Challenging the dominance of violence and war in the narratives of cultures, countries, and peoples. Changing the lens through which we look at major historical shifts, construct heroes, and develop cultural norms.
The key questions for this pillars are:
- How are we challenging the dominance of violence and war in the narratives of countries, cultures, and peoples?
- How are we celebrating the achievements of peace and nonviolence?
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 takes 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.”
There are two responses to this observation. The first is the recognition that history books have traditionally been bookmarked with violent conflict, while most of life is spent resolving conflict, living in peace, and trying to limit the amount of violence that we commit against one another. The second is that its not just enough to critique an overemphasis on violence and war, we must also celebrate the cultural norms, skills, and events from history that can teach us how to become more peaceful and resolve conflict more effectively and nonviolently.
The video below is a local news story that highlights Elaine Mica Perez, a high school teacher at the Henry Ford Academy in San Antonio, Texas who integrates peace and social justice issues and history into her Spanish class.
The Zinn Education Project “promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country. The website offers more than 100 free, downloadable lessons and articles organized by theme, time period, and reading level. The Zinn Education Project is coordinated by two non-profit organizations, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.”
Reflection Question: What peace or nonviolent leaders or movements were highlighted in your history classes growing up? How did the attention given to those leaders and movements compare to struggles and leaders that relied on or perpetrated acts of violence and war.
- Ackerman, Peter and DuVall, Jack. A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict.
- Boulding, Elise. Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States of America.
- Peace Jam
- International Center on Nonviolent Conflict
- Waging Nonviolence
One of my favorite high school projects was researching Cesar Chavez and presenting on his grape boycotts in my Spanish class. Unfortunately this was the project for the “smart” group since the book was longer and more difficult than other projects (I can’t recall the others but this was the only activism related project). Sometimes I feel like I had a unique experience that the rest of my class didn’t get to experience.
During middle and high school the only people that I vividly remember learning about were those in the civil rights movement–Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and freedom riders who traveled south on buses from all over the country to protest what was going on. Though my HS U.S. history teacher used A People’s History of the U.S. for several components of the curriculum, we still learned about history through the “riverbank/blood” method for the most part. This is sad to me, and extremely hard to believe that we didn’t learn more about peaceful people in history. How are our teachers not more attuned to this?
The Civil Rights movement is the only story or history lesson that was highlighted in my education as a nonviolent movement. It was not until college did I learn about various movements. This is incredibly problematic to me and begs the question of how can we implement peace and social justice classes into our mainstream education. The positive impact of focusing on these leaders can reconstruct our notion of what “revolution” means and what effective advocacy is. In this manner, we these struggles can be shown as a way in which to build community, rather than break community to build another one
I actually don’t recall learning about peaceful leaders in history classes. I’m sure I did but they don’t stand out to me. The wars always stand out the most, I think. I also have an interest in 20th century military history so that might be why I was more focused on it. One project we did when I was in 8th grade was “day of the dead” where we had to study a person from history and then be them all day. We had to dress up and talk like them and act out their life. I chose Mozart who was a peaceful guy, but there were no restrictions on who you could choose and people definitely chose some violent people. Someone even chose Hitler. It’s kind of sad now that I look back on it. Most of the things I have learned about peaceful movements have come from documentaries or talking with friends in college.
I remember watching the movie Gandhi in 6th grade. While this is an extremely long film and just showing the film was probably not the best way to teach about Gandhi and conflict resolution, there are many scenes that still stick with me because at that point in my life, I had never really studied anyone who made a difference without violence. I can remember the dates of many wars and the names of many brutal dictators, but those are often simply listed as facts in a history book. Studying Gandhi was definitely a more thought provoking look at history.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is a large part of my academic and professional development over the past 6 years or so. As a high school history teacher who eschews textbooks, I understand many of the issues with history textbooks, particularly in the state of Texas as highlighted in the video.
In my own education, I feel violent altercations were not as prevalent as people generalize. What I have always found intriguing – and see as essential in my own education – was the use of non-violence in the face of violence – or, the utility of nonviolent direct action.
