Meet Colman McCarthy

Colman McCarthy is an American journalist, teacher, lecturer, pacifist, an anarchist and long-time peace activist. He has been teaching courses on nonviolence and the literature of peace since 1982. He has taught at Georgetown University Law Center, American University, the University of Maryland, the Washington Center for Internships, Wilson High School, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and School Without Walls. In 25 years, he has had more than 7,000 students in his classes. He founded the Center for Teaching Peace, a nonprofit that helps schools begin or expand academic programs in Peace Studies.

Colman wrote columns for The Washington Post from 1969 to 1997. His topics ranged from politics, religion, health, and sports to education, poverty, and peacemaking. He has written for The New Yorker, The Nation, The Progressive, and Atlantic Monthly.  He has written bi-weekly columns for The National Catholic Reporter since 1997. Smithsonian Magazine has said that he is “a man of profound spiritual awareness” (Middlebury.edu)

Read chapter 1 of his book, All of One Peace. In it McCarthy shares a number of the articles, op-eds, and essays he has written over the years about his personal experience teaching and developing courses on nonviolence and peace education.

“Aside from the happiness of the loving companionship of my wife and our three sons, my next constant source of personal joy have been the students who have taken my courses on nonviolence. These five pieces are about some of them, and about the courses. I have been amazed – stunned, really – at the eagerness with which my students have opened their minds and hearts to the study of nonviolence (McCarthy, 3).”

Reflection Question: What are some of the challenges, if any, you have faced or may face when attempting to incorporate the study and practice of nonviolence into your teaching and educational contexts? What can Coleman’s experience teach you, if anything, about overcoming these challenges?

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18 thoughts on “2.5

  1. Some of the challenges that I face when attempting to incorporate the study and practice of non-violence is the combative attitude of parents who teach their children if someone say something to upset you or even hit you, you have the right to defend yourself even to the point of fighting. This always makes the resolution process of simple conflict more difficult and in some instances it may escalate to a level where I have to get administative support. Even though as educators we encourage peaceful resolutions to situations in the classroom, these methods are contradicted by the standards that parents instlill in their children.

    Mr. McCarthy must be commended for his work on nonviolence and for incorporating this in schools. We need this to be a national course, so that people on a whole will appreciate a more peaceful society. I will have to incorporatie more of the principles of “peace runners” like Ghandi, King, Adams and others in my classroom. Coleman’s experience teaches me that even though my students may be skeptical about the message that I desire to share with them, I need to embrace their skeptism and work with them to unravel the mystery because this will allow them to formulate their own ideas and concepts about the nonviolence methods in teh long run.

  2. As the school’s librarian, my practice is largely guided by the curriculum of the various core subjects with the social studies department fueling the greatest use of our media center. That said, one of my greatest challenges is to try and get students who largely come to study and write research papers on aspects of the various wars (as this is how the curriculum is organized) to look at those periods from a nonviolence perspective. First and foremost, these high school students want “quick” study and to adapt ready materials to feed their papers. Most come with simple thesis statements dealing with the “mechanics” of a war – weapons, leaders, progression of battles, etc. When I make recommendations to narrow, expand or change their research to incorporate some nonviolent thought or aspect of peace studies, more often than not, my ideas are dismissed with a quick, ”No, Ms G., it’s fine. My teacher already approved this.”
    I agree with Colman McCarthy when he wrote, ”Criticizing the way of violence is hollow unless we can offer alternatives.” I like his approach of inviting activists and theorists in to speak with classes. (This is actually something we started this past school year with a visit from a former SNCC member and the sharing of antiwar songs from the Vietnam war era.) I, also, think this practice of inviting guest speakers would enrich our teacher collaborative sessions and professional developments. (Hmmm… chat and chews with peace educators and activists. Any ideas for possible guests?).

  3. I cannot directly state that I’ve had classroom experience in attempting to incorporate non-violence, but I can say that I’ve attempted to implement it in my job and during debate rounds. The challenges I’ve faced or centered on “this isn’t realistic” and this is being “overly sensitive.” With each of these critiques I have attempted to breakdown the facilitated structure of violence. Am I competent or clear in explaining this? I’m not sure, but I still force those questions and challenge the common perception. In a similar manner, Coleman has utilized challenging and questioning to drive students to think outside of what they have been taught and has been persistent in loving and promoting peace education. As a former student in his classroom and a person who has taught in his classrooms I can say that I’ve have my mindset dramatically altered and challenged in his classrooms and I think that persistence is what has made all of the difference.

  4. I feel like the biggest challenge will be finding curriculum which satisfy both an education in nonviolence as well as teaching filmmaking and natural history. Luckily environmental stewardship is an important part of peace studies so that will make it easier to incorporate those topics. However, I think it will be especially challenging to include conflict resolution techniques into my classes (except on a case by case basis). Having not had the experience of teaching much or incorporating peace education into my classes, I’m finding it really hard to answer this question.

