Peace Education Essay

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The objective of peace education is to generate interdisciplinary efforts to develop strategies and programs aimed at reorienting the human race to the nonviolent resolution of conflict. As the new millennium begins, the specter of violence is commonplace, from the World Trade Center to the campus of Columbine High School, from bullying in the corridors of our schools to domestic violence at home. This entry provides a brief description of peace education, looks at its underlying theories, and offers a discussion of its marginalized status in the contemporary curriculum.

Some Basics

Peace education is grounded in two major assumptions: (1) conflict is inevitable and can often be fruitful and (2) people can be taught to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. Peace education includes strategies for resolving conflicts at various levels, ranging from individuals, to social groups, and even global conflicts.

The strategic dimension of peace education can be divided into three components. The first is peace keeping, which emphasizes tactics of conflict resolution to be utilized in conflict situations where violence has already happened or appears inevitable. The second is peacemaking, which emphasizes prophylactic approaches such as cooperative learning and cooperative discipline, violence prevention, multicultural education, and global education. The third is peace building, which explores policy alternatives designed to ameliorate structural violence grounded in social injustice. Galtung’s theory of “structural violence” draws a distinction between direct and indirect violence, defining the latter as institutional arrangements structured to reduce the potential realized by victims of discrimination.

Peace education draws from interdisciplinary perspectives in subareas including conflict resolution, multicultural education, and global education. Conflict resolution ranges from interpersonal skills to mediation, arbitration, and negotiation. Multicultural education focuses upon the dialectical relationship between assimilation and cultural pluralism. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a wave of immigration into the United States is projected to transform the currently dominant status of European Americans into the minority. The United States is witnessing an era of unprecedented racial diversity. These developments will require youth to master cultural competencies and to resolve racial prejudice. Multicultural education and its various permutations, such as “antiracist education” and “Whiteness studies” will contribute to the resolution of these contradictions. The dominance of transnational corporations and the global marketplace will also result in irreversible structural economic changes that will require a mastery of global education.

Theoretical Issues And Controversies

Negative Versus Positive Peace

The most simplistic definition of peace, called “negative peace,” is the absence of violence. During the twentieth century the specter of nuclear annihilation appeared to be the most pressing issue to threaten world peace. The doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) was put forth as a viable policy alternative and “negative peace” was the priority for many peace educators.

However, the construct of “positive peace,” grounded in recognition of the dialectical relationship between peace and justice, has recently gained ideological hegemony. This transformation is evident in the history of peace organizations, which began with the founding of the Peace Studies Association (PSA) in the 1980s, followed by the formation of the Consortium of Peace Research, Education, and Development (COPRED). The recent merger of PSA and COPRED into the Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) is a symbolic manifestation of the ideological hegemony of “positive peace,” since the new title demonstrates the predominance of the issue of social justice as a factor of peace.

Violence And Nonviolence

Theories related to violence itself have been embroiled in a “nature/nurture” controversy grounded in sociobiology and neo-Freudianism versus an emphasis on culture. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) drew upon sociobiology to develop the construct of the “superpredators” as a description of sectors of inner-city youth. In contrast, William Julius Wilson, an authority on urban poverty and race relations, argued against concepts of “ghetto-specific” behavior in favor of a conception of “ghetto-related” behavior originating from the structural economic changes associated with the “deindustrialization of America.” On the issue of the origins of war, anthropologist Margaret Mead countered Konrad Lorenz’s sociobiological construct of the “aggressivity instinct” with her explication of war as a cultural phenomenon based upon her survey of cultures that were free of war.

Similarly, theories related to nonviolence have been restricted by the ideological hegemony of religious and personal pacifists in peace education who tend to restrict the discourse to pacifism as a universal moral imperative. Programs that emphasize “alternatives to violence” or “violence prevention” but fail to exclude contingencies of self-defense often receive minimal attention. For example, Deborah Pro throw-Stith’s violence prevention program has captured the imagination of many community activists working with adolescent African American youth, but it has been virtually excluded from the mainstream of peace education discourse.

Gene Sharp’s historical research on “nonviolent direct action” as an intermediate strategy between personal and religious pacifism and armed self-defense is similarly useful. His taxonomy of tactics, ranging from labor strikes, territorial invasion, land seizure, noncooperation against government bureaucracies, to national defense, are illustrated in case studies of actions against regimes as extreme as those of Hitler, Stalin, and numerous Latin American dictators. Also, Sharp’s 1972 The Politics of Nonviolent Action, a historical analysis of Gandhi, noted that the grounding of Gandhi’s constructs such as satyagraha emphasize action and confrontation. Sharp also pointed out that the components of action and confrontation, central to satyagraha, have been a point of contention for personal and religious pacifists.

The point of contention is particularly obvious in the dominant historical accounts of the civil rights movement in which “personal and religious pacifists” often speak from a position of middle-class privilege. Activists’ interpretations of nonviolent direct action and their portrayals of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, tend to be grounded in a conception of pacifism as a universal moral imperative.

The working-class perspective was introduced by Lance Hill, in his groundbreaking 2004 history of the Deacons for Defense. The Deacons for Defense was an organization whose membership was primarily recruited from the ranks of working-class African American combat veterans, who subscribed to a combination of tactics including armed self-defense as well as nonviolent direct action. Hill noted that Dr. King accepted security from the Deacons for Defense (who were armed) on condition of confidentiality and that both the Student Nonviolent

Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Freedom Riders accepted the assistance of the Deacons for Defense once they realized that government authorities would not provide them with protection from the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilantes. Furthermore, Devon Carbado and Donald Weise have documented that Dr. King himself was armed, as Bayard Rustin objected to Dr. King keeping guns in his house for protection.

