Three Critical Themes for 21st Century Peace Education: Resilience, Holism, and the Abolition of War

Tony Jenkins

Vice President for Academic Affairs, National Peace Academy
Global Director, International Institute on Peace Education
(Featured Article: Issue #106 July 2013)

Tony Jenkins

As we step further and further into the 21st century, the field of peace education continues to evolve, much as it always has.  New forms of violence – from drone strikes to invasions of privacy – continuously emerge and we adapt, reflect and respond with new and sometimes recycled educational strategies that we hope may turn back the tide and lay foundations for a more stable peace. All the while, as we humans continue our senseless experimentation with new forms of violent warfare, the climate crisis has settled in like a low hanging fog.  It’s ever present, we see it everywhere we look, but we move through the fog as if it weren’t there.  Encountering fog can be magical; it softens the edges of everything within our perception.  Yet the fog may lure us into a false sense of security, and we forget that it may also conceal great danger, and our next steps could be our last.  

Fog is a convenient metaphor to use in peace education.  The way it may mask and limit vision of our surroundings is not all that dissimilar to the way a worldview operates.  Worldview shapes one’s perceptions, values, attitudes and actions.  A worldview also operates as a fancy filtration device; those things that don’t fit within our worldview can be unconsciously discarded. There are few worldviews that accommodate contradictions as they destabilize the perceived harmony we have with our self and the world around us. This is why the transformation of violent worldviews may be the greatest practical and pedagogical challenge of peace education. Peace educators are as susceptible to worldview blindness as anyone else.  It is critical for us – for everyone – to develop strong, reflective capacities and practices to help to navigate the fog. 

I perceive three critical themes for 21st century peace education: resilience, holism and the abolition of war, among those obscured or ignored. These have been befogged issues for me, and by observation and extension – I believe –for many in peace education.  These are big themes, and hardly new ones, but I would argue they warrant new and vigorous reflection as they have the potential to shape a new collective discourse and direction for the field of peace education.

Resilience (and Adaptation)  

seidlResilience is an important attitude and state of mind that’s essential to anyone working for change and transformation – especially peace educators.  We know our goals are long-term, but it’s easy to lose hope and focus in the day-to-day and the mundane.  Nurturing and maintaining our capacities of resilience may ease the shock of the bumps in the road that we will surely encounter.  Outside of the classroom, however, is where resilience, and its accompanying capacity of adaptation, will surely be needed.  The realities of climate change are frightening:  things are going to get much worse. We can’t escape that.   If scientific predictions hold true, climate change will be the greatest cause of insecurity in the 21st century.   Even the researchers at the Pentagon agree with this one.  Amy Seidl, in her optimistic book “Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming,” argues that humans and animals are brilliantly good at adapting.  Her message is important: much of the current framing of our fight against climate change is about prevention to avoid catastrophe.  While we must continue on the path of prevention, we also must prepare to face inevitable changes.  The scope of the changes we will experience may be greater than anything humankind – at least in recorded history – has experienced.   Seidl cites science that says the positive adaptations required to survive and thrive are easily within our grasp.  Yet, for many amongst us to talk of adaption is akin to giving in and admitting defeat.  In someway it is a worldview dilemma: we’ve grown accustomed to believing we can solve all of our problems.  It is also part psychology: the fear of change also fosters resistance.   To a great degree, therefore, preparation for resilience and adaptation is a task of transformative peace learning.  Peace educators need to find and provide examples, such as those provided by Seidl’s research, that show the potentiality of alternative futures that fall outside of our current ways of thinking.  We also need to engage students in practical, everyday experiences that capacitate them to adapt to a changing world.

Questions for consideration and reflection:

  • What pedagogical forms might be most relevant for nurturing resilience?
  • What skills and practices can we develop towards capacitating citizens for adaption? 
  • What are some practical educational approaches and strategies for challenging our worldview about change?

Holism (Integrating the Personal and the Political)

5spheresHolism is a theme that finds relevance in nearly all aspects of peace education; from curricula to pedagogy, holism establishes an ecological narrative of a web of interdependent relationships between ideas, peoples, cultures, the living world and the cosmos.  One aspect of holism that I seek to address here is the false dichotomy between preparation for the personal and the political dimensions of peace work.    If we think in holistic or systemic terms, we come to grasp that both are essential, each shaping and influencing the other.   They work side-by-side in a symbiotic relationship.  However, the development of the skills and capacities of these two intertwined dimensions of peacebuilder development are typically pursued in isolation.  This is an error we need to correct.  The debate is often framed as a “chicken or egg” scenario:  “you can’t work with others for peace unless you have peace within your self.”  I believe this thinking to be problematic.  It’s not possible to “have” peace within your self, it’s not something you can possess – it’s something one must constantly work at.  A more appropriate rephrasing of the above would be to say “you can’t work with others for peace unless you are working on peace within your self.”  We need to encounter relationships outside our self as part of the process of our inner development — and vice-versa.   I recently wrote about some of these traps of thinking in an essay on comprehensive peace education (1):

Observing and developing awareness of these traps should strengthen, rather than diminish the significance of inner peace work. Starting with self is a logical entry point to peace development; it is the sphere in which the impacts of transformations can be most readily observed and felt. However, when pursuing learning for personal peace, or any other sphere of peace for that matter, one should also identify the mutually reinforcing interrelationships between and amongst each of the spheres. Learning conducted in isolation leads to a fractured understanding of the whole (p. 12).