  5. Daniel Knoll – When reading McCarthy’s piece titled “Why Must We Teach Peace?” he hits on one of the biggest roadblocks to peace education that exists in our schools today. McCarthy discusses how our curriculum’s are built around instances of violence within history. We study the Napoleons and George Washingtons and discuss battle. In the last set of modules you asked us to name an instance when we were taught about an individual who focused on peace to accomplish something in history, and many of us struggled to name someone. We aren’t taught peace history because war history is so engrained into our society. War sells. There is a huge economic market behind the “war machine” and there simply aren’t the resources needed for peace education to properly compete. The next struggle is how to shift peoples thinking even when these types of courses do exist. Peace education demands that teachers and students alter the basis of the way they learn, and that isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

  6. I think one of the biggest problems that needs to be addressed in classrooms—and other venues—is not just non-direct violence, but rather the notion of non-violence which includes structural violence. I agree with Coleman that it is important to address violence and peace on the national and international level. I also agree that peace education is an important means to attempt to accomplish this goal. However, I think that true peace education and true non-violence must include ways of acknowledging and addressing structural violence. This is incredibly difficult because education systems are often inherently part of pervasively violent systems. More education of teachers and administrators would be a great place to start. Then it would be necessary to develop some education models to support, inform, and solicit information and assistance from students.

    • Hi Kelly. I think your comments on the need to address structural violence connect well with Eisler’s work with partnership vs domination models of education. We must pay close attention the structures we establish in our classrooms as a start to combating structural violence at a larger scale. I think this also ties in with Harris and Adam’s appreciation for him looking at peace education having a long-term vision while focusing on short-term goals.

  7. One of the difficulties faced by teaching peace is that the classroom is the only environment our students face over which we have control. There are so many outside forces such as family, friends, media and even other classrooms that exemplify and even promote violence. Unfortunately we cannot control what happens outside of our classrooms, and students may only be inside of the peaceful environment that we create for a few hours a week. I think that peace education is important for an entire school to adopt in order for it to be more effective. I also think that it is especially important in certain areas and regions that are faced with more violence than others. Many students in inner-city environments see violence as a means of survival. Where I taught years ago in PG county MD, half of my middle school students were already in gangs and had parents that were either killed in violence or in jail for perpetuating it. These environments create children who are particularly resistant towards the idea that ‘peace’ or pacifism will accomplish anything. Teaching about non-violence and non-violent leaders is a great way to start teaching peace. All students have some connection to Martin Luther King Jr or Ghandi, and should be introduced to other leaders of non-violence to understand the power that non-violence can bring. I also really like the idea of having students volunteer and feel good about helping and giving back to the community.

  8. Richard Cambridge: The more I read of Chapter 1, and the more I thought of challenges (and opportunities), I confess that my focus moved from classrooms in the United States to classrooms in other parts of the world, notably countries which are either going into conflict, in conflict, or just emerging from conflict. In these countries, the idea of peace and the challenges to peace education must be daunting.

    I liked the idea of Coleman about an Assistant Secretary for Peace Education and the existence of peace illiteracy. The link for me is that just a few years ago, the World Bank issued its World Development Report (WDR) on Conflict and Development. This was a systematic attempt to orient the development debate to categorizing countries by the level of conflict they have experienced over some period of time, and to make the case for increased and speedy development assistance for these countries. While the World Bank provides financing for all forms of education in all parts of the world, this WDR did not explicitly address peace education. More recently, the World Bank opened a Center on Conflict and Development in Nairobi. The staffing of this institution does not include “an Assistant Secretary for Peace Education”. The opportunity to directly fund programs to overcome peace illiteracy is missed.

  9. I’m struck by the challenge posed by the need to incorporate strategies of peace education into existing curricula. I disagree with McCarthy and think that diversifying instruction of nonviolence is more useful than the unification of nonviolent studies, at least when teaching younger students. I think that by separating “peace” out as a subject just like math or science, students are implicitly given the option of choosing not to “like” it, just as very young kids will already state matter-of-fact that they “don’t like science.” Maybe this course and further reading will change my mind about this, but I view peace education as most successful and promising when it permeates every other act of learning. Nonviolence must be the common thread that ties together all the other aspects of education, which actually aren’t “other” at all but part of the larger initiative to offer – and insist upon – an alternative to violence.

    Coleman’s experiences were interesting to learn about. I especially appreciated his belief that college students are not “mere careerists.” Thanks! I also am always struck by the power that imagery can unexpectedly have. I like the line that urges us to “get the bombs out of our hearts.”

  10. The challenges that I face are very similar to Sarah’s: my students believe in and often accept that violence is the solution to whatever conflict they are currently facing. Many students get this information from multiple sources: their friends, the media, and their family. Very often, when I’m having a conversation with a student who has been in a physical altercation, the first item we discuss is that “it’s okay because he hit me first” or “my mom said to hit someone if she hits me”. As their teacher, and someone who has known them for five minutes compared to their parents, this can prove to be an extremely difficult, if not seemingly impossible, mentality to change. Challenging “mom’s advice” can be a fruitless effort.

