Government and history teachers have a special responsibility to students, many of whom take our courses because they want to make a difference in the world. We play a large role in constructing the framework within which our students learn to understand the world, whose voices get heard, and whose are left out. One knowledge tradition which traditionally gets left out of the mix of voices heard is a nonviolence or pacifist perspective. For the thousands of schools like mine, well outside the orbit of the traditional peace colleges, pacifism is not even on the table as a viable possibility for inclusion in courses. It needs to be.

This article shares experiments in course pedagogy in my interdisciplinary course The U.S. in World Affairs. Strategies, assignments, key discussions, and general student reactions and responses to the presentation of nonviolence and pacifist perspectives are set against the background of an analysis of our campus’ war and peace cultures, which I argue is typical of the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities. I conclude that there is a great and largely unmet need for teachers to carefully consider our institutional as well as societal cultures and ethos of war and peace before crafting learning objectives, choosing pedagogy, selecting course content, and designing individual assignments for our students. Above all, we must proceed based on a careful, realistic acknowledgment of our students’ assumptions, values, fears, and life experiences with issues of violence and war.

Campus cultures of war and peace reflect the wider dominant national culture. Celebrated or ignored, these normative assumptions, historical traditions, or unexamined choices often set the parameters for success or failure in any efforts to raise our students’ awareness and, ultimately, helping them to construct accurate intellectual and ethical frameworks for understanding the world and the actions of their government on the global stage. Institutions in a position to meaningfully connect and reinforce a peace and social justice perspective across campus stand a much greater chance of breaking through and challenging students’ powerfully ingrained, socially-grounded values, assumptions, and real-time perceptions about war and the use of violence in foreign affairs.

Only a handful of institutions, the peace colleges, have a deeply-ingrained, ethics-based, multidisciplinary counter-narrative to support and promote to students the study of peace, social justice, cross-cultural understanding, and nonviolent responses to conflict. And, as the President at Bluffton University puts it: We endeavor to welcome to this school students of all backgrounds who are willing to explore such values, whether or not they can embrace them as their own.1 What more could I ask of my own students?


In my daily encounters with students in and out of the classroom since September 11, 2001, I have come to believe that introducing college students to peace, social justice, and nonviolence perspectives is a vital part of a liberal arts education, too important to be overlooked by typical mainstream college history and political science teachers. We need to be introduced to and challenged by nonviolence, peace and justice perspectives, to better prepare our students for the world they will shortly be navigating.

Unlike the longstanding commitment of peace colleges, and typical of the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities, Central College in Iowa has no such tradition. Indeed, our students and faculty very much typify the deeply held assumptions of a majority of U.S. citizens concerning the role of war and violence in history and international relations. The dominant culture of the College is, if anything, the polar opposite and, particularly since September 11, 2001, often celebrates, even glorifies, war and military means as essential and positive elements of American foreign relations. In examining and reflecting upon my first attempts at introducing pacifist perspectives at Central College, A liberal arts college in the Christian tradition,2 I find broad areas of congruence with the experiences and observations of Juhnke and Hunter:

We have created a culture that values greatness, affluence, power, individualism, and freedom. To obtain these goals, we have concurrently created a culture that supports an incredible amount of violence. We all carry a vivid history that has been absorbed, rather than processed, and so remains unconscious. Our nation, we all instinctively assume, is a country made by war. The U.S. is a great and free country, we are to conclude, because Americans have been effectively violent.3

For Americans, the post- 9-11 world blazes with violence and fear. For six years, our government officials, with much help from the mass media, have daily stoked the fires of our violent imaginations, stirring us with new stories of liberty and freedom achieved through violence and war in broken, failed states terrorized by gangs and warlords, shaping our understanding of who we are, our meaning and purpose as a nation, our paradigms for evaluating contemporary problems and the options we believe are available. Where are our peace values? Where are the more humane questions? What has moved American society-- indeed, all societies-- towards greater peace and justice? Who were-- and are-- our peace prophets?4

In the Mission and Goals of Central College, I fail to find the words peace or nonviolence mentioned. I do, however, find justice under Goal #1 for the Central Community:

To promote attitudes and values consistent with the Christian tradition: acceptance, mutual respect, justice, generosity and compassion.

