Thursday, October 31, 2013

Study war no more: How to teach history

"History was boring."
"I never paid attention to history" 
"History class was my weakness." 
This is the sort of comment common from many of my students as they begin to read what I assign them, which is often...wait for it...history.
"This should be taught."
"This gives me hope." 
This is the sort of comment common from many of my students as they continue reading how grassroots groups, civil society, and an aroused public will change history, get justice, bring down dictators from the left an from the right, and end wars.

Historian Kent Shifferd (2011, p. 126) writes of the history of peace in the past two centuries and notes that two of the major factors in creating a desire for peace and civil society organizing for peace are the ongoing democratization of societies and the industrialization of war.

Democratization engenders the expectation of power in the hearts and minds of most citizens instead of the fatalistic expectation of powerlessness. It even does so in societies that are emphatically not free because the model becomes known and is contagious.

The industrialization of war shows the citizens that the individual nobility, strength, and discipline which seemed to characterize the warrior are, for the most part, useless and irrelevant. Not only are most casualties civilian, the indiscriminate and instant nature of modern weaponry renders it all worthless. War is just ugly, no matter how much elites try to hang on to icons of the sacred warrior, the valorous soldier, and the noble protectors.
Peace History is indeed fascinating to those of you who find yourselves learning about peace or working for peace because you discover you are not alone; you come from a long line of those who look for ways to save our loved ones without slaughtering other people's loved ones. Peace people tend to apply the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, that is, what if I and my loved ones had been born into another society, in another nation? Should my little daughter be a target in that case? And the next logical step, Should anyone's little daughter be a target? 

No, of course not. And once we start down that peace-thinking path we hit that slippery slope toward peace activism, toward justice work, and our methods are nonviolent. That logic is inescapable, ultimately. Peace history provides part of the hope and part of the knowledge that it takes to help convince others that peace is possible, that nonviolence is working better and better as we learn more and more about it, and that many old doctrines--Just War, peace through strength of arms, righteous violence of the oppressed--can be, should be, and most adaptively need to be jettisoned.

While the ancient Greeks may not have seriously developed strategic nonviolence, we can love to think about Aristophanes--sick of the stupid Peloponnisian Wars--thumbing his nose at war and warriors in three of his plays, Acharnians, Lysistrata, and Peace. Peace thinking doesn't usually come to those operating in a peaceful society; historically, it has arisen from thinkers and doers in cultures at war. St. Francis went on the Crusades to try to negotiate peace. German philosopher Emmanuel Kant wrote Perpetual Peace as Europe struggled to recover from the Reign of Terror and other carnage. The peace sign was coined as the world legitimately feared nuclear destruction in 1958--when Soviets and Americans were blasting thermonuclear bombs in the atmosphere and posturing belligerently at each other.

In this sense, we are positioned as peace thinkers following 12 years of a terrorizing Global War on Terror, which has left the US with a badly tarnished image--even widely hated--a wobbling economy, an atmospheric stew of pollutants and greenhouse gases, and a polity so polarized it is less civil than any era since just before the Civil War. We need peace history now, which will help us to create a peace present and peace future.

Shifferd, Kent D. (2011). From war to peace: A guide to the next hundred years. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. 

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