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Colman McCarthy Is Teaching Peace In America's Schools

Book cover for Colman McCarthy's book, "I'd Rather Teach Peace".
Orbis Books
Book cover for Colman McCarthy's book, "I'd Rather Teach Peace".
Colman McCarthy Is Teaching Peace In America's Schools
Long-time peace educator Colman McCarthy joins us to talk about bullying and violence in schools and why teaching children about peace is vital.

Peace Education: If Not Now, When?

Thursday, April 29th

7:00 P.M.


Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice

University of San Diego

5998 Alcalá Park, San Diego CA 92110

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Teaching kids about peace is not usually part of a school curriculum. And yet, one of the major problems in our schools is violence in the form of intimidation and bullying among students. The recent story of a Massachusetts teenager who committed suicide after both physical and cyberspace bullying highlights the need for more attention to violent behavior in school. But sometimes, when peace education is proposed, school districts can find it too controversial. My guest, Colman McCarthy, has been working for years to change that attitude. McCarthy is the director of the Center for Teaching Peace, an organization that works with schools to begin or to expand academic programs in peace education. He’s also a former syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. He'll be in San Diego this week to speak at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego. And Mr. McCarthy, welcome to These Days.

COLMAN MCCARTHY (Director, Center for Teaching Peace): Thank you, Maureen. Glad to be talking to you.


CAVANAUGH: Well, we’re inviting our listeners to join the conversation. How much bullying goes on at your child’s school? Have your kids complained about it? What are teachers and administrators doing to try and stop it? We welcome your calls, your questions and your comments, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Mr. McCarthy, what is controversial about peace being taught in schools?

MCCARTHY: Well, the controversy is that people think that the peace is weakness, it’s something not to be taken seriously. We live in a violent world. There are bad people out there. There are evil people, as George W. Bush said. And so to be a peacemaker is, well, it’s a wonderful idea but, you know, in the real world it’s never going to work. And so that’s some of the thinking that you get from politicians, from school boards, from – and from people that have really never been exposed to peace education.

CAVANAUGH: So why are they wrong?

MCCARTHY: Why are they wrong?


MCCARTHY: Because every problem we have, whether at home, with somebody across the living room or a nation across the ocean, the conflict will be solved either through violent force or nonviolent force. But if we don’t teach in our schools that there are alternatives to violence then you at least go thinking, well, I’m opposed to wars but I’m opposed to hitting, I’m opposed to guns and bombs, but you have no alternative. And so that’s what I teach. I’ve been teaching courses since 1982 on alternatives to violence, mediation, conflict resolution, pacifism, and I have devoted my teaching life to that ideal.

CAVANAUGH: Now how would you rate our collective knowledge about the people in America who’ve worked for peace?

MCCARTHY: How would I rate them?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, how would you rate what we know about them?

MCCARTHY: Well, I – I do a little quiz when I go to schools. And I’ll be at the University of San Diego tomorrow evening at seven, and then I’m speaking at La Jolla Country Day at about nine o’clock on Thursday morning.


MCCARTHY: And I’ll be at San Diego University on Thursday night.


MCCARTHY: I give about, oh, about 50, 60 talks around the country to various groups, schools, colleges, high schools, and I do a hundred dollar bill quiz during the talk. I hold up a hundred dollars, a hundred dollar bill, and I say who can identify the following six people. If everybody gets all six names right, here’s your hundred dollars. I say who was Robert E. Lee? Almost all hands go up. Oh, great Civil War general. Okay, everybody’s one for one. Next name: Ulysses S. Grant. Hands go up. Almost everybody knows U.S. Grant, famous Civil War general. Then I ask who was Paul Revere? Oh, oh, we know him, the Lexington and Concord battle…


MCCARTHY: …the redcoats are coming. Everybody’s three for three. And then I name three peacemakers like Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste, Jeannette Rankin. No one’s ever won the hundred dollar bill quiz.


MCCARTHY: Everybody always knows the first three but not the last three names. Everybody knows people who break the peace but not those who make the peace. It’s not their fault. They went to schools where they did not teach about the peacemakers. So that’s where we are, and so I’m trying to do a little bit about that by going into schools and I – I teach at Georgetown University Law School. I’ve been there for about 23 years. I teach at American University here in Washington, which, by the way, is – was rated by the Princeton Review the most politically active campus in America.