Our Mission and Goals also commit us to develop programs that:

promote values essential to becoming responsible citizens in local, national, and international communities . . . [and] nurture depth of character [and] foster habits of the heart.5

Year One: Post 9/11 Challenges

Challenges associated with teaching international relations in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, and after caused me to realize a need for new eyes with which to see and appreciate the assumptions, expectations, values, and experiences of my students-- young people-- very much younger and quite a bit different from me. This realization also caused me to consider the nature and pedagogical significance of things about the campus environment and culture that I have been living and working in for years yet somehow missed, failed to appreciate the significance of, or perhaps avoided, suppressed, or filtered out.

One good way to get new eyes is to develop a new course. In 2003, I rolled out The U.S. in World Affairs. Over the slower summer weeks preceding the class, I had occasion to read an eye-opening book, The Missing Peace: the Search for Nonviolent Alternatives in United States History. I decided to assign part of it, along with more standard U.S. foreign policy texts.6 Focusing on a key decision in U.S. foreign relations, I asked students to read two interpretations of it, and then analyze the decision based on the standard as well as the pacifist argument and evidence. This seemed safe, contained, not terribly ambitious or threatening--both to them and to me.

My decision to start small, limiting my experiment to one assignment, represented an attempt to draw attention to the possibility that, in the words of one of the students in the class, war is not always the answer. Perry Bush’s words were borne out in my students’ reactions to the assignment:

The mere suggestion that nonviolent alternatives may have been a better course than war and that justice may be better pursued by nonviolence rather than violence may strike many readers as something akin to heresy. Indeed, given the religious conviction with which the creed of redemptive violence is held, such arguments are heresy.7

Students were asked to write an essay on the U.S. decision to enter World War I, based on a careful reading of two interpretations of the facts. Six specific questions were used in making direct comparisons, including: 2) was U.S. entry unavoidable? 4) Was it justified, from a moral standpoint? 6) Which interpretation do you find most convincing? The pacifist source was War and Peace, 1898-1918, in Juhnke and Hunter.

Not one of the 46 students expressed support for the pacifist argument. The idea that peace and nonviolence strategies may be viable, reasonable alternatives to war was not accepted. Many papers seemed to reflect the position that peace advocates are forced into a contemporary straitjacket which demands they consider only the crisis at hand and not how we got here.8 Show us the roadmap to peace but do not think of peace as the road itself:

World War I was one of America’s greatest triumphs. If you go to most American high schools it is taught as a righteous moment in our history. America decided to intervene on the side of God. Because of course Americans are always on God’s side.

Year Two: Central College: ’Typical’ and ’War-Glorifying?’

By 2004, the War on Terror was an established historical fact for my students. I had come away from the first iteration of the class even more convinced that every student graduating from college should receive some exposure to pacifist perspectives. If my limited experiment, one assignment in one class in one particular term, was only marginally successful, how far beyond it was I prepared to go this time? Because:

Somewhere George W. Bush learned that our military triumph in World War II set the stage for new democratic orders in Germany and Japan. When Bush, Cheney, Rice and Wolfowitz made their case for war against Iraq they used the analogy of the Good War, the war that proved that the violence of warfare as conducted by free democratic nations was redemptive, and that those wars produced more freedom and democracy. On the basis of that historical analogy, Bush has given us Iraq. Future American leaders, schooled in the same historical analogies, will give us more of the same.9

I asked students not only to learn but to re-think much of the sacred history of U.S. foreign policy. I expanded use of the pacifist text, assigning chapters, side-by-side with the standard version. Week by week, topic by topic, students had to read, write about, and discuss two versions of the same events and decisions. They would have to be prepared to defend their own position. Asking students to consider a pacifist perspective on the U.S. decision to enter World War I had been a fairly safe task. Now they would have to take on World War II, the decision to use the atomic bomb, Vietnam, the Cold War, and ultimately, Iraq and the War on Terror.

