Introduction and Context
In his 1963 commencement address at American University, President John F. Kennedy delivered the famous line: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.” During a time of great uncertainty and fear, the United States and the Soviet Union toed the line of all-out nuclear war. It took the vision, courage, and ideals of Kennedy to actively chart a different path for American foreign policy and international relations, one that was founded in concepts of world peace. The Cold War may be over, but America and the world still face challenges and conflicts that push countries, communities, and people to violence. Kennedy ended his speech with the closing words: “This generation of Americans has already had enough – more than enough – of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before the task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on – not toward a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”
Much has changed since 1963 yet much has remained the same. The Soviet Union has since dissolved, yet the challenges and hopes posed by Kennedy remain ever present. An increasingly interdependent world, where the lives of individuals in one country impact that lives of individuals in another country, requires a new way of understanding history, the societies in which one lives and the responsibilities and opportunities one has in preserving human rights, peace and security. Whether the impacts are environmental, economic, religious, or cultural, young people deserve and require an education that prepares them to not only grasp the rich diversity of the planet they inhabit but to also develop skills that will allow them and others across the world to deliver the promises of world peace for which so many of us strive.
Statement of Problem
Despite America’s spoken support and respect for peace and non-violence, does American education adequately prepare young people to be advocates for peace and non-violence? Despite America’s overwhelming reliance on other countries and cultures to sustain our way of life, does American education adequately expose young people to the ways in which their lives and decisions impact that the lives of others across the globe? And despite America’s respect for diversity and tolerance, does American education value all cultures as worthy of study? For me the answer to all these questions is unfortunately, no. So, how can high school students in America develop the knowledge base and skill set to heed the call of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech at American University – where world peace is not an unattainable dream, but rather, “…the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenges of each new generation. For peace is a process – a way of solving problems.” (Kennedy, 1963).
Looking specifically at education in the United States, one can see how history is taught as a story defined by conflicts and heroes that are usually associated with some type of military conquest or outright oppression. In her book, Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History, Elise Boulding writes, “History is generally thought of as the story of the rise and fall of empires, a chronicle of reigns, wars, battles, and military and political revolutions; in short, the history of power—who tames whom, who controls whom.” (Boulding, 13). If one were to open up the most popular history text books in American schools he or she would see that almost every chapter is based on the chronology of wars and conflicts, emphasizing violent approaches to conflict and denying almost all peaceful resolutions to world issues. Historian Will Durant writes, “History books describe the history of the world as a river red with blood. Running fast, it is filled with the men and events that cause bloodshed; kings and princes, diplomats and politicians. They cause revolutions and wars, violations of territory and rights. But the real history of the world take place on the riverbanks where ordinary people dwell. They are loving one another, bearing children, and providing homes, all the while trying to remain untouched by the swiftly flowing river.” Global peace education shifts the lens through which young people understand the world around them and hence project their futures and develop their relationships.
For the vast majority of Americans, high school is the highest level of education they will receive. High school therefore becomes the basis upon which most individuals gain access to certain opportunities. Is peace-building then a real or a bare opportunity for most Americans?
First, are students even aware of this field of study? I never studied peace in a formal academic setting until my third year in college. Most high schools simply leave out the study of peace, whether it is the study of peace movements in a history class or the practice of conflict resolution skills in a social studies class. Without an introduction to these concepts and practices, students will not see the windows that exist in the field of peace-building.
Second, are students aware of the opportunities in peace building? Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana founded America’s first peace education program in 1948. Interest in the field has grown—especially since the attacks on September 11th, 2001—and there are currently around 250 active peace studies programs in American colleges (Beggs). Beyond college level study though, are students aware of institutions, jobs, and professions that seek individuals with the educational background in peace building and conflict resolution? In many ways, the same challenges faced in high school are present on college campuses as well.
Third, are students able to access these opportunities? Since less than twenty percent of Americans go to a college or university, the growing popularity of peace studies programs on college campuses does not reach the vast majority of Americans who do not attend a college or university (Census.gov). This is yet another reason why high schools need to play a bigger role in exposing people to a global peace studies curriculum because it is an education that everyone needs in today’s world.