On campus, turning young minds toward peace

Since 9 / 11, colleges have seen interest in peace studies surge

Ethics & Values

May 16, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

At Goucher College, no single path leads to peace.

In Jennifer Bess' class, Being Human, students examine the idea of purposefulness. In Beyond Words, a course designed by Nitzan Gordon, students dance, hug and speak of their interior lives. In lawyer Seble Dawit's international human rights seminar, students examine pivotal court cases.

"You look at [peace] academically, theoretically, internationally, and on the practical side, when you work in an after-school program," says junior Lindsay Johnson, 21, who is pursuing an interdisciplinary major in peace studies, education and theater. "It's been so fascinating. Each lens I look through, I learn something new."

At a time of war and terrorism, the growth of Goucher's peace studies program -- from a single offering 14 years ago to 18 courses today -- reflects the burgeoning conviction among students and scholars that peace studies have a place on the nation's college campuses alongside other, more traditional fields of inquiry.

"Since 9 / 11, there's been an unprecedented interest in peace and justice issues, and students in unprecedented numbers have flocked into classes," says Simona Sharoni, director of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, based at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

In the United States alone, more than 70 undergraduate departments offer degrees in peace studies. Some 90 schools have master's programs and 30 offer Ph.D.s in the field. All told, there are more than 300 programs of peace study in the United States, at institutions ranging from Indiana's tiny Earlham College to its huge cross-state neighbor, University of Notre Dame.

And yet, even as they expand, peace studies programs confront what Dawit, director of Goucher's program, calls a "credibility lag." Many people don't know what the field is, or question its academic legitimacy. While certain peace studies programs are generously endowed, others can be easily overlooked by funding sources and are susceptible to budget cuts.

Part of the problem is that a definition of peace studies is a work in progress.

"There's no consensus on what peace studies is," says Nancy Hanawi, a conflict resolution specialist at the University of California at Berkeley and co-chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. The field has experienced "major development in the past five to 10 years in terms of conception, theory and practice, but ... if you look in six different places, you will find rather different things."

The challenge for programs like these, says Matthew Hartley, an assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, "is the fact that they're interdisciplinary and don't have a disciplinary home." Because such programs lack a "basis of power" within the university, he says, they are often the places that get hit first during budget cuts.

For the field of peace studies to take root in larger research universities, it "will have to ultimately legitimize itself through advancing our knowledge about how the world works," Hartley says. Other fields once considered faddish, such as women's studies, have worked their way into the academic mainstream, he says.

Violence as a tool

The first peace studies program was established in 1948 at Manchester College, an Indiana school affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, a pacifist denomination. After the Vietnam War, the field grew steadily.

At Goucher, the peace studies program began in 1990 with a nonviolence course taught by its first director, philosophy professor Joe Morton. From there, the program grew somewhat haphazardly with courses taught by scholars drawn to the subject from different departments.

In their idiosyncratic way, those in the peace studies field "have gradually built up its credentials through courses, peace journals and conferences," says Morton, who retired in 2000, but continues to teach a popular course on Native Americans.

Whether based on spiritual tenets, such as the peace studies program at Earlham, a Quaker college, or on secular scholarship at a small liberal arts school such as Goucher, peace studies offer different ways to examine conflict, Dawit says.

"Conflict is not the problem," says the human rights lawyer, whom Goucher hired three years ago to create a major in the field. "The problem is continuing human reliance on incredible and often catastrophic violence as a means of resolving conflict."

Strategies for resolving conflict apply equally to both war-torn countries and neighborhoods ravaged by the drug trade, says Dawit, 40, a woman with a precise manner of speech and a radiant smile. She refers to a course in which Goucher students work with Baltimore City children to learn conflict-resolution strategies.

"Our lab is the community. Whether it's Kuala Lumpur or Baltimore, the basic challenges of living a human and connected life are the same."

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