One of the other things I had discovered during one of the more powerful, moving, memorable student exchanges with each other in classroom discussions during year one was that many of my students simply had no workable notion of the blood and soul costs of military service. Unlike the Vietnam generation, they live in the age of the all-volunteer military. Only a tiny handful, some with emotionally or physically scarred veteran parents or the young volunteers themselves, had any idea. I needed to inject things that would awaken, shock, open, challenge, shake-up, perhaps anger, students. I wanted to show them what violence, what killing in war, really looks like, feels like, what it does to minds, bodies, and spirits.

I assigned What Every Person Should Know About War, by Chris Hedges.10 Hedges poses over 100 specific questions about combat and war that might be asked by a young recruit, then uses documentation from medical and psychological studies-- many done by the U.S. military, to answer them. A few examples: What are my chances of being wounded or killed if we go to war? What does it feel like to kill someone? What are the long-term consequences of combat stress? How much does war cost?

Two weeks into the class, it was time to discuss Hedges. One of the students was awaiting call up orders from his Iowa National Guard unit. During our discussion of the book and their reactions to it, he volunteered that he had been taking it with him to weekend drills and that some of his buddies in the unit were reading it. They agreed that it accurately portrayed the realities of war, as they had personally experienced it.

A young woman spoke of how her father’s service in Vietnam had damaged him for life and tearfully shared how reading this book made her realize that it also had damaged our entire family. Nerves were being touched all around the room. Before the end of the hour, nearly every person in the room had spoken. It was one of those class discussions that professors dream about. One after another, young men and women testified, shared feelings, fears, anger, uncertainties--about Iraq, terrorism, war-- with each other. The atmosphere had been transformed in a way that permeated the remainder of the course.

That day convinced me that it is not enough for the Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren, with cultures of peace already deeply rooted historically and socially, to beat the drum with their own self-selected students and faculty. How to teach peace at the other 2,000 typical ’war-glorifying’ institutions? How to do it in ways that acknowledge and address dominant ideas about violence and war in American society and in the local context of our own distinctive campus cultures of war and peace?

Peace, nonviolence, and social justice perspectives cut a very low profile on our campus. Typical attitudes and ways of looking at the world and our place in it are permeated with competition, rivalry, violence, and war perspectives-- as the norm-- rather than the exception. Physical symbols of status, power, and legitimacy on our campus, along with monuments and rituals, regularly salute, even glorify, war and violence, in the name of patriotism and defending our freedoms.

Not since Vietnam days have world events so directly touched our students and charged our campus culture. This new, heightened awareness is a very powerful element in the current campus climate for teaching and learning. Most--probably all-- Central students repeatedly watched the planes slam into the Twin Towers. Surely for some this has become a defining moment in their political socialization, just as I watched Vietnam, from the comfort and safety of my parents’ living room a generation ago.

Year Three: Putting Human Faces on War and Pacifism

2005 was my third try with The U.S. in World Affairs. How much harder should I push pacifist perspectives? The world was still at least as violent as the year before, so no problem with relevance. I had students serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where else. The war in Iraq was beginning to become controversial in society and even on campus. More and more I found myself using historical analogies from Vietnam to Iraq. We would get specific about war--and about pacifism--in year three. I invited one of the authors of The Missing Peace to campus, to put a human face on pacifism. Students were spellbound; they ’heard’ in ways that simply reading the book could never have communicated. To help put a human face on war, I invited a 21-year old ex-infantryman who had served in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division. He fought, was wounded, then came home and started college, bearing a Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Expert Marksman Badge, along with a head, heart, and soul filled with six months of raw, unprocessed memories and experiences. His willingness to open up and share things buried deep within himself awakened students to the reality of war in ways that I, their teacher, never could have.

Next Time 2008: Lessons Learned

Coleman McCarthy shares the perspective of a former student who once wrote him a 13-word paper: Q. Why are we violent but not illiterate? A. Because we are taught to read.11 Most of my students consider themselves realists; nonviolence and pacifism are glorious theories. They never would accept the argument that it might work in real-world conflict situations, historically and especially, today. Yet I always find some who are willing to explore the unmapped landscape of peaceful conflict resolution and who accept the proposition that if we are going to teach the stories of peacebreakers--history’s warriors--we must balance it with stories of peacemakers.12

My daughter started high school this fall; she was a seven year-old on September 11th. Teachers are now encountering students whose ideas about and memories are no longer acutely, personally experienced but rather shaped by mass media, mainstream societal values, or family circumstances because they were too young when the planes crashed into Americans’ collective consciousness. Addressing societies emerging from violent conflict, Cole and Barsalou write: how schools navigate and promote historical narratives through history education partly determines the roles that schools play in promoting conflict or social reconstruction.13 Might this not also be the case with painful, socially divisive U.S. conflicts? How to teach about Vietnam? How will Iraq and the War on Terror appear in history texts?

