Unraveling America’s Shame: Embracing Peace Education Amidst School Wars

By addressing the deeply ingrained issues within our educational system, we can transform schools from sources of conflict into spaces of enlightenment, understanