related to the larger problem of peace as well as to the economic and political interdependence of the globe.

Meanwhile, the US Senate failed to ratify the SALT II arms control agreement with the Soviet Union obtained by President Jimmy Carter. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The new Reagan administration sought a military buildup and gave the impression of imagining ``limited'' nuclear wars.

So once more the nuclear issue commanded massive public attention, soon followed by student demand to pursue the issues. Diplomatic and military experts such as George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, and Robert McNamara began lending their names and talents to the field. Two-pronged approach

Over the past five years, says Robert Elias, head of the peace program at Tufts University, peace studies have evolved into two basic categories.

The first deals with the geopolitics of nuclear weapons and war, explores nuclear weapons systems and the history of arms control, analyzes regional and national conflict, and seeks alternative security means.

The second focuses on a far broader range of issues in the social justice area: economic equality, roots of conflict, racism, sexism, nonviolence, mediation, and citizens' movements.

The study of human rights is an important component of this category. Students delve into sources ranging from Amnesty International's newsletter to historical documents such as the Magna Carta and the US Declaration of Independence and religious books like the Koran and the New Testament to explore what rights are, where they come from, and how they have been defined and guaranteed in various societies. Much study is devoted to the causes behind social transformations -- the abolition of slavery in the United States, for instance, and the recognition of women's rights. Ultimate questions

Many professors hope these considerations will lead students to think about ultimate questions -- the nature and relationship of freedom, moral inquiry, human consciousness, science. `Intellectual predicament'

That such questions are not debated more ``is a source of the intellectual predicament of our century,'' according to Peter Dale Scott, a peace studies professor at the University of California in Berkeley. ``Our institutions now train us not to look at the large questions which the Platonic Academy and universities originally addressed.''

The large questions are exactly why Marta Rose, a junior at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., has decided to major in peace studies. What she has found so far is ``how much we don't understand the root of the problems in the world.'' Consider ``Live Aid,'' the rock concert organized to aid famine victims in Africa, she says: ``A lot of my friends and I really support it -- but sending food to the people in Ethiopia doesn't really deal with the problem over there.'' Ms. Rose points to Malraux's statement that ``art is a revolt against the human condition'' and observes that ``in a sense, peace studies does the same thing.''

Tom Williams, head of the conflict management program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., says the potential for real academic progress in unraveling the most basic problems of peace has never been greater than today. What he expects the study to reveal ``is the power of ideas over conflict and violence.''

While such sweeping hopes nerve peace educators, they are exactly what worry neoconservative intellectuals like Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute. At present, Mr. Novak says, peace education lacks the ``tragic sense of history necessary in thinking realistically about international relations.'' Ignoring the past

Surprisingly, perhaps, many people within the field are in partial agreement with Novak's concern. Elise Boulding, the recently retired head of the peace program at Dartmouth is one of them. She says too many peace educators overlook how close previous generations thought they were to achieving peace.

Boulding, who is now studying ``mistakes of failed utopias,'' notes, ``In 1911 we were convinced the world was on the edge of a breakthrough -- peace among nations was thought of as possible.'' This spirit, she says, was typified by the founding of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and other likeminded organizations. So confident, in fact, were statesmen and academicians at the time, says Ms. Boulding, that many felt ``we would get the peace issue quickly settled and move on to solve hunger and poverty.''

Yet only three years later Europe embarked on World War I. In another 20 years, World War II took the lives of 40 million people from London to Rangoon. A new realism

Because modern man's technical capacity for destruction -- grimly symbolized by mushroom clouds over two Japanese cities -- had become so great, leading thinkers, including Albert Einstein, felt that mankind would have to undergo an epochmaking change in its thinking about peace on earth or face the possibility of an uninhabitable planet.

Teachers in the peace studies field have generally dared to believe such a historic change is possible, but today this faith is being informed by a new ``hardheadedness,'' a new ``realism,'' as two different professors put it.

``We know it's a tough world out there, with deep antagonisms that you can't just talk away,'' says Michael Klare, who heads peace studies for the Five-College Consortium in western Massachusetts, (Amherst, the University of Massachusetts, and Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith Colleges). Peace is a ``long-term proposition,'' he adds.

The faculty at the Five-College Consortium are taking a harder look at Soviet military and foreign policy. The consortium recently sponsored a seminar conducted by the Harriman Institute, a mainstream Soviet studies think tank. The event would have seemed ``vaguely cold-warish five years ago,'' says Klare. But his colleagues now realize ``how little they know about Russians'' -- a surprising ignorance ``considering we want to reduce Soviet fears and antagonisms.''

Jeffrey Lloyd Dumas, a political economist at the University of Texas, also sees a need for realism. ``It's fine to say we should settle conflicts in the world court,'' he says, but students must study the specific difficulties involved in posing that solution -- just as they must learn there are specific internal and external reasons why nations have large military budgets. Maturity some years off

At some schools, the increased rigor takes new forms. In peace studies at the University of Michigan, for example, students must become proficient in four separate approaches: the conservative ``peace through strength'' arguments; the liberal disarmament and freeze perspectives; a structural analysis of world economic and political systems; and religious arguments for peace.

Barbara Wein notes, ``More students are learning how to hold conversations with policy analysts.'' She adds, however, that the maturing of the subject ``is still at least five to ten years away.''

For the field to mature, says Tom Williams of George Mason University, there needs to be the same kind of sustained ``high-level, abstract thinking'' required in any science -- ``the same kind of thinking Niels Bohr engaged in when working on quantum physics.'' Further, he says, the field needs to develop a ``critical mass'' of thinkers.

Actually, that mass began to build in the early 1950s, when economist Kenneth Boulding and Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung started providing academic arguments in behalf of peace. Ideas soon came from other influential thinkers as well, including economist Seymour Melman, who coined the phrase ``military-industrial complex'' and has written extensively on moving beyond what he calls ``a permanent war economy,'' and Richard Falk at Princeton, whose work in the late '70s focused on global interconnectedness -- the question of how peace and human rights at the local level relate to global peace.

Ten years ago the formulators of peace concepts could be counted on one hand, but since that time sophisticated thinking about peace has become more broadly based. Klare now describes the intellectual input into the field as a ``collective effort'' with few big names but a growing number of substantive thinkers.

One new forum for these thinkers is the Boston-based Exploratory Project on the Conditions of Peace, described as a ``floating think tank'' that periodically brings together 30 thinkers from across the country to discuss new ideas about peace.

These developments add up to a field that is gaining recognition and respect on America's campuses and beyond. However, there are still few roads maps that students can easily follow in studying the subject. For this reason, peace studies has been described as something of an adventure. At least that's how Kurt Mills feels about it.

Mr. Mills, who recently switched from successful course work in physics to peace studies in public policy at Hampshire College, says the new courses are ``a lot more complex than I thought; there are no easy lines to draw.'' In thinking about his change of majors, however, he says, ``Every day, I feel more sure I've done the right thing.''

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