    Coleman spoke about bringing “a face” to the consequences of violence; those students who opted or favored violent solutions to problems should be asked to justify that to those at the receiving end of violent, and possibly deadly, situations. I feel as though so many times my students have really impersonalized violent behavior. They often don’t connect the act of fighting with the other person who was involved in the fight. Often times, the students are back on better terms within 30 minutes of the fight and it makes one wonder why it had to happen in the first place. Often students sing or rap violent or completely inappropriate lyrics, draw violent pictures, or threaten others without a real connection to the actual impact those types of events or behaviors have on others. Perhaps by processing through that with students, they would be more able to see the benefit or at least rationale of a nonviolent solution to a conflict.

  11. Annsleigh Carter: When I envision myself teaching high school, I often picture myself in my own high school, teaching to my classmates. It’s very hard to imagine teaching some of my former classmates about nonviolence, as many of them were advocates of the second amendment and of war in general. I went to high school with many military families who had grown up thinking that war was honorable and good for the economy. To give them an anti-war lecture would have been insulting and fruitless. I like McCarthy’s idea of shifting the focus of education from the study of violence to the study of nonviolence. If my classmates and I had learned more about about peacemakers than war heroes, we might have different perspectives on the potential for nonviolent activism.

  12. When I first saw this course on the registration site, I was intrigued – ’peace pedagogy’ I thought..What does that even mean? What will we learn? Can anything on this topic be accomplished in just one semester? I guess you can put me in the group with the skeptics – and this is the challenge I fear as an educator – being put in front of a class full of skeptics, who, like me, saw peace as a lofty idea, something vast and unattainable, and too immense to wrap my brain around. But after reading McCarthy’s chapter, I was inspired by the idea that it is not my job as an educator to teach peace per se, but to “help students develop a philosophy of force.” This phrase helped me to breakdown the notion of peace education into a manageable task. I also was reassured by the student’s course reflection who wrote, “It’s taken me a while to realize your approach has been to avoid giving us the answers…Instead you encourage us to read to find our own answers.” I feel more confident now knowing that my job as a peace educator isn’t to have the all answers, but to provide students the resources and the support to find their own answers, and decide upon their own philosophy of force. By giving them the autonomy of deciding for themselves, they are instilled with an ownership of their education, and vision that is their own – not one handed to them by their teacher.

  13. Incorporating the study of peace and practice of nonviolence into my teaching has already begun. McCarthy repeatedly mentions Jeanette Rankin, and I can assure you students in my United States History courses over the past five years have been more familiar with her than with most presidents. When he juxtaposes teaching the Bataan Death March with Gandhi’s Salt March, I can remember my students being enthralled by the story of Gandhi throughout last year. (They did not study the Bataan Death March.)

    So much of what McCarthy is advocating – reclaiming or at least complicating history – is what I aim to accomplish when designing curriculum. The biggest struggle is engaging students. It seems they are most interested in nonviolence when it is met with violence. I use countless pictures from the civil rights movement to show what great strength nonviolent direct action looks like. It is for my own interests that I teach Ed King, John Lewis, and many of the more common leaders at the expense of some of the “big names” of history. Students understand what these people were fighting for when they see the blood shed in protest.

    What is more difficult is engaging students in issues of pacifism and non-violence when there is no blood, but a very hungry Gandhi, or a protest in Congress. These issues are not as exciting to them as Bull Connor.

    What I have taken away from McCarthy’s reading is that there is an audience for peace education. Students are willing to ask questions of themselves, each other, and society. I love the Gandhi quote towards the end – “Nonviolence is the finest quality of the soul, but it is developed by practice. Almost anything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it.” That’s the voice an educator needs to hear almost daily.

  14. My challenge is that my students believe in violence as a solution and I do not. I also do not understand what it is to develop this point of view because for them, it’s an issue of survival, dentity, and a habit of mind. This is all completely other to me. I often feel like I don’t have the authority (figuratively speaking) to tell them they are wrong to fight. I do, of course. But it feels like bumper sticker platitudes, not any kind of real solution or alternative. My challenge is that I don’t get it and I want to, but where do I learn?

    What I appreciated about Coleman’s writing was that he acknowledged that this resistance to peaceful living crosses cultural and socio-economic lines. Bethesda Chevy-Chase High School? Georgetown? American Graduate students? These are a different group of people equally dubious about embracing peace as the answer. It’s not a singular issue in the roughest pockets, it’s an issue that infects culture in the broader sense: history – how people relate to one another – and perhaps even human nature untamed and untethered. Coleman’s vast experiences as an educator reminded me to keep working at it. Furthermore, I was reminded that literature has power: what is the message of this text I have put in front of you? how can you relate to this message and take it back to your world?

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