MCCARTHY: I teach at the University of Maryland. I teach at Daley High School class, 7:25 a.m., here in the Washington area. At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and then I have a 9:30 class at a big, large public, highly diverse school, Wilson High School. So I’ve had about almost, I think, over 8,000 students since 1982.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. And you…

MCCARTHY: So I’m not just one more theoretician, I’m in the trenches every day.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. My guest is Colman McCarthy. He’s the director of the Center for Teaching Peace. We are taking your calls about teaching peace, about teaching kids nonviolent solutions and about what teachers and administrators in the school your child is going to might be doing to try to stop bullying going on. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Let’s take a call now. Jose is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Jose. Welcome to These Days.

JOSE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. This morning while I was watching one of the big news channels, I think it was TNN or somebody, they were talking about the state of Virginia actually allowing the NRA to come in and teach gun safety. I think that’s totally atrocious.

CAVANAUGH: In schools?

JOSE: In schools, in the school district. In the school district and it’s a push by the NRA to teach gun safety to kindergartners through fifth grade. That is just – I mean, unfathomable. And, to me, I think they should use taxpayer money to teach peace like the gentleman is talking about.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Jose, for your call. And I’d like to get your reaction to that, Mr. McCarthy.

MCCARTHY: Well, unless we teach our children peace, somebody else will teach them violence. And so that describes the problem, which is easily done. As a journalist and as a teacher, I’ve tried to be not just a problem describer but a solution finder. So, sure the NRA’s in there. They persuade the school boards, oh, we’re doing this in the cause of safety. And so when you have a gun – a gun-obsessed nation like ours where the laws are written by politicians who receive money from the NRA, that’s the end result. And you have a – we have, I think, 25,000 homicides a year in this country, a large percentage of those with guns, plus the suicides by guns. So, again, I try to offer a solution and my solution is to persuade school boards, persuade parents to offer courses in peace education and have it begin in first grade, second grade, right on through. I teach – in my high schools, I teach – I teach one class and that’s the only class they will get in 12 years of education. They go 8 years elementary and middle school and then 4 years of high school. That’s 12 years. They take one peace course.


MCCARTHY: That is clearly not enough. But would we put somebody through 12 years of elementary, middle and high school with only one math course or one science course or one English class? So that’s where we are with the peace education. It’s just in its infancy now, so we have a lot of work to do to keep it moving.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, Mr. McCarthy, you started your career as a journalist. You were a journalist for quite some time. What stories or people did you cover that set you on the path as a peace activist?

MCCARTHY: Well, I decided to become a peace correspondent not a war correspondent. And most journalists, oh, I want to go cover the wars.


MCCARTHY: That’s like I want to go – I want to go write about the insane asylum, because wars are insanity. And so I decided we have enough people doing that so I thought I would deviate a little bit and try to find out people and write about people who were offering solutions to the world’s violence. And I covered Martin Luther King when I was a young reporter starting out. I covered him in the summer of 1966 in Cicero, Illinois. It was the only time King ever left a march. We – He was hit by a brick that summer and the cops told him to get out. I’ve interviewed Desmond Tutu from South Africa, Máiread Corrigan from Belfast, Seán MacBride from Dublin, Pérez Esquivel from Buenos Aires, Mother Teresa from Calcutta, Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh, all Nobel Peace Prize winners. And I’d always ask them toward the end of the interview how should we go about increasing peace and decreasing violence? And almost always the answer came back pretty much the same one, you need to go where people are and people keep having conflicts. And where are most people? Well, they’re in our schools.


MCCARTHY: This country has 4500 colleges and universities. We have about 36,000 high schools, and about 78,000 elementary schools. That’s where the peace movement needs to be. Marches are fine, protests are fine, but it’s in schools where things really happen.

CAVANAUGH: My guest is Colman McCarthy. He’s the director of the Center for Teaching Peace. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Carl is calling us now from San Diego. Good morning, Carl, and welcome to These Days.

CARL (Caller, San Diego): Hi.


CARL: Using the guest’s principles or teachings by example, what civil or international wars might we have avoided in the last 200 years? And I’ll take it off the air.

CAVANAUGH: Did you get that?

