Teaching Nonviolence

by Helen Fox

Teaching Peace illustration courtesy johnworldpeace.com

Abstract: In-depth interviews with undergraduates at a high-ranking, politically liberal U.S. university suggest that young adults who are most likely to occupy future positions of influence are skeptical of the idea that a world without war is possible. Despite their aversion to war in general and the Iraq War (also called The Second Gulf War: 2003-2011) in particular, these students nearly always said they believe that war is an integral part of human nature and that peaceful international relations will always be subverted by individuals and/or groups that insist on taking advantage of others. When students defended the need for war, they did not cite international terrorism or self defense as just causes, but rather the responsibility to protect defenseless others such as villagers in Darfur or Jews in Hitler’s Germany. However, students knew little about the prevalence and efficacy of nonviolent movements or the range of diplomatic and political tactics that have been employed to deter violence. The author shares the content and methods of her seminar on nonviolence, and concludes that more courses in secondary schools and universities need to fill the gaps in students’ knowledge by teaching historical, social, political, and psychological information about both war and peaceful solutions to conflict.

I am a pacifist. My pacifism is rooted in my Quaker faith. In a letter to King Charles the Second in 1661, Quakers declared, “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons for any end or under any pretense whatsoever. This is our testimony to the whole world.”

It’s true that not all Quakers are pacifists. Many fought in World War II, after becoming convinced that this was a good war, necessary to preserve peace and freedom, and to free others from oppression. But many other Quakers have been conscientious objectors, opposed to all war as a matter of principle. I joined their ranks after the New York World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001.

This is how I came to that realization in my life. On September 10 I had just returned from Cambodia where I had talked to survivors of the Khmer Rouge, who, in the mid-1970’s, had sent most of the population into slave labor in the countryside, declared money invalid, blew up the central bank, burned books, executed the intelligentsia, and turned the local high school into a torture chamber where they starved, mutilated, and executed seventeen thousand of their own people including many young children. Who were these monsters that inflicted such suffering? They were not an external enemy, nor were they a particular ethnic or religious group. They were Cambodians who had turned against their neighbors, their teachers, their colleagues, even their own families in their zeal to create a new society. This is what still haunts Cambodians today, that they did all this to themselves, that they became so brutalized by an idea and committed such atrocities out of fear, or revenge, or cold-blooded self righteousness. Looking around as I walked through the streets of Phnom Penh and the villages and towns I visited, I realized that many of the people I saw had been young adults during those terrible years, and had either been very, very lucky, or had participated in some way in that system.

But strangely enough, I did not see a nation of people degraded by evil. In fact, I found Cambodians to be some of the most gentle, hospitable, and delightfully sunny people I have ever met.  As a nation of Buddhists, they are taught to revere all forms of life and deplore inflicting pain on others. To get angry in public – over a cab fare or some other petty complaint – is considered childish and embarrassing. Even raising one’s voice is culturally inappropriate. This is not something that arose recently, after the experience of such opposite sentiments. These values have been present throughout the country’s history.

As I reflected on my Cambodian trip in the light of the newly declared “War on Terror,” other examples of the mutability of good and evil came to mind. The Japanese, so incorrigible as to merit a nuclear holocaust at the end of World War II, are now our trading partners and esteemed colleagues. Vietnam, once a rogue state whose people could be maimed, burned, and genetically deformed with impunity, is now a traveler’s destination of choice. (“Beautiful!” say the American tourists. “Especially the North. And the people are so hospitable. You must go.”)

Surely it’s illogical to say, as my government does, and as all governments do when they want to prepare the people to commit unspeakable crimes of violence, that there are the bad people and the good people, the immoral countries and the responsible countries, and that if we annihilate or violently reform the “bad guys”, we – the good and responsible people – will be safe, and evil will be defeated forever, or at least kept under control.

Shortly after September 11, when the United States decided to protect itself from terrorism by attacking two defenseless countries, one, desperately poor, the other trying valiantly to maintain itself under United Nations sanctions, I made several personal decisions, just to remain sane. One was to start speaking openly about pacifism. The other was to develop a new undergraduate seminar at the University of Michigan called Nonviolence in Action, that would get students thinking about more reasonable ways to solve problems between people and nations.

