Dr. Miguel A. Cardona
Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
Dear Secretary Cardona,
American citizens, governing bodies, and changemakers are currently faced with the seemingly-impossible challenge of remedying and mitigating issues of structural and direct violence in modern America. Racism and prejudice, environmental injustice, widespread political violence, and progressively-increasing polarization are rooted in a plethora of corners of American society and take visibility in healthcare, employment, and housing, among other sectors. Of the social institutions able to create change in the United States, the public education system is the most critical, yet politicized, institution present in society. Public education wields the power to mold Americans’ perceptions of the world around them and thus how they behave and treat an ever-diversifying United States; yet, professionals in education find themselves at an impasse of general inefficacy in creating worldly, tolerant, and sensitive individuals capable of imagining change in an equitable and actionable manner. Traditional education models used in the U.S. perpetuate epistemic violence, ethnocentrism, and ‘othering’ of marginalized groups, as well as an overall acceptance of violence as a historically-ingrained fact of life. These contemporary issues that permeate nearly every aspect of American life and hinder effective foreign policy interventions (due to the hypocrisy of domestic justice) can begin to be remedied by a reorientation of public education towards peace education cross-disciplinarily.
It’s apparent that you have drawn on your experience as an elementary public school educator through your recent interventions in the public education system within your tenure in President Biden’s administration. Your recent additions to education in providing free social and emotional learning courses are extremely refreshing to see, as they provide more nuanced and holistic education to American youth that truly attempts to educate the whole person, not just bolster one’s quantitative or qualitative skills without being attentive towards how they interact with the world around them. That being said, however, there are still many improvements possible in education that have the power to mitigate the aforementioned issues in American society, namely peace education and reduction in epistemic violence.
As the Secretary of Education, you can make a difference to push forward an effective pedagogy that emphasizes global participation and critical thinking in the context of global citizenship, instead of passive learning that features the regurgitation of facts.
Epistemic violence functions to silence decolonial and marginalized perspectives in education, preferencing and putting white, Western rhetoric on a pedestal and thus perpetuating such narratives through their spotlight in education. Epistemic violence itself is defined as “a political and educational tool obstructing and undermining non-Western experiences or approaches to knowledge” (Moncrieffe 2018). In U.S. public schools, epistemic violence is primarily perpetuated through social studies courses that favor rational, Western teaching methods, override peace education, and neglect to discuss the narratives of marginalized groups throughout history. As the Secretary of Education, you can make a difference to push forward an effective pedagogy that emphasizes global participation and critical thinking in the context of global citizenship, instead of passive learning that features the regurgitation of facts. Teaching clearly requires learning facts to form the basis of critical thought; however, narratives are unrighteously guided towards creating a pearlescent view of American politics and society that does not encourage active transformation by focusing on seemingly “just” American actions and “unjust” foreign actions. Such an education creates an indoctrination of nationalism that does not encourage students to become active global citizens and changemakers. Conversely, transrational education can “go beyond the limits of colonialism and give attention to the emotional, embodied, and metaphysical aspects” of peace education (Cremin et al 2018). Extremely important aspects of historical narratives are politicized within schools; American history is taught as discrete separate events, such as the Civil Rights Movement, Reconstruction, Stonewall, and Suffragette movement, instead of a continuous evolving movement for peace and equality. Public education appears to be oriented towards building “patriots” instead of active thinkers. It is evident that there is much pressure to push American rhetoric as the “greatest country in the world”; however, this creates extreme tension in modern generations in which domestic injustice has been featured, namely in the Black Lives Matter movement and healthcare injustice. Blinding students to the true history of their country creates rage when students do find out the reality of America’s dark history—teaching this from the beginning can shape students into people who can work critically to change society, instead of having to break through the bounds of ignorance later in life. Models need to be reoriented towards conflict transformation within the classroom, with social studies classes featuring active brainstorming of peacebuilding and open spaces to discuss personal experiences of students. Such tactics transform classroom spaces from a regurgitation of facts into active critical-thinking spaces.
Peace education should be implemented crossdisciplinarily through a variety of courses to effectively push students to become changemakers in the world. Such curriculum can be woven in throughout biology, civics, and history courses. In history courses that feature discussions of wars and limited discussions of peace-building and cooperation, students can come to accept war as an innate human behavior—one that cannot be stopped and can only potentially be mitigated. History courses should rework their curricula to focus on times of reconciliation in history, as well as discuss cooperation and peace-building. Students should be given the space to think for themselves on how to push reconciliation and restorative justice. Emphasizing this in history courses, instead of just learning about atrocities and moving on, will push students to become active and critical thinkers in the world around them that have the potential to create change in the future, versus remaining complacent. Students should be taught in biology courses that violence is not an innate human trait, but rather an environmental response. Discussions of evolution can quickly turn into misunderstood perceptions of survival of the fittest that reflect Social Darwinist beliefs and create an acceptance of violence and subjugation—these beliefs should be cut off at the root and explained away across multiple disciplines.
Peace education should be implemented crossdisciplinarily through a variety of courses to effectively push students to become changemakers in the world.
The UN is currently trying to shift away from crisis management in peace and justice: mitigating conflict and only utilizing negative peace maintains limited efficacy in the grand scheme of preventing suffering when ideologies themselves towards war and violence do not change. Instead, the UN is trying to switch to primary prevention tactics that “sustain international peace in all its dimensions” (Coleman & Fry 2021). Peace education has the potential to fit into this role as the most important and effective primary prevention tactic, changing the way individuals understand violence and the world around them from childhood on. Stopping violent perceptions at the root, peace education can be the most impactful action towards positive peace. In order for peace education to be effective, all-encompassing, and inclusive, epistemic violence must be addressed through action. Thus, investing in public education in this way is an extremely effective tactic towards growing American citizens to be worldly, sensitive, and understanding global citizens that have the power to curb injustice domestically and internationally. Peace education has the ability to teach students from a young age the idea of peace imagination and that war and violence are merely social inventions. With these perspectives, it is realistically possible to push towards a more peaceful and nonviolent world.
Peace education has the ability to teach students from a young age the idea of peace imagination and that war and violence are merely social inventions.
Thank you for your time and attention. I hope you take these thoughts into consideration in your tenure as Secretary of Education. It is imperative that we transform education to transform the United States into a more peaceful, equitable, and just country.
Student, Georgetown University School of Health
* Danielle Whisnant is pursuing a degree in global health at Georgetown University with a focus on the intersection of health and human rights.
Coleman, P. T., & Fry, D. P. (2021). What can we learn from the world’s most peaceful societies? Greater Good. Retrieved December 11, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_can_we_learn_from_the_worlds_most_peaceful_societies
Cremin, H., Echavarría, J., & Kester, K. (2020). Transrational peacebuilding education to reduce epistemic violence. Teaching Peace and War, 119–126. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429299261-16
Moncrieffe, M. (2018). Arresting ‘epistemic violence’: Decolonising the national curriculum for history. BERA. Retrieved December 11, 2022, from https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/arresting-epistemic-violence-decolonising-the-national-curriculum-for-history