MCCARTHY: Well, let’s just go from 25 years ago. There’ve been at least six or seven brutal governments overthrown by people with no tanks, no bombs, no armies and no navies. The first dictator to fall was Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Catholic nuns organized the citizens to take power and they were trained by Gene Sharp at Harvard University, and Marcos fell. There was no bloody civil war. And Marcos was a client of the United States. We gave him weapons. We had two military bases there. And he was brought down. Pinochet in Chile, 1988, was overthrown, and people worked for a fair election and drove him from power. Lech Walesa in Poland, drove the Soviet Union from Poland. That’s when it all began. The Soviets were brought down by Lech Walesa, a shipyard worker who never went to college but he studied Gandhi. And when he took power in the Polish parliament as president, he said to the Soviet puppet, we never wanted to bring you to your knees, we just wanted to bring you to your senses. Mandela in South Africa, the boycotts finally worked. Yugoslavia and Milosevic was brought down after a two-year protest led by college and high school students. Republic of Georgia, Shevardnadze was driven from power four or five years ago. Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel was in prison for four years, became president of that country. Now if someone came to you 20, 25 years ago and said, I think that in the next two and a half decades there’ll be at least 7 brutal governments overthrown by people that have no army, no bombs and no bullets, you’d have said, friend, you’re clearly dreaming. But it happened. And so there’s proof that, as Martin Luther King said, if non-violent resistance is well organized, it can be extremely effective, and far more effective than violence.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we return, we’ll continue with our discussion with Colman McCarthy, director of the Center for Teaching Peace, and we’ll continue to take your calls. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guest is journalist and peace activist Colman McCarthy. He’s director of the Center for Teaching Peace, and he will be speaking this week at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego. We’re taking your calls about peace education at 1-888-895-5727. Mr. McCarthy, I know that one of the big emphasis you have is on trying to stop the cycle of bullying in schools, a way of teaching kids nonviolent ways to resolve their conflicts. But, you know, lots of people think that bullying is just part of growing up. Is it possible, do you think, to stop it in schools?

MCCARTHY: Well, it’s a learned behavior and children learn it from any number of sources and they learn it from video games, perhaps. They learn it from their parents. I had a student here at my high school recently. We spent about two or three weeks reading Gandhi and his ideas about peace and justice and stopping wars. And the child was leaving class and she said, this has all been very interesting and useful but I go home to a war zone every night. My parents have been verbally abusing me, have been verbally abusing each other and sometimes me, and sometimes physically hitting each other. How do I stop that war? That was a good question. And the only answer I could give is that it’s – if we’d have had them when they were in high school…


MCCARTHY: …when they were in elementary school, maybe they would’ve learned something about solving their conflicts without being verbally or physically violent. So I advocate in elementary schools to have regular daily classes on conflict resolution and also to have regular student assemblies where students are allowed to talk about the issues. And too often schools look on student assemblies as a waste of time. I say let the kids get in and give them the microphone and hear what’s on their minds. And I’ve seen some schools that have done that and it does decrease the bullying.

CAVANAUGH: Let me – Let’s take a phone call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Julie’s calling us from Encinitas. Good morning, Julie. Welcome to These Days.

JULIE (Caller, Encinitas): Good morning. Thank you for taking my phone call. It’s an honor to be a part of this conversation. I just wanted to bring out the importance of early childhood education. I am blessed to work at a preschool that the focus is peace education and conflict resolution. And it’s so important that we start with these very, very young children because that’s when they’re in their really impressionable learning stages. I just wanted to make sure that that came into the conversation.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Julie, thank you so much. Appreciate the contribution. I’m wondering, Mr. McCarthy, what do we know about the impact that bullying has on children?

MCCARTHY: Well, it’s often – They’ve done – there’s research that the bullies often feel inadequate, they feel demeaned by other people and a sense that, hey, I know how to take control. I’ll go beat somebody else up, and that enhances their feeling of being in control. And I’ve interviewed many people – I teach, among other things, death penalty law at Georgetown University Law School, and I’ve interviewed many – I’ve been in death rows. I’ve interviewed many, many murderers. And you go into their childhoods and you often find out how they were kicked around as kids and bullied themselves, and that developed, hey, I’m not going to take it anymore. I’m going to start hitting back. And they hit back randomly, they victimize people who did nothing to them. And the other thing is, you’ve got to realize that the United States government is a bullying government. We’re the world’s bullies. And that’s not just my view, it’s the view of Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King said on April fourth, 1967, in Riverside Church, New York, that my government is the world’s leading purveyor of violence. And we have a militarized government, we bully all around the world, we have over 800 military bases in over 130 countries. So you grow up in a country that’s a bullying nation. Hey, that’s what I ought to do, too.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think…

MCCARTHY: Let me go to…

CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry. Do you think kids really pick up on that, though? That that’s really an influence on them?