After teaching that course for several years I began a research study that would help me envision how to reach a wider audience of students, and what that audience might need to know. I also wanted to understand more clearly what students at a high-ranking, politically liberal university think about the current war in Iraq, what they think of war in general, and how they view the possibility of a nonviolent future. For this project I employed three undergraduate research assistants to help draft a questionnaire and conduct many of the tape-recorded interviews, as my experience told me that students would be more voluble and honest talking with their peers than with a faculty member. The interviewers found volunteers for the study through their personal networks of acquaintances and classmates, and I asked students in my nonviolence seminar to interview themselves and their friends. Our final sample contained an approximate balance of males and females, students of color and white students, and students pursuing a variety of academic majors.

My research assistants suggested, rightly, that a student interview about the heavy topics of war and peace should begin with the personal, so each section started with such questions as how respondents were affected by the events of 9/11, their feelings about the Iraq war, the images that came to mind when they thought about the current war and war in general, whether they had ever been approached by a military recruiter and how they had responded to that, and what they would do in the event of a military draft if one were to be reinstated – which was unlikely, but had been discussed in the media.

We then asked respondents to think about broader questions of war, peace, and human character and potential. “Why do you think terrorists want to attack the United States?” “In your opinion, what is the best response to terrorism or terrorist threats?” “Do you see war as a reasonable way for nations to settle their differences, a necessary evil, an unacceptable way to conduct foreign relations, or something else entirely?” “Do you think war could become universally rejected or condemned at some point in the future, like cannibalism, human sacrifice, and slavery?” “What do you think humans would have to learn in order to solve global conflicts peacefully?” The purpose of these kinds of questions was two-fold; we wanted to know what respondents thought and felt and where they lacked information or reasons for their beliefs, and we wanted to give them an opportunity to reflect on ideas that too often remain unquestioned, which we thought would be a valuable end in itself.

The interview questions were intentionally open-ended in order to elicit as much information as possible from respondents. Interviewers asked encouraging follow-up questions (“Why do you feel that way?” “Can you say more about that?”), occasionally posed questions of their own that deviated from the interview protocol, and allowed answers to take their own paths even if they veered somewhat off-topic. While this conversational approach makes the interview data hard to quantify, we felt it gave us a more complete picture of what these respondents think, and, from the perspective of peace education, what they need to know. In this way, we completed in-depth interviews of eighty University of Michigan undergraduates, about a quarter of whom have taken my nonviolence seminar. These interviews, in addition to student essays from my nonviolence classes and my reflections on teaching nearly eighty additional students over a period of five years, provide the information for this paper.

Most students we talked to believe that the Iraq war is “pointless,” “ignorant,” or “unnecessary.” This makes some of the respondents angry; others are deeply cynical. A first year student says:

I totally did not approve of this war. It sounded really stupid from the beginning. I’ve heard it mentioned that this will become another Vietnam, and that’s what it seems it’s going to be, a long, drawn-out war where in the end there is no benefit, there is no end result. Just nothing. Just a lot of people coming home angry and depressed. Nothing really to show for it.

Another responds:

I’m looking down at President Bush because I’m like, you know, ‘Why are you putting us through this? What are we getting out of this?’ I think a lot of us are looking at Bush like, ‘What the hell are you thinking? What is wrong with you?’

Unless they have family members in the military, many say they are emotionally disengaged from the war. Some don’t even follow it on the news, either because they can’t make sense of why we are in Iraq, or because they believe that the media and/or the administration deliberately downplay the war or lie about it. A first year French major who was horrified to discover that in fact, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, responds emotionally:

Q: Do you feel that the media plays more as a mediator and deliverer of information, or as an instigator that . . .
A: (interrupts) Instigator! Instigator! And they try to scare you with a lot of things that aren’t true. It used to be a good way to get information. Now we have NBC and MSNBC and CNN and FOX News and local channels, and they’re all in competition. So they all try to come up with things that make their stories more spicy and sizzling, so that more people will listen to what they have to say. It used to be a good way of giving us information when we had about four news channels. Now that we have 24-hour news channels, most of it is like, lies, or false situations!

If a military draft were to be reinstated to supply personnel for the Iraq war, the majority of respondents said – rather rashly, I thought – they would flee the country, go to prison, or somehow make themselves unqualified for military service. Many said that their families would support them in their decision to avoid the draft – or even lead the way in an escape to a neutral country. When asked, “If there were a draft and you were drafted, what would you do?” a second year female student replies:

A: I’m not going! I’m not going if they try to draft me!
Q: What would you do if you were drafted?
A: (immediately) Get pregnant. (pause) Get pregnant. Get very pregnant.
Q: How do you think your friends and family would respond to your decision?
A: Good job! (laughs) They all know they ain’t goin’. I’m not goin’! They’re not goin’ to let me go!