When reading the quote from Will Durant, my thoughts turned to my middle school social studies classes where we focused on culture and the built environment – then to graduate school where my studies focused on the Pray-Ins of Ed King and the political actions of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Certainly wars and violence were present and often unavoidable for a history class, but my experience was that these were balanced with discussions of how cultures shaped and were shaped by conflict.
I will save many further comments for our class discussion – especially when we get to this particular point in our course of study – but I can definitely see a major shift over the past decade in both how history and the social sciences are taught and how this mirrors the research of professional historians.
The memories I have of my history classes fit into the flowing river/riverbank analogy; “history” was presented as a fast-paced series of events, usually centered on men, while everything else was framed in a very anti-historical manner. For instance, when female nurses were allowed to work on the battlefield, there would be a highlighted sidebar helpfully explaining that not only are women nurses now, they’re even doctors! More so than the exclusion of nonviolent leaders and movements, I noticed the absence of a female perspective and women’s movements.
Beth Jimerson. I as well remember most concentrating on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr in school as positive promoters of peace. However, having recently watched the movie Gandhi (finally…) I realized that I only remembered a very small piece of that history and had not fully understood the extent that his ‘protests’ impacted his country and the world. Martin Luther King Jr. is someone who is very important to me on a personal level as my grandfather worked with him as a civil rights leader in the south, so I remember more about him by making a personal connection. As far as leaders who promoted the opposite, Hitler definitely stands out. I think that there was a big focus on him as that was such a huge focus in history classes, and it’s something that easily stands out because of the many books written for young adults highlighting that time period that are easy to empathize with.
The main nonviolent leader highlighted in my history classes was Martin Luther King Jr. While learning about the Civil Rights Movement, we would discuss how the nonviolent resistance technique used by MLK Jr. was different than the techniques employed by most leaders throughout history. Class content usually included a discussion about forms of nonviolent movements like boycotts and sit-ins in an effort to prove that “violence is not the answer.” Much more of the curriculum was devoted to leaders who perpetrated acts of violence and war. Class content about these leaders usually included a discussion about how the person came to power and what characteristics made them a good/bad leader.
Daniel Knoll: The two peaceful leaders I remember learning about are Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Each human rights advocate was given their due, especially MLK around the holiday. But these peaceful leaders never got the same attention as the conquerors throughout history. The way I was taught history was in periods depending on who was in charge, with the delineation between periods being various battles. Mongols to Muslims to Crusaders to Colonialism, each with there own share of dates to memorize and social/political/scientific contributions. These powerful, violent leaders were the dominant lens with which to view history. Peaceful leaders were the exception, briefly talked about if at all.
I’m having a tough time coming up with anything that really sticks out in my mind. History was always the subject that I was least interested in and I avoided taking more than I absolutely had to. I don’t remember any specific peaceful movements or leaders being covered to the degree that it is resonating with me now.
I was not a good History student, it did not feel relevant or interesting to me. I can barely recall a class that did not focus on events in history that pivoted on war, dictators, demagogues, and revolutions. In college, I avoided History classes all together. However, I did take an African American lit class in undergrad wherein I had to read several slave narratives. The ones that fascinated me the most were those written by women. Perhaps because they weren’t focused on violent uprisings against the masters, but rather on escape, education and caring for others in peril. I remember feeling conflicted when I read Nat Turner’s work. I knew I was meant to side with him as someone who was fighting back against an atrocity, but I could not find space to justify his violence in my 20 year old mind.
Growing up in Montana, many of your lessons focused on state history. We learned about Manifest Destiny and the conflict with various Native American nations. We learned of very few peace leaders, but learned extensively of perpetrators of violence, like Custer. In high school I learned about the Civil Rights movement and about women’s suffrage leaders. However, I think that the majority of lessons focused on historical perpetrators of violence and conflict, or on force/violence as a method of achieving peace in instances like World War II.