MCCARTHY: Well, they – I think it’s in the air. You know, there’s no research, no data that can prove that when they hear – You know, like George W. Bush, let’s go, let’s go kill the evil doers. Get them dead or alive. And that – What about due process?


MCCARTHY: That’s – So, sure, it’s in the air and it’s enough to totally raising kids to bully. It usually starts in the family. And if you have a family, if you have a father that bullies his wife, the kid picks that up.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We have a lot of people who want to get in on the conversation. Becky’s calling us from University City. Good morning, Becky, and welcome to These Days.

BECKY (Caller, University City): Thank you so much for having me. I just wanted to share. I’m agreeing with everything that you’re saying. I am a teacher at a charter school and part of our charter is teaching social and emotional intelligence. And we have the program called Second Step, which focuses on teaching children, kindergarten through 5th grade, about, you know, conflict resolution, anger management, impulse control. And the teachers are trained in this and then the parents have opportunity to be trained in this as well. And so it’s really addressing the whole family and, you know, the whole system trying to work together to prevent bullying and promote peaceful resolution.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for the call, Becky. I’m wondering, how much is the idea of having peace education and nonviolent education being part of schools, how is that catching on, Mr. McCarthy?

MCCARTHY: Well, at the university level, in 1970, we only had one college in the country offering a degree program and that was Manchester College in Indiana. Now there are about 70, 75. There’s about over 300 that offer a certificate or a minor or a concentration. The University of San Diego, through the generosity of good Joan Kroc, who I met when I visited San Diego, I guess about 10 years ago, is really one of the leading schools in the country. And Colgate University has a good Peace Studies program, Cornell has one, University of Colorado, I think Santa Cruz has one, Berkeley does. American University, where I’ve been teaching for about 25 years, we have one of the best in the country. We have a Ph.D. program. Notre Dame is also funded by Joan Kroc, has a wonderful Master’s degree program. So there’s a lot going on. We should do a lot more to get in the schools. And it’s very difficult to crack the high schools and the elementary schools because of the testing mania, the ‘no child left untested.’


MCCARTHY: And many teachers are demoralized, the creativity is vanishing because you got to get those test scores up because the Chinese and Japanese are ahead of us. So you hear this – So peace education is looked on – while it’s not really – it’s not going to get those test scores up, and ignoring the fact that it will probably decrease violence and make this a much more civilized society.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Virginia’s calling us from Normal Heights. Good morning, Virginia. Welcome to These Days.

VIRGINIA (Caller, Normal Heights): Thank you. This is a great discussion. I think it’s sometimes so easy though to fall prey to just despair when you look at the news and the violence across the world. But my question is I’m an older returning student at City College, and recently someone mentioned to me in passing—I guess it’s a sign of the times—that there was a Peace Studies Department now at City College in San Diego. And I was sort of cynical, you know. I thought, oh, is this just a euphemism for people who are studying to go into the military?

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, right.

VIRGINIA: You know? So I didn’t know – And then I just want your response to maybe someone will know, in the know, will call and tell me what the program is at City College. But now I’m more hopeful. I see it’s a different trend. The other issue I just wanted to bring up briefly is I believe that – I can’t remember but some Nobel Prize winner said poverty is at the root of violence. And I just wanted to bring that up in the discussion, you know, if people have a sense of wellbeing and serenity, probably a lot less violence.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that very much, Virginia. And I’m wondering, do you agree with that, Mr. McCarthy, poverty is at the root of violence?

MCCARTHY: That was quoted by Gandhi.


MCCARTHY: Gandhi said poverty is the worst from of violence. And that’s what he meant by economic violence. There’s two types of violence, there’s hot and cold violence. Hot was 9/11, hot was the Virginia Tech massacre. Cold violence is 40,000 people a day who die of hunger and preventable diseases. Cold violence is the killing of 12 million animals a day for food. It’s out of sight, it’s unfelt, it’s not emotional. When’s the last time you saw a headline in the paper, 40,000 people died yesterday of preventable diseases and hunger? And that’s about twelve 9/11s in one day. And that’s cold, economic, out-of-sight violence. Also – And then hot violence is domestic violence. The leading cause of injury among American women’s being beaten up by men they’re living with, husband, boyfriend, ex-husband, ex-boyfriend. There’s no coincidence that most of your callers this morning have been women, and I found that out to be true in my classes. It’s almost always the women who are more eager to learn about alternatives to violence. They want to know about this, they want to read more books, they stay after class to talk about it. And of course they do because they are predominantly victimized by violence. Most civilians in wars are women, most of the people who are poor in the world are women, and they are the most abused by men. So, of course, they want to know about this. So we’ve got to turn the men around also.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we do have a couple of men on the line right now. Carlos is calling us from El Centro. Good morning, Carlos, and welcome to These Days. I’m sorry. Chris in North Park?

