Teaching peace to high school students

Gladys Muhammad with students
High school students learning about peace studies through Notre Dame's Summer Scholars program got a firsthand look at community-level peace and justice work in South Bend from Gladys Muhammad, director of the Charles Martin Youth Center and associate director of the South Bend Heritage Foundation.

Last week we taught peace studies to a group of 18 high school students as part of Notre Dame’s pre-college Summer Scholars program. It was intense (teaching 9 to 4 every day for two weeks) and challenging (keeping 17-year olds focused on a subject they’ve never studied before). It was also deeply rewarding.

Patrick Mason and I co-taught the course, ably aided by teaching assistants Eliot Fackler, Christina Buchhold, and Ahmad al-Hadidi. We addressed challenges of violence and peace internationally and here in the U.S. through discussion, lectures, film, photos and YouTube, we reviewed core concepts: defining peace as not merely the absence of armed conflict but the presence of justice; exploring ethical principles that condemn killing but also call for protecting the innocent; addressing current conflicts in Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya; examining the unarmed revolution in Egypt and studying the methods of Gandhi and King; and learning the lessons of the U.S. civil rights movement. See Facebook photo gallery »

During field trips to Chicago and South Bend we encountered the dilemmas of violence and injustice in urban America and learned of extraordinary and courageous efforts to bring peace here at home. We visited the Jane Addams Hull House Association in Chicago, which brings hope to orphaned and homeless youth. We introduced students to the Charles Martin Youth Center in South Bend, which transforms hurt into hope for the victims of violence. We met a mother whose son had been murdered in the streets, who described how faith lifted her beyond grief to found Mamas Against Violence. We heard from a former gang member who explained his transformation from violent drug dealer to church youth leader counseling nonviolence on the streets. Students saw proof that transformation is possible, even from the depths of despair. And further proof that the work of peace is the work of justice.

The students reported that some of their favorite moments came when we divided them into small groups—first to read, discuss, and debate seminal essays on the causes of war; then in a Model UN format where they assumed the role of UN Security Council member states and observer organizations deciding what to do about Libya. (At the end of the two weeks, students pled for another chance, saying they would come up with even better solutions after all they had learned!)

For their major class assignment the students formed teams to develop and present social media projects on reducing violence and promoting tolerance and justice. Their projects were informative, poignant and creative: defending human rights by opposing an Arizona-style immigration law in Indiana; preventing the use of land mines by the FARC guerrillas of Colombia; reducing gang violence in northern Mexico by opposing recreational drug use in the U.S.; promoting a multilateral, regionally and locally based resolution to the ongoing violence by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and surrounding countries.

The students expressed gratitude on the final day for the opportunity to learn collectively, for the discussion style that encouraged them to voice their opinions (a new experience for some of them), for hands-on activities that made it possible to learn while doing, and for field trips in which concepts were revealed as lived experience. As professors we were grateful to extend Kroc’s reach to the high school level, and were reinvigorated in our hopes for a new generation of peace scholars, activists, and policymakers.

4 thoughts on “Teaching peace to high school students

  1. Starting with the theme that peace is not only the absence of violence but also the presence of justice is such a great way to get into the frame of things, I think. That’s how Carol Rank started the first peace studies class I ever took, and I never forgot it! As you might perhaps say, it’s a great hook on which hang other things.

    It’s a bit of an eye-opener to learn that it was a new experience for some students to be able to share their opinions in class!

  2. I am a Quaker who attended, last year, a program at a Presbyterian Church. The facilitator of the program said the word “peace” in an announcement decreased attendance!

    I decided to replace “peace” with “nonviolence” in all future advertisements for programs at my Meeting. I wonder what you, Professor Cortright or any readers of this blog, think about this.

    Is the use of the word “peace” too utopian? Does it evoke images of dirty freakin’ hippies? Do we need new framing?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Your comment calls to mind the opening line of my Peace book: “Jesus said that peacemakers are to be blessed as children of God, but in the real world they are often dismissed as utopian dreamers or worse, quaking defeatists who live in denial of reality.”

      I don’t think we need to be defensive about the word peace. Think of the popularity of the peace sign these days. People don’t really understand what peace means, the depth of the political and moral commitment required, but it is definitely cool to wear a peace sign.

      So let’s embrace the word, and help people understand its essential link to social justice.

  3. Dear Professor Cortright,

    My name is Tatyana. I am a Dartmouth graduate student; my study is concentrated on globalization. I work as a teacher at the Dartmouth College Child Care Center with children of three to five years of age.

    I studied your book “Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas” for my class. I think it’s a great book; it really opened my eyes on a lot of things. Do you think that the peace movement has failed in the world?

    I admire that you teach peace in high schools, and I was wondering if you have any ideas of how to teach peace in preschool. Do you think that if we taught peace to children at early age our society would be more peaceful?

    Thank you for your comments.

    Tatyana Bills

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