A fourth year male student says:

I would have great trouble killing someone, or working for someone that I knew was supporting killing people. So I would try and dodge it as best I could. I’ve heard that new agreements with Canada don’t allow draft dodgers there, and the college exemption no longer works. So I don’t know what I would do. I could become blind spontaneously or some other things . . .

A majority of respondents believe that the United States brought the September 11 attacks on itself because of its tendency to bully other countries or treat them as inconsequential. A second year student replies to the question, “Why do you think terrorists want to attack the United States?”

Every country wants to attack America. Because America has been holding its thumb down on every other country for the past 100 or so years, with all its weapons. Oh my God, did you know that there’s over 200 nuclear facilities in our country alone? And we get pissed off at Nouth Korea or Iraq if we find one! And we bomb it all of a sudden. No wonder people want to fight back; we’re like an oppressor, we’re like the biggest superpower with the biggest military and the biggest weapons, it’s like, you know, who wouldn’t want to come in and bomb it, and destroy it?

A third year student responds even more graphically:

[Terrorists want to attack the U.S.] because the United States thinks they’re the high shit and they can do whatever the hell they want to other countries, and then they think everybody’s supposed to be okay with it. But the terrorists are fed up, they’re like, they want to be heard, and they don’t like the United States. Like a lot of countries don’t like the United States! Which people in the United States don’t realize. People say oh, we’re such a great country, we do a lot of great things – well, we do a lot of horrible things, too.

Almost all respondents said that the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks did not make them feel safer, and that war is not an effective, fair, or rational way to deal with terrorist threats or attacks. Many suggested that the individuals behind the attacks, rather than entire countries, should be brought to justice. Some pointed out the uselessness of trying to annihilate a tactic or an idea. One respondent suggested that terrorism is in all of us, even those our government is trying to protect. She related the story of how her friends and neighbors had violently turned on the only Arab-American family in her small community, attempting to torch their business and effectively running them out of town. “I don’t think that a war [on terror] is the best answer,” she said, “because anyone could be a terrorist. What happened in my town was an act of terrorism, because the majority of the people did it. So they’re the terrorists!”

While some respondents upheld the need for war in limited circumstances after careful and repeated attempts at diplomatic solutions, many said that any war is pointless, self-defeating, or hypocritical. A fourth year student explains:

War is a paradox, because it can be justified by anything. Anybody can find their own reasons to start a war. At the same time, somebody else can feel that your reason for war is totally not justified. So war is just – there’s really no reason. It’s just ridiculous. It’s not even a paradox, because a paradox makes sense. It’s an inherent contradiction. It’s a self-defeating philosophy of humanity.

A first year student says categorically:

I don’t think anybody has the right to kill anyone regardless of anything. So, just the simple fact that we’re sort of saying, ‘Hey, it’s sorta your time to die now’ – boom! – I’m not ready for that. So that’s how the [Iraq] war affects me. I’m not down with the killing.

Yet despite their abhorrence of war and violence, the overwhelming majority of interview respondents said that wars will continue eternally, and that the dream of a nonviolent future is unrealistic. The reasons for this pessimistic view are many. Some students confidently assert that humans are inherently violent, self-centered, or irrational.

A third year political science student answers:

Q: Is the thought or dream of a nonviolent society realistic?
A: No! It’s just not realistic. Because human beings are, we’re not reasonable. We don’t think about what’s in everybody’s best interest. We just think about our own. You know, we’re selfish, we’re jealous, there’s a whole list of all the negative things that human beings are.

A computer science student explains that people just aren’t logical:

Q: So what would you suggest as an alternative to war?
A: You know, people always say, ‘Talk it out.’ So that’s what I want to say. That’s the right thing to do. But we don’t just live in a perfect society where you can just like, talk out problems, so everyone can go their separate ways, cause human beings aren’t rational people. We don’t think logically . . . People don’t think about the other side, or if they have a valid point. They only think about themselves. We’re selfish people, I guess.