CHRIS (Caller, North Park): Can you hear me okay?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I can. Good morning.

CHRIS: Good morning. I just wanted to express a couple things that actually worked for me getting through junior high and high school without a single fight. I was kind of a dorky kid, had glasses, braces, not the coolest clothes, that kind of thing, so I got picked on an awful lot. But whenever it came to actual fights, there were two things that I found worked really well. Number one was lifting weights. It was pretty much a deterrent to keep anyone from picking on me. And then number two was walking away. You know, I never found that there was any repercussions from just walking away from the conflict. So just wanted to throw that in there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you, Chris. Well, there’s something. I’d like you to comment on that, Mr. McCarthy.

MCCARTHY: Well, that’s interesting because the one thing that militaries most fear is soldiers, when the fighting starts, that they will run away from the fight. They fear people running away from the battlefield. So how do they solve their problem? Well, they teach the soldiers to bond with each other so they will stick up for the soldier next to them and, therefore, they won’t run away from the fight because killing is not natural. You have to be trained how to do it. And then if you’re going to run away from the fight, they train you to bond and love your fellow soldier.


MCCARTHY: And so the military teaches love. Now, you may not think of it that way but that’s how they get you to stay and fight. And then the third way they get you to stay and fight is they teach you to dehumanize the enemy. So in Vietnam, we were fighting the gooks and the slant-eyes. And in Iraq, we’re fighting the rugheads, the camel drivers. So after you dehumanize, then, oh, let’s kill them because the killing doesn’t come, you know, it’s not a natural thing. But when you dehumanize them and you’re bonding with your brothers – We band of brothers, remember Henry the Fifth in Shakespeare?


MCCARTHY: And then you won’t run away from the fight. If killing was natural, you’d want to stay and fight and you wouldn’t care about your brother. You want to kill the other guys. So that’s what’s going on. So the caller was exactly right, it’s natural to avoid violence and killing.

CAVANAUGH: You know, most schools now are aware of the problem of bullying, whether it’s physical bullying, cyberspace bullying, texting bullying, but in your estimation, from what you know, Mr. McCarthy, are schools going about trying to deter bullying in the right way? What should they be doing differently?

MCCARTHY: Conflict resolution ought to be one course out of a dozen. Like you don’t teach arithmetic every year for 8 years in school. You have algebra, geometry, you got calculus in high school. You could spend a whole semester studying Gandhi. You could spend a whole semester studying Dorothy Day, a whole semester studying animal rights, decreasing harming of animals. So there’s a dozen of different courses. You could read Tolstoy for a whole semester or Jeannette Rankin or A.J. Muste, all these great peacemakers. And so bullying – the bullying is fine – the anti-bullying programs are fine but if you’re going to raise kids not to question our militarized economy – What have we done for them? We’ve just kind of processed them as over slabs of cheese going to Velveeta high school, on to mozzarella university. How was that for a cheesy metaphor?

CAVANAUGH: It’s pretty good.

MCCARTHY: Wasn’t that well-Krafted, however?

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my. You know, I hate to tell you this, Mr. McCarthy, but we’re just about out of time.

MCCARTHY: By the way, where’d you go to high school, Maureen?

CAVANAUGH: I went to high school in Jamaica, Queens.

MCCARTHY: Mary Lewis?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, uh-huh.

MCCARTHY: A good Catholic high school. You went to Mary Lewis Academy in Jamaica. Did you take a peace class there?

CAVANAUGH: No, I did not.

MCCARTHY: Are you going to write to the principal and say never going to donate any more money until they get a peace class at that school.

CAVANAUGH: I feel my arm being twisted but I just might.

MCCARTHY: Do it. Do it.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. I appreciate your being on the show.

MCCARTHY: I’ll be in town on Thursday. Come visit. I’d love to talk to everybody.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, you certainly will. Colman McCarthy will be giving a lecture on, “Peace Education: If Not Now, When?” That’s Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.