Monday, May 10, 2010

Teaching nonviolence is Sisyphean, not for sissies

Colman McCarthy was a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post for more than 25 years. Now he devotes most of his time to teaching high school kids, and anyone else, nonviolence. His lesson plan, including a variety of readings, is available online. It is a great starter for any student of nonviolence, skewed mostly toward the philosophical side of understanding nonviolence, but with enough strategic material to bring the student forward in a somewhat integrated manner. He offers that freely to all and is also an adjunct for the International Peace and Conflict Resolution program at American University. His curriculum is available and is used in community settings. Indeed, Peaceforce Oregon chapter leader Terri Shofner just concluded a nine-month community class, Adventures in Nonviolence, using McCarthy's materials.

How advantageous would it be to our cultural appreciation of nonviolence if McCarthy's teachings could be syndicated? When students get to military age, to voting age, they are so saturated and immersed in a war culture and the assumptions that culture carries that nonviolence is either never considered or simply waved off as (one of my students put it in a paper I read just this morning) "naive and immature." What if the cultural assumptions at least included nonviolence as a logical alternative to violence, so that our nation would not be regarded as weak if it put aside its arsenal of destruction and picked up the tools of civil society organization and mobilization instead?

I am asked, periodically, to guest lecture in high schools. I do so freely, as a volunteer, whenever I'm asked. The reactions are predictable. Most kids look at me with great incredulity. I know I'll need a few more sessions with them to make serious progress, but I give it a go. I can tell how they've been enculturated and I can tell what their teachers have been doing. Some student groups are fairly receptive, some are mildly interested, and some seem disinterested or even hostile. I can tell I've entered a war culture when I step into a US public high school.

Those who teach war get students totally prepared by our culture to slide right into the curricula without question. This is how we manage our international and transnational conflicts. We threaten, we arm, we base around the world, we have horrific weapons at the ready 24-7 on and under the seven seas and in more than 150 of the world's 192 nation-states on approximately 1,000 bases. Of course. This keeps us free and prosperous. These assumptions may not come with numbers but they are ubiquitous, the air that young intellects breathe, the soil from which their thoughts grow, the water from which their wisdom flows. Violence feels so natural to us.
(photo of vase depicting Persephone supervising Sisyphus)
We need more Colman McCarthys, willing to roll that rock of nonviolent education up the hill of the war system with youth year after year, giving them a new culture to try on, showing them new paths around the mountain to a new way of being, of waging conflict, of running their lives and steering our country. Each new crop of young ones comes soaked in the war system that makes the task of McCarthy--and the rest of us who teach nonviolence--truly Sisyphean. We begin at the bottom each time.

Over the generations, fed by great experiments and more education, the hill won't be so steep, nor so high. If we are good enough at this, we will change the slope of the war trainer from the long downhill slide, easy and frictionless, to an unscaleable cliff face--which, since Sisyphus himself was a killer, is some kind of cosmic justice. A global alliance of teachers of nonviolence can change the world.


Terri said...

Doing the McCarthy series was lots of fun. In talking with attendees it's often the same shared sentiment, "I never knew that". I hope for a day in my life when the rich history of nonviolence isn't hidden from public view, from public education and from public discourse. It is the only power in the hands of the people, if only they knew it.

Tom H. Hastings said...

I have reason to hope for that day. You are a new teacher of nonviolence and you've already generated a large 'seed crop' who themselves are dispersing this knowledge like nonviolent dandelion seeds on the winds of human communication. This is the kind of globalization we like!