A third year student who believes that the president’s response to the 9/11 attacks “unveiled our government’s true nature,” suggests that humans can’t give up the will to power:

No, I can’t imagine a world without war. And that’s unfortunate, but that’s reality. As long as there’s a world, there will be wars. Because humanity will have its people who want more power, they want more control over others, they want to continue to rule the world. And as long as there’s a mentality that ‘I need to rule,’ that ‘I need to control,’ that ‘I need money,’ that ‘I need material things,’ that ‘I need to satisfy myself at the expense of others,’ and as long as there’s fear there will always be war.

Some students even suggested that because of human nature, almost any dispute is hard to resolve without violence. A third year student remarks:

[War and violence are] just part of who we are. It’s pretty difficult to solve problems with just peace. Such as like who owns land, who controls resources . . . these are issues you can’t solve peacefully because of the way that people are. Or the difference in cultures. Or something as simple as a language barrier or whatnot. So I guess it’s whoever can take it, it’s theirs. I mean, that’s just something that’s part of being human.

Those who didn’t go as far as attributing war to inherent human flaws sometimes pointed out that violence is by far the easiest way to settle differences. A first year student who told us he “totally did a 180” – conservative Republican to liberal Democrat – when he discovered that the administration had lied about the reasons we had gone to war in Iraq says:

Why are people so ready to use violence and war to solve problems? Because you can get it over with, you can just kill someone. You don’t have to sit down and actually make a compromise. Because in war, whoever is the most powerful will like, come out on top, but when you have to actually sit down, go over your flaws, fix the things that are going wrong, listen to another party’s views, to actually sit down and try to come up with a plan, people don’t want to do that.

Others suggested that weapons technology promotes war, or that powerful people gain from violence and chaos. A third year psychology major says:

Will war ever become obsolete? I don’t think so. Not in this day and age, because we’re getting more technologically advanced, developing more strategies and weapons and all that stuff, so you know, (sarcastically) you gotta use them, why try anything else, why try to listen when we have weapons? Ha, ha, we’ve got the big gun!

A first year chemical engineering student says:

I don’t know about other countries, but America has this big industry manufacturing guns and weapons. And the only way we can justify how much money we’re putting into building and making all these weapons of mass destruction and whatever, is using them every so often. So we can have the companies that make these guns make profit for people and make more money. And then we have to go and use them and sell them to other countries.

Some see cultural norms as getting in the way of the elimination of war. A second year student with three family members stationed in Iraq says:

I think [war] is just a very traditional idea. A lot of people think it’s just what they’re called to do: the men have to defend their country, the women go up there as nurses to take care of the men that are getting hurt. It’s just like socially built-in things that we always have in our culture. Like a chip in your brain, where guys are like, ‘Okay, I’ll go.’ You don’t have to think about it very much.

Some see mere differences in personality or lifestyle as barriers to getting along without war and violence. A first year student who lost two extended family members in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks responds:

Q: Is the thought or dream of a nonviolent society realistic?
A: (blithely) No, it’s impossible.
Q: Why do you think that?
A: Everyone’s too different. I mean, there are those of us who are really aggressive and those of us who are not. There will always be that imbalance. And because of that there will always be fighting, always some kind of conflict.

And a third year student contends that people are so ornery that they would find a way around any attempt to solve problems peacefully:

The only way to [eliminate war and violence] would be to establish rules, and of course by establishing rules, people would just break them anyway. And this would just lead to anarchy. People are gonna – it’s just the way people are.

Q: How do you think we’ll get to a nonviolent society, if ever?
A: I guess the only way I see it happening is by finding some way to enforce the rules around the clock. But basically you’d have to remove a lot of people’s freedoms.

I found these responses somewhat puzzling, because they seem to ignore the ways disputes between people and groups are solved nonviolently every day, through the judicial system, through laws that promote fairness, through civil and religious education, through systems of family values and practices, and so on. Interestingly, informants tended to think of large-scale national or international violence in the same terms as interpersonal disagreement. People will always get angry at each other, they said, or use violent language to put each other down, or even just assert their will, and that means that in order to avoid violence, we would have to agree about everything, and that would mean we would need some kind of thought police to avoid divisions between people. Humans would have to be perfect to outgrow the need for war, they said, and that will never come to pass. A first year student says:

No matter what, there’s always going to be violence, there’s always going to be that one guy on the block who abuses his wife, there’s always going to be that one woman on the block who abuses her children, there’s always going to be that one country around the corner that disagrees with our policy, there’s always going to be that one president who’s out of his mind that would bring us back to war.