Global Education

Global education is most heavily influenced by theories of “spheres of influence” from political science along with Marxist-Leninist theory, and Johian Galtung’s alternative theory of “structural imperialism.” Vladimir Lenin’s theory of imperialism, Nkrumah’s neocolonialism, and Walter Rodney’s views on underdevelopment are marginalized in the United States, because of their grounding in Marxist theory.

Imperialism and neocolonialism are seen as successive stages of advanced monopoly capitalism, in which finance capital is exported for purposes of economic exploitation. Imperialism is perceived as relying more upon war, while neocolonialism is more dependent upon organizations such as the World Bank and World Trade Organization as mechanisms of economic manipulation by transnational corporations. Rodney views underdevelopment as a consequence of imperialist and neocolonial exploitation.

The opposing view is that the exploitation of underdeveloped nations and human rights violations have transcended the boundaries between capitalist and socialist societies. Galtung’s formulation of structural imperialism provides an alternative to the theories of Lenin, Nkrumah, and Rodney.

Feminist Perspectives

In her classic work on feminist perspectives in peace education, Brigit Brock-Utne celebrates the fact that “the gender neutrality of most social science, including peace research” has been broken. One of the major debates among feminist peace researchers has been around the position taken by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, and more recently Betty Reardon that sexism has been such a source of support for the male dominated “war machine” that an increased number of women in positions of world leadership would be sufficient to decrease the probability of war and even that women warriors would be more humane. However, other feminist peace researchers, including Jean Bethke Elshtain and Berenice Carroll, have dismissed this position as naive and simplistic.


Ian Harris provided a historical assessment of the progress of peace education in the United States in which he concludes with the sobering observation that “peace education remains peripheral to mainstream educational endeavors.” Harris attributes the failures of peace education to the difficulties inherent in developing a research paradigm capable of demonstrating the efficacy of peace education programs. There are other views.

Betty Reardon and Manning Marable put greater emphasis on Eurocentricity as an explanation of the marginalized status of peace education. Reardon and Marable agree that the dominance of Eurocentricity in peace education leads to the exclusion and distortion of African American perspectives, and this restricted focus undermines the status and viability of peace education. Marable explicitly pointed out that many White peace advocates may be ill informed about ways in which Blacks have influenced and contributed to White movements. He further has noted that social movements in the United States that have failed to include African Americans in their leadership have consistently failed.

According to scholars, including Noam Chomsky, James Loewen, and John Marciano, the virtual absence from U.S. public schools of any critical assessment of our government’s accountability in issues such as social justice, war, genocide of Native Americans, and worldwide violations of human rights has led to a ubiquitous form of “civic illiteracy.” The history, music, and literature of movements, organizations, and individuals committed to peace and social justice is also consistently omitted from our curriculum. Cultural norms based upon “rugged individualism,” zero-sum relationships, and unbridled competition are dominant in U.S. society and reinforced by popular culture and athletic programs. In teacher education programs, peace education is excluded in favor of instruction in “classroom management” and behavior modification.

A survey of program evaluations in peace education by Tricia S. Jones and Daniel Kmitta indicates that researchers must increase the rigor of their research design and emphasize outcome variables if they hope to demonstrate efficacy. The survey also indicates that long-term training has far greater efficacy than the short-term workshops dominant in the field of peace education.

Although women have achieved a significant presence in the leadership of peace organizations and feminist perspectives are well represented in the knowledge base of peace research, efforts must be made to achieve commensurate progress for African Americans and other racial minorities. If peace education could be infused throughout the U.S. curriculum, this might abate civic illiteracy and the culture of violence. Both direct and indirect violence appears to be the challenges of the new millennium, suggesting the important potential contributions of peace education in the struggle for peace and social justice.


  1. Berlowitz M. J., Long, N. A., & Jackson, E. R. (2006). The exclusion and distortion of African American perspectives in peace education. Educational Studies, 39(1), 5–15.
  2. Brock-Utne, B. (1989). Feminist perspectives on peace and peace education. New York: Pergamon Press.
  3. Carbado, D. W., & Weise, D. (Eds.). (2003). Time on two crosses: The collected writings of Bayard Rustin. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
  4. Galtung, J. (1971). A structural theory of imperialism. Journal of Peace Research, 8(2), 81–117.
  5. Galtung, J., & Hoivik, T. (1971). Structural and direct violence. Journal of Peace Research, 8(1), 73–76.
  6. Hill, L. (2004). The Deacons for Defense: Armed resistance and the civil rights movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  7. Jones, T. S., & Compton, R. O. (Eds.). (2003). Kids working it out: Stories and strategies for making peace in our schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  8. Lorenz, K. (2002). On aggression. New York: Routledge. Marciano, J. (1997). Civic illiteracy and education. New York: Peter Lang.
  9. Mead, M. (2002). War is only an invention—not a biological necessity. In D. P. Barash, (Ed.), Approaches to peace (pp. 19–22). New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. Prothrow-Stith, D., & Spivak, H. (2004). Murder is no accident: Understanding and preventing youth violence in America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  11. Reardon, B. (1988). Comprehensive peace education: Educating for global responsibility. New York: Teachers College Press.
  12. Sharp, G. (1972). The politics of nonviolent action. Boston: Porter Sargent.
  13. Wilson, W. J. (1996). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  14. Peace and Justice Studies Association:

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