Peace education in the 21st century needs to look at how we conduct learning in preparation for the personal and political dimensions of peace.  This should especially be addressed in the academic peace community, where rifts often exist between the political and social scientists.  Rather than working collegially towards holistic solutions to violence, the disciplines work in isolation.  Transdisciplinary dialogue and research could help reveal more holistic responses to conflict. 

Questions for consideration and reflection:

  • What is the nature of the relationship between the personal and the political?  How do they shape and influence each other?
  • How would you facilitate holistic learning that integrates knowledge and skills of the personal and the political?
  • What are the issues that create divisions within the academic community and how might they be overcome?

The Abolition of War

war-is-overLast month’s issue of the GCPE newsletter included a special feature on the abolition of war.  It would almost be funny – if not so tragic – that the abolition of war has almost completely vanished from peace education curricula and discourse.  It’s not just in peace education circles that the abolition of war is largely ignored.  Even at the UN, an institution designed to end war, the topic is seldom raised.  I can only speculate as to the reasons for this vanishing act.  Over the past 10 years there has been a distinct and observable shift from education for negative peace to education for positive peace.  This has led to many positive developments; educators and students are now thinking about and imaging the world they desire.  The concept of a culture of peace is more tangible that it has ever been.  However, in the meantime many in peace education have ignored the need to engage learners in processes of critical conflict analysis and have neglected learning and skills development for active nonviolent resistance.   In Gandhian terms, the aforementioned positive peace dimensions would be described as constructive programme; positive action and processes through which just and right relationships are nurtured and built.  On the other hand is Satyagraha, active, nonviolent resistance built upon truth.  Satyagraha is necessary for speaking truth to power, and making invisible injustices visible.  It is also very hard work that takes significant training and preparation.  Here again we find a false dichotomy – like the personal/political – that needs to be overcome.  We need the constructive programming and the visioning work upon which our preferred futures can be built – and we need to address and resist injustice in the present.  We need to simultaneously work from the future back to the present and the present to the future. We can do both. 

The issue of the abolition of war also extends beyond these dichotomies in our teaching.  The nature of war has changed and in many ways has become more insidious.  Civilians – and women in particular – are now the majority of wars’ victims and fatalities.    Violence is now perpetrated by remote control.  Wars are now perpetual, waged between nation states and non-state parties and ideas.  We need to carefully examine those arguments so poignantly made in last month’s newsletter by Betty Reardon on Criminalizing War and Those who Make It and Dale Snauwaert on Upholding a Human Right to Peace; else we risk losing our way toward peace, failing to perceive opportunities to “end the scourge” that are continually obscured by “the fog of war.”  Too many already believe that little can be changed.  Last month, on June 6, at the United Nations High Level Panel on the Scourge of War, one of the panelists responded to a proposal about reforming the Security Council by saying it was impossible.  Such thinking is rooted in a worldview that says war is inevitable.  We must challenge and seek to transform this worldview with every opportunity we have.  “War is over if you want it [to be]” is partly true.  We need to know and believe that it’s possible, we need to prepare for the future, and we need to prepare to engage in the active nonviolent resistance that is necessary to challenge it. 

Questions for consideration and reflection:

  • What do you think are the reasons for the decline in teaching about the abolition of war? 
  • How might you integrate teaching about the abolition of war into your current practice?
  • How would you facilitate learning for worldview transformation?  What pedagogical form of philosophy would be most relevant?

(1) Tony Jenkins (2013): The transformative imperative: the National Peace Academy as an emergent framework for comprehensive peace education, Journal of Peace Education, DOI:10.108017400201.2013.790251

About the Author. Tony Jenkins is the Vice President for Academic Affairs of the National Peace Academy and also serves as the Global Coordinator for the International Institute on Peace Education and the Global Campaign for Peace Education.  Prior to joining the NPA, Tony was the Co-Director of the Peace Education Center at Teachers College, Columbia University for 10 years.  Tony has worked around the world supporting the development of “learning communities” of peace educators to address and transform local manifestations of violence through education and active citizen participation. Tony’s current work and research interests focus on examining the impacts and effectiveness of peace education methods and pedagogies in nurturing personal, social, and political change and transformation.  Tony’s areas of expertise include teacher training in peace education, peace pedagogy, gender and peace, and disarmament education. 

Join the Campaign & help us #SpreadPeaceEd!
Please send me emails:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top