These reasons for the inevitability of war were almost always given in a tone  of cynicism and even despair. Yet when asked how humans could learn to avoid war, almost all students gave answers that reflected their optimism about human nature or human capabilities, saying that tolerance, respect, and communication are key, or that we just need to sit down with the other side and work on problem solving together, or that more cultural understanding will help, as will alleviating world poverty. A second year student who describes the reasons the U.S. went to war in Iraq as “immature” says:

In regards to warfare, just negotiate instead of jumping the gun and starting a war. Just negotiate with the other heads of the countries. And I’m sure people could be civil and figure things out. If the U.S. poses ideas to the other country, and tries to handle the situation in a calm, rational kind of way, then it could work towards, first of all, making countries hate us less, and second of all, making us less violent, then the violence against us would decrease too.

A student who says she reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attacks by intentionally traveling to as many countries as possible “because I feel that’s the best way I can show what a real American is like,” says:

To solve global conflicts peacefully? This is really cliché, but we need to remember that everyone’s just a human trying to live their life, have their family, everyone’s got things in common. So there’s no reason to blow each other up (laughs). To oversimplify. But it’s like Palestinian and Jewish families, they have the same Semitic values, the same structure. If you have a room full of Palestinians and Jews together, they look the same, basically. It’s like if people would just realize how much they were alike and came together, it’d be better.

And a first year student who says that watching graphic war movies made her give up the idea that war is a reasonable last resort says:

On Star Trek they have gone beyond war now, and I think that’s kinda cool. If we decided we’re going to get rid of this war, I think it’d be about a year before we could get it done. Same thing as if we decided to give electricity to all countries – six months. If we decided to make a way where everyone could have fresh water to drink – nine months. If we decide to put our energy, time, effort from fighting each other into uniting as one to make the world even better? Hot damn, we can’t be stopped! (sigh)

Trite as these responses may sound, they were offered to the interviewers seriously, even passionately, as if these alternatives to violence had never really been considered before.

Many respondents also claimed that wars of liberation or armed humanitarian intervention in cases of extreme oppression or genocide are quite different from the greed or fear-inspired wars like Iraq or Vietnam that they so deplore. Like many Quakers, these students see World War II as a “good war,” saying (erroneously) that the U.S. entered into it to liberate the Jews from Nazi oppression. Some also cited the U.S. Civil War as morally necessary, saying (again erroneously) that it was fought primarily to free the slaves. This strong impulse to justify armed intervention to protect the weak and vulnerable is echoed by the majority of students who enroll in my nonviolence class. “Just war,” to these students, is not about their own national or even personal security. It’s about stopping rape and pillage in Darfur, it’s about caring enough to send in armed peacekeepers to stop the Rwandan genocide; it’s about supporting an armed revolutionary struggle in Chiapas that fights for an impoverished indigenous population considered so inconsequential that, as one student wrote, “nobody cared whether they protested nonviolently.”

If students like these are to move us toward a world where global conflicts are worked out fairly and without bloodshed, what do they need to know? First, I found it striking that when students were asked to name strategies other than war that had been used to solve disputes in the past, they give very vague, general answers: “Diplomacy, I guess. Negotiation.” While several mentioned the most famous exemplars of nonviolent resistance (Gandhi, Martin Luther King), virtually no one mentioned any other nonviolent movement, nor did they bring up any specifics of regional or international conflict resolution, or any other nonviolent tactics such as those that have long been used in the labor movement, the peace movement, or other political protests. These omissions shouldn’t surprise us, given that nonviolent practices are rarely celebrated in history textbooks and are often downplayed, even ridiculed, in media reports. Likewise, negative judgments about human nature abound in our culture, leaving the distinct impression that despite countless examples to the contrary, humans are incapable of controlling themselves or their institutions. And while many respondents spoke of the horror of war: the vast toll in human lives, the physical and mental cost to survivors, the deceit, the profiteering, the promotion of racism and sexual violence, the acceptance of torture, the deliberate targeting of civilians, the suspension of civil liberties, and so on, they mentioned these only in regards to wars they disapprove of; few pointed out that these evils pervade “good wars” as well. Indeed, educators, curriculum developers, textbook writers, and administrators have much work to do.