How should we teach our own socially polarizing wars? Pedagogy that emphasizes and promotes students’ critical enquiry and thinking skills by exposing them to multiple historical narratives can reinforce democratic and peaceful tendencies.14 A comparative approach forces students to seriously consider the implications of how written or film-based depictions of history depend upon the viewpoints of those producing it. Some historical truths do exist, what Cole and Barsalou describe as forensic truths: who did what to whom.15 By broadening historical cases to include actual examples of successful nonviolence strategies in world affairs, by considering global conflict resolution as at least partly about devising workable solutions to violence, and by broadening notions of peace and nonviolence, away from war and military strategy, to incorporate domestic, community, social and economic violence it is possible to engage nearly all students.

This approach requires special care in designing assignments, along with a heightened sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of young people, when presented with opportunities to share what they believe with their peers. Safe classrooms based on shared acceptance of respectful dialogue and empathetic listening must be created; they do not simply exist. Role modeling is critical. Students must feel supported, even if their views are not widely shared. Given chances to tell their own family stories, the possibility of students beginning to see how they fit into the historical narratives they have been offered can be a very powerful learning exercise, enabling students to experience and compare the variegated experiences of different groups, domestic and foreign, affected by U.S. foreign policy. Everyday experiences of key historical actors may then be joined with those of citizens: soldiers, peace activists, pacifist history professors, their own teacher, and people of different generations, religious beliefs, and cultures. Why did the historical actor choose what he or she did? What would you have done in their place?16

How does one go about evaluating impact? How should I measure success? Is it really my place to be assessing students’ attitudes and beliefs? I find comfort in Jeff Gundy’s admission that Whether or not [my students] come to accept a pacifist, principled refusal of violence-- and of course many do not-- they may at least think more critically about the uses and effects of violence.17 I believe I am having some success on this score. What better outcome could a liberal arts institution hope for than graduating students willing to allow themselves to critically challenge core identities and beliefs about the world and the actions of their country within it? The large number of students who participate in service learning, travel and study abroad, suggests a need to deliberately integrate courses and experiences to better enable them to become more fully conscious of their own latent worldviews. Awareness-raising will help students to grapple more effectively with their own past, present, and future encounters with injustice and violence: education for life.

Pedagogy to support such a project should involve: 1) multiple perspectives to analyze and compare an interdisciplinary subject matter; 2) opportunities to move from passive, historical considerations to more interactive, experiential ones that aim at helping students to see beyond themselves and their own milieu, in order to better understand the wider implications of governmental foreign policy decisions and actions. Putting students into positions of decision-makers for major events leading up to war or use of military power, asking them to try to get inside of the minds of people at the time can be very useful; 3) asking what were peace advocates saying, what were their arguments for avoiding war or military conflicts? 4) paying attention to the moments of decision when national leaders resisted calls for war; 5) telling the stories of wars that did not happen.18

In 2008 The U.S. in World Affairs includes a unit on Central College’s culture of war and peace, inviting representatives of the campus Vietnam era. There will be an arts component: Mennonite Faculty Artists Picture Peace.19 Student will write and share autobiographical essays on violence and peace. I also will introduce willing active Central College combat veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq, via their blogs, and ex-vets in person, along with others who give permission for me to share their stories.

In 2006, our campus community collected money to erect a peace pole on a grassy knoll next to Geisler Library. On a blustery April afternoon, in a driving rainstorm, we stood together around the new monument freshly sunken into the ground. Under a tiny sea of shared umbrellas, students and faculty members, staff and our President, joined hands, sang peace songs, and took turns speaking thoughts about war and peace in dedication of this symbol before us. This spring I’ve been reading the blog of A Sad Paratrooper from Afghanistan. He took my class in 2004. The campus culture of war and peace is changing, even as we become more aware of it.