THIS year, the Los Angeles Unified School District - serving some 500,000 children - became the first major metropolitan area to mandate peace education. In September two copies of Los Angeles's newly adopted ``Nuclear Age Curriculum'' were sent to all public schools. The curriculum is explicit. In one exercise, kindergarten students are asked to paint watercolors of ``terrible disasters.'' Eight-year-olds are introduced to the story of Sadako, a young Japanese survivor of Hiroshima who develops leukemia and tries (unsuccessfully) to survive the disease by folding 1,000 paper cranes, an ancient ritual. After reading the story, Los Angeles children also learn to make the paper cranes.
But more and more educators are asking, What does such teaching have to do with either peace or education?
While more peace, global, and ``nuclear age'' curriculum is available today, the subject is under increased attack. And not only from conservatives.
Educators from both right and left are disgruntled by a plethora of ``peace'' teacher guides and supplements that are often inaccurate. The materials contain incomplete information about closed societies such as the Soviet Union, are drawn from narrow psychological premises, and lack a historical context, they say.
``The fact of the matter is,'' says Bruce Payne of the National Institute for Public Policy, ``there isn't much good stuff out there. Mostly it's slanted and politicized.''
Such materials cause a ``conservative reaction,'' Mr. Payne says - a response ``that we shouldn't be teaching it at all. But I can't agree. High school students who will be voting soon need to think about these issues.''
According to Robert Pickus, director of the Quaker World Without War peace education group, no peace material was available in the late 1970s. The disarmament and freeze movements of the early 1980s changed that. Many of the grass-roots organizers were teachers or educators. And though peace activism is tapering off today, the initiative in schools continues.
``Choices,'' designed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1983 and endorsed (and distributed) by the National Education Association, is in wide use. Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR), a Cambridge, Mass.-based nuclear-freeze-turned-education organization, says 15,000 teachers and more than 100 communities in the United States use its materials.
More is on the way. This January, ESR will begin work with the Soviet Ministry of Education to develop a peace education curriculum, a ``world peace movement of educators,'' seminars, and videos on peace.
What Mr. Pickus and others will look for closely is a more balanced and realistic approach. Previous curricula, such as ``Choices,'' suggest that friction between nations is merely a problem of ``bad communication,'' a tendency to ``project'' the status of ``enemy'' onto others, or to assert simply that if nations just ``knew each other better,'' hostilities would cease. Author Andre Ryerson (in Commentary magazine, April 1986) says this teaches students ``that our difficulty with the Soviets is essentially a problem in our heads.'' It uncritically assumes American paranoia and ethnocentrism, he says, rather than basic moral and political differences.
Mr. Ryerson notes a lesson in ESR's ``Perspectives'' curriculum called ``Jonathan and the Dragon,'' where a dragon invades a town. It reads: ``After the mayor and townspeople have tried violent means to no avail, a little boy gets the invading dragon out of town simply by whispering a polite request to him.'' Ryerson adds: ``ESR might consider shipping a few cartons of this invaluable story to assist the mujahideen in Afghanistan.''
Randall Forsberg, a leader of the freeze movement in 1982 and director of the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, says much of the peace education in schools derives from the popular sentiment ``All I know is that I want to do away with nuclear weapons.''
This attitude ignores history, she says. Nuclear weapons have made major conventional wars obsolete. But popular nuclear education ignores the link between nuclear and conventional forces - the bedrock arms policy for 40 years. Such an approach actually ``diseducates,'' she says. ``It doesn't teach what we need to know - the historical context of how arms control developed.'' Without that, the nuclear buildup ``seems just insane to students - without any cause.''
The result, says Pickus, is a leap from the insanity of nuclear war to a ``prescription - not education - about our posture in the nuclear age. It challenges American power and purpose, but in a way that confirms the Soviet agenda, rather than trying to change it.''
Glasnost, INF agreements, and recent articles on planned Soviet military support of Nicaragua in the midst of the Arias peace plan and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit make the issue timely.
Tom Blough of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis feels current materials would limit thinking about the Nicaraguan revelations. There's always been a ``sentimental and naive'' strain in American education, he says. While appearing well intentioned, this attitude often includes ``a willful denial of the fact of evil in the world, and of tragedy.''
Dr. Blough traces the problem to the larger political culture. When Daniel Ortega went to Moscow, he says, many American officials shrugged it off as simply ``bad public relations - as though it were nothing more than Ortega's failure to hire the right K Street law firm.'' Relying on the peace curriculum now available, classroom teachers would assume recent coverage of Nicaragua is a result of ``misunderstanding.''
That's dangerous, says Blough. ``To believe these parties are just making misguided errors in judgment is silly. These people are smart. They know what they are doing - pursuing their interests. A lot of approaches wouldn't examine that.''
Others criticize inaccuracies in the texts. In an ESR guide, the intermediate-range US P-2 rocket is described as a ``first-strike weapon'' of ``vastly increased capabilities.'' By contrast, it states that the Soviet SS-20 was built for ``increased safety and reliability.'' Unlike the P-2, it's ``not a first strike weapon'' - it can't hit ``particular military targets.''
``This is totally incorrect,'' says Payne. ``I mean there is no outlying opinion on that. An SS-20 with three MIRVed warheads can easily hit a military target.''
Pickus finds more teachers desiring ``a more thoughtful approach.''
New curriculum is coming out. The Mershon Center at Ohio State has new units, as does the Stanford Project on International and Cross-Cultural Education, and ESR.