Serious academic approach to the study of peace

When Pope John XXIII wrote about the need for universal peace in April of 1963, faculty at Manhattan College, a Catholic school in the Bronx, started thinking about how to act on his words.

At the time, many people were pondering peace, with the growth of the nuclear arms race and the escalating situation in Vietnam. Manhattan College was among the schools that eventually contributed to the discussion.

In 1966, it offered its first course on peace, and by 1971, students could major in peace studies, making it the second-oldest program in the United States. (The pioneer was Manchester College in North Manchester, Ind., which began its program in 1948.) Today dozens of schools have them.

At the helm of Manhattan's program is Margaret Groarke, a political scientist and thoughtful purveyor of alternatives to conflict. The director of the peace program since 1999, she regularly teaches an introductory peace-studies course, and is also a professor in the school's government department. She spoke with the Monitor recently about the program and her teaching approach.

What does peace studies include?

We see it as an interdisciplinary program that allows students to focus their study on the problems of creating peace and justice, and there are five areas we see fitting under that: arms races and war; economic, political, and social justice; conflict creation, management, and resolution; nonviolent philosophies and strategies of resistance; and world community and world government.

Based on that range of topics, how do you define peace?

I think, in common parlance, peace means the absence of war. And the first thing that students learn in peace studies is that the absence of war is a very insufficient definition of peace.

There's a notion in peace studies that there is such a thing as "negative" peace, that we can have the absence of conflict - "I'm not shooting at you right now, and therefore we are at peace" - but the relations between us might not be just. Maybe you're oppressing me, maybe we're barely stifling our desire to kill each other over some territorial dispute.

That's not peace. It's not peace until we've worked out a just solution to that problem, whatever it might be. And that's what we think of as "positive" peace, and that includes what most people would think of as justice.

Students sometimes say to me, "Why is it called peace studies? Why isn't it called peace and justice studies?" And what people have said here ... is that that's repetitive: Peace includes justice.

What approach do you take in your teaching?

In the introduction to peace studies, I try to expose students to a number of different things, with the idea that they can pick some other courses to follow those ideas through. I try to teach a bit of the philosophy of peace, and some of those ideas about negative and positive [peace].

Because my own interest has long been in nonviolent movements for peace and justice ... we spend a good bit of time on that, and on understanding that there are other ways to solve problems besides going to war or, on another level, using violence.

It's easy for people to see in interpersonal relations that there are other ways to solve problems than by violence.... But on the international level, we are not well-versed enough in the nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts and we don't have as much faith in them as we should have, given the history of those strategies being used to avoid war, to resolve problems.

What are some of the misperceptions students have?

That hoping for peace is unrealistic. That there's no point in talking about peace in a time of war like this.... That force is the only and/or best form of power.

A lot of our failure to understand how to create peace is a failure to understand power and how it works. There are lots of ways to exercise power. Think about diplomats. [They] achieve their goals without using military methods.... Students will often say, "Talking isn't going to do anything." But diplomats do a lot by talking, and we need to understand how that is done.

What teaching tools do you use?

This fall we're going to begin with John Hersey's [book] "Hiroshima," because I had a discussion with some students about whether the bombing of Hiroshima was necessary.... We do read some of the work of Gandhi [and] the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. about nonviolence. We read some religious texts and other perspectives on peace.

One semester we started the class reading a wild novel called "Ishmael" by a man named Daniel Quinn. It is about a gorilla who attempts to lead a human into making better life choices.

The purpose of starting with this book was to think about how your choices are limited by the paradigm you're in, that there are other, entirely different ways of looking at the world ... and that we need to take that leap to realize a solution to problems that [seem] unsolvable.

One of the things people always say about studying peace is that it's fine to talk about trying to be peaceful, but when you're dealing with somebody like Hitler or Saddam Hussein, you have to use violence. So one of [the course books] includes some readings about a [French] town that resisted the Nazis nonviolently.

How did people resist the Nazis?

The basic strategy is to make it impossible for the occupiers to carry on their business.... In Denmark, people refused to take government positions and left them vacant. People quit and others refused to apply for government jobs.

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