Peace education is not entirely absent in U.S. classrooms. Wonderful models and lesson plans exist for all age levels, and dedicated teachers work such courses and units into the standard curriculum when they can. But clearly, the basics of nonviolence are not reaching enough students, even those who attend the elite schools that feed top universities like Michigan. And while some universities have excellent peace studies programs, one wonders if their scholarship reaches students who do not choose such a course of study, but instead, elect the standard history and political science classes that send them on the road to law school and from there to political office.

Anyway. Let me tell you about my nonviolence seminar, and give you a bit of the flavor of my students. My classes are small because they are writing and discussion-intensive. I never lecture; students are expected to come to class prepared with questions for discussion and debate. I tell them I don’t expect them to adopt my pacifism, since I know it’s a rather extreme position, but that they do need to listen to the arguments that support it, and that I welcome their challenges and questions.

Some students enroll in the course because they are looking for ways to convince their friends, or their parents, or indeed, themselves, that their impulse toward nonviolence is valid. Others take the course simply to satisfy the university’s upper level writing requirement, so they come with a great variety of viewpoints. One of my best students did most of her schooling in India where she had become frustrated by the prevailing “Mahatma craze,” as she put it, the glorification of “Gandhi’s bloodless war” that defeated British control. She had come to the University of Michigan to study war, actually, since she had wondered all her life if the terrible violence between Muslims and Hindus at the partition of India and Pakistan could have been avoided by armed intervention. She was taking my class “to get the other point of view.” Some young men arrive in my class full of masculine bravado, believing, as one put it, “that pacifists are worthless cowards, and that walking away from a fight is cowardly as well.”  The most common view is that nonviolence is irrelevant. “When I came into this course,” one student wrote at the end of the semester, “I had a rather odd misconception that being non-violent meant having a lot of crappy bumper stickers on your car. Not much to it besides participating in a few peace marches that are largely ignored.”

We start the course by attempting to define “violence” and “nonviolence.” My students inevitably want to define violence extremely broadly, including emotional and spiritual violence and even the violence of ideas. (“It seemed that by the time we finished that list even breathing could be considered a violent act,” one student recalled). Nevertheless, allowing students to define their terms, even if they have to reconsider them later, seems to set the tone for the intellectual and personal engagement I expect of them throughout the semester. We look at what anthropologists say about aggression and cooperation in human nature, the difficulties many soldiers have in killing other human beings, and the ways that people can be trained and psychologically manipulated to cause each other harm. We look at the reasons people become suicide bombers, and question the common assumption that this form of violence is unique to Islam. We debate “just war” theory and try to apply it to current military actions. Students choose among books about first person experiences of war, like Nuha Al-Radi’s Baghdad Diaries, or historical accounts of genocide, like Philip Gourevitch’s book about Rwanda, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, or exposes of war crimes, like The Bridge At No Gun Ri, by Charles J. Hanley, Sang-Hun Choe, and Martha Mendoza about the Korean war, or ruminations on violence in the aftermath of war like Akira Yoshimura’s One Man’s Justice.

To encourage reflection on the books they read, I have them write an imaginary letter to the author or one of the characters, telling them what they learned from them and what questions they are left with. The idea of the letter format is to encourage students to connect with the people in the book at a deeper, more personal level than they would if they were asked to analyze the text in the abstract, distanced language of academia. They read their drafts of these letters to small groups of their classmates, soliciting their feedback on the depth and thoughtfulness of their questions and comments, and rewriting their drafts before they hand them in to me. This helps all students become better critical thinkers and editors of their own work, while sharing the substance of a variety of books about war, peace, and “human nature.”

Once we have an understanding of how violence can be defined, understood, regulated, promoted, and justified, we turn our attention to alternatives. We look at teachings of nonviolence in various religious traditions: not just Christianity, although that tradition has the most extensive and striking literature, but also Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and some Native American spiritual traditions. Discovering commonalities and differences among faiths can get students talking in ways they rarely do in other classes. One semester I had two fundamentalist Christians, one Sufi Muslim convert, five Jews ranging from Orthodox to Reform to secular, and one Russian Orthodox, with the remaining students defining themselves by their politics and secular ethics rather than any particular faith. Since I want students to speak from their own experience and knowledge as well as from their understanding of the texts I assign, it was not unusual for one of the fundamentalists to whip out his pocket Bible to explain why the world would be more harmonious if we all accepted Christ as our personal savior, or for a conservative Jewish student to invoke Zionist principles to justify Israeli settlements in Palestine, or a Muslim student to argue that men and women are treated as equals in Islam. Although these discussions can be charged and difficult at times, I encourage them, first because they expose students to points of view they never have considered before, and second, because there are so few venues on campus where such opinions can be aired without disintegrating into loud, angry denunciations of the opposition.

