At the forefront for peace

Conference: The Goucher College faculty will oversee "Peace and the Internet," the latest offering from the school's growing program in peace studies.

March 02, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

It comes as no surprise that the acting director of the Peace Studies program at Goucher College is a soft-spoken man. Nor is it a shock to discover that Robin Crews was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, or that he admires Gandhi.

These facts all play to the stereotypes of peace activism, which Crews sums up as images of "protests and hippies and love beads and peace symbols."

Luddite -- one who resists technology -- can be part of that implicit stereotype, too. And that's where Crews begins to confound expectations.

During the early 1990s, before the Internet and e-mail were part of daily life, Crews was online, developing what has become one of the largest mailing lists for those interested in peace issues. He was quick to embrace the new technology as another possible agent for social change, or at least social awareness.

Today, Crews and several other Goucher faculty members will oversee the college's first conference about "Peace and the Internet," the latest offering from the school's small but growing program in peace studies. The conference -- "intended to be this little local thing," says college librarian Nancy Magnuson, who is on the planning committee -- has surprised its organizers by drawing participants, on-site and online, from all over the world: Burundi, Bolivia, Ghana, Nigeria, Russia, Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom.

The conference represents the serendipitous union between Crews, a significant figure in the field of peace studies, and Goucher, whose program is barely a decade old. Although the conference was conceived before Crews joined the Goucher staff in the fall, it plays to his strengths, say those who know him well.

"Robin's real genius has been for using this [technology]," said Tony Bing, a professor at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., who succeeded Crews as the executive director of the Peace Studies Association, a national organization for peace studies programs. "He's very much a pioneer."

"Robin is very good at this, and at the forefront of these issues," said Joseph Morton, a Goucher philosophy professor who started the college's peace studies program in 1990. "I'm one of the backward people. If I had my choice, I'd be a Plains Indian in the 18th century ... but I know these issues are important and we need to look at them."

The two-day conference, which is limited to 75 on-site attendees, begins today. Topics include using the Internet as a teaching tool for peace studies and examining how the Internet is used by hate groups.

"The conference is about the impact and use of information and technology," said Crews, 51. "To what extent is the Internet allowing hate groups to spread `virtual' violence? Are we learning how to be more or less civil?"

To understand why a peace studies program is tackling the Internet, it helps to know something about the movement. Although often identified with the anti-war protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first on-campus peace studies program began in 1948 at Manchester College in Indiana. Today, more than 200 such collegiate programs are offered in the United States.

Crews, who has degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Colorado, Boulder, was the first executive director of the Peace Studies Association and spent much of his spare time developing Internet resources for the peace movement.

Crews and his wife, Florence Martin, a Goucher literature professor, had a commuter marriage for several years while he taught at Colorado. In the late 1990s, they spent a year in England as part of Goucher's study-abroad program. The college then asked Crews to become the acting director of the peace studies program.

At Goucher, peace studies is a minor, although the college is considering creating a major. Fifteen students have completed the requirements for the minor, and many more have sampled the 10 courses offered.

A man who chooses his words carefully, Crews remains dedicated to the principles that drew him to the peace movement while he was an undergraduate at Berkeley.

"I grew up with parents and adult role models who inspired me," he said, when asked how his interest in peace began. His father, a physicist and college instructor, had been a B-17 pilot who flew missions over Germany during World War II. "I thought my father was supportive of me not in spite of what he had done but, perhaps, because of it."

Crews said the most damaging misconception about peace studies might be the belief that peace is merely the absence of war. But peace studies programs also are interested in justice and conflict resolution. "If you look at the histories of humankind, there is an extraordinary fascination with war. ... We've really only been studying the shadows of peace."

He knows that the field he has dedicated his professional life to is often mocked. England's Guardian newspaper once described it as a degree guaranteed to leave one unemployed (although Morton says that peace studies graduates do well, whether in finding jobs or spots in advanced degree programs). And the joke about the beauty pageant contestant who wants to achieve world peace cuts both ways, mocking not only the woman, but also the goal.

"Peace is too big to imagine what it is, so we pretend it's trite," Crews said. "We have a long, long ways to go precisely because of that attitude. We have completely unrealistic and unfair connotations of what peace means. We romanticize peace."

He said he accepts that the changes he wants for the world won't be achieved in his lifetime. It would be arrogant to think otherwise, he said, adding, "But, on the other hand, it gives you a reason to get up in the morning."

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