Having a relatively safe space to listen and be heard can give students the courage to confront their own unacknowledged tendencies to dismiss, devalue, or fear particular groups. A reflective Jewish student writes at the end of the semester that she was barely aware of how her “us and them” thinking began:

Perhaps it was my education in Hebrew school, learning that Israel was surrounded by Arab neighbors who disliked Israel’s existence. Maybe it was the fear in my parents’ voices when they discussed the suicide bombings by Islamic extremists in Israel and their concern for our family living there. Perhaps this image was perpetuated by the events of 9/11 and the anti- Arab sentiment of the U.S. When we began our unit on religion, I didn’t know anything about Islam. I didn’t care to understand a religion that preached that becoming a suicide bomber would guarantee you a spot in heaven surrounded by virgins. I was shocked to discover that jihad is not a reference to holy war; rather, it means struggle or effort. Jihad, I learned, is divided into two struggles, the Greater Struggle to improve yourself and the Lesser Struggle to improve the world around you. What I knew of Islam was just a small extremist faction that has received much media attention. Ironically, the moment I came to understand the meaning of jihad, I was partaking in the Greater Struggle. I was actively breaking down perceived lines of separation, developing my internal nonviolence. This was the first time my beliefs were shaken and I was forced to question the values that I grew up with.

To help students develop effective communication strategies I introduce a model of dialogue called the LARA Method near the beginning of the course. This technique, originally developed in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and adapted by the Portland, Oregon community group, “Love Makes a Family,” models a series of steps: Listen, Affirm, Respond, and Add. The idea is to listen deeply until you hear the moral principle your opponent is speaking from or a feeling or experience you share. Then affirm by expressing the connection you found when you listened, letting the person know that you agree or empathize on a deep level. Third, respond fully and honestly to the issue the person raised, and finally, add new information that will correct mistaken ideas and give a more factual basis for discussion. The point is not to win the argument but to reach a deeper understanding and connect on a human level, despite differences. After they practice these conversations in class (generally using topics unrelated to the course) students can be reminded to use the method later if their discussions begin to escalate.

Although the LARA method is more difficult to put into practice than it might sound, the mere fact of having tried it seems to make productive discussion more likely. A student who had been skeptical of pacifism and critical of what she saw as easy, liberal solutions to complex problems writes at the end of the course:

What made the class for me was my fellow-classmates. We had such a dynamic group of people who learned to listen, to trust, and to cross barriers in order to communicate with one another on a deeper level of understanding and discussion. Hearing the comments of a variety of people coming from different backgrounds and experiences was incredibly refreshing and challenging. I was interested to hear people talk so passionately about philosophies I completely disagreed with. Right now, it’s hard to let everything I’ve experienced and felt in this class fall into place. I’ve always felt like the hippie liberal among my friends, and suddenly in this class I’ve found myself feeling more like a Republican. Experiencing such an extremely liberal perspective on politics actually gave me a much clearer understanding of some conservative viewpoints.

At this point – about a third of the way through the semester – students are getting the idea that the world they want to see will not be achieved through violence. Yet, nonviolence is still very abstract to them. Like the interview respondents, my students are quick to point out the obvious, that skill in dialogue, diversity education, and just distribution of the earth’s resources all could lay the foundation for a nonviolent future. But these are long-term goals, they say, and violence is happening now. They envision a crisis: machete-wielding mobs attacking their neighbors; horsemen bearing down on defenseless villagers or their own country’s military gearing up for a shock and awe campaign that will inevitably destroy thousands of civilians. What can possibly deter these madmen from violence but more violence, they wonder. Even when they see the circular nature of that position, it is not enough for them to say that the world should simply quell the violence by creative, nonviolent means. Because they don’t yet know well enough what those means might be. Their education, both formal and informal, has so neglected the range of diplomatic and political tactics that have been or could be employed to deter violence that they see no clear path to follow.

This deficit cannot be addressed in a single semester. But providing them with some examples of successful nonviolent movements and an opportunity to analyze their methods and tactics gives them a start on what they’re looking for. For this section of the course I rely on a wonderful video series, A Force More Powerful, with its accompanying text by the same name, which shows, through news footage, interviews, and commentary, nonviolent movements in Poland, Chile, South Africa, India, the Philippines, and many other countries. I also use videos from Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years Series, and from Chicano!, a series that documents Mexican American activism in the 1960s and 70s, particularly the grape boycott. Students meet in small groups for the three or four weeks that we devote to these case studies and look carefully at the goals, leadership, tactics, and cultural and historical context of each movement, reporting on what they found and comparing them to others they have studied.

Next, I introduce them to a few of the personalities of the peace and justice community including Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Jane Addams, A. J. Muste, and Thich Nhat Hanh. We read the moving testimonies of Israeli conscientious objectors in Breaking Ranks by Ronit Chacham, and stories from the international accompaniment movement in Latin America in Unarmed Bodyguards, by Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren. We hear from local community activists who attend the yearly protest at the School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) in Fort Benning, Georgia, whose graduates have participated in acts of extreme violence and repression in Latin America. And if we’re lucky, a former student might come back to talk to us about what it’s like to work with an international peace team in Iraq or Palestine.

I include a community action component in the course, both to give students the opportunity to put their ideas into practice, and to spread the nonviolence message a bit further. A few weeks into the course, students form small groups to plan projects that can be carried out on or off campus. Some of the most successful of these have included a day of teaching some of the themes of our course to students in a local secondary school; arranging a peace art show on campus that included paintings, sculpture, visual media, and spoken word performance; tape recording reminiscences from Holocaust survivors in a elder care facility; and interviewing local community peace activists for a website of the students’ own design.

By the end of the course, most students are confident and ready to put their new learning into practice. They are energized by news footage of successful nonviolent action; they are moved by testimonies of peacekeepers without arms; they ask themselves under what conditions they too would be brave enough to enter into a violent situation without the means to defend themselves. They completely give up their view of nonviolence as passive or somehow unmanly. And students who had trouble defending their idealism from the jibes of their friends and family find that their deepest beliefs and hopes for a nonviolent world have been given substance and dignity. A future teacher writes:

I have always been a nonviolent person; and I am highly sensitive and have a deep sense of compassion towards others. I had no idea there was a way to embody my values on a worldwide scale. . . I had always been taught to believe that man was violent by nature, and therefore the idea that violence could be eradicated was preposterous. This course has taught me otherwise.

I have no doubt that humans are intelligent and courageous enough to address their differences without resorting to war. But to get there, we must convince the young that peace is possible. High schools and even elementary schools need required courses in peace education that would teach nonviolent solutions to conflicts, both interpersonal and international. University students in political science courses should learn effective ways to address some of the major causes of war: global inequalities, religious extremism, and arguments over dwindling energy resources, with special attention given to points of view of countries and individuals most affected by these problems. History courses should give central consideration to the extensive history and theory of nonviolent activism, and challenge students to come up with their own ideas about how international conflicts could have been addressed without violence. All these courses must be grounded in the personal: the stories, testimony, and deeply introspective accounts of the people we call friends and enemies. This is what touches students and gives them pause. At the end of my course, many of my students report that their new understanding of nonviolence has come as a meaningful, personal revelation. As one student wrote in her final reflection:

I do not identify as a pacifist. But I do identify as part of the human race. And as such, I feel obligated to protect the rights of other humans. I am striving to see every person as human. I am striving to attain nonviolence within myself, for then I will be able to separate people from their actions and love my enemy. I have come to understand that nonviolence is not the absence of violence or even the opposition to violence, but something much deeper. It is actively refraining from violence; it is a way to bring about change; it is a conscious decision about my own actions; it is an attitude toward other human beings; it is an internal commitment to better myself . . . In my pursuit of knowledge, I can begin to think nonviolently. Because I believe that once peace is achieved internally, outwardly acting towards peace is inevitable.

I would like to thank my undergraduate research assistants at the University of Michigan: Garrison Paige, Sharonda Simmons, and Bryon Maxey, for their contributions to this study.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Helen Fox teaches courses in peace activism, human rights, race and racism, and international development at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the author of, When Race Breaks Out: Conversations about Race and Racism in College Classrooms (third revised edition) New York: Peter Lang, 2017, and Their Highest Vocation: Social Justice and the Millennial Generation, New York: Peter Lang, 2011. Please also consult her university page for further information: www-personal.umich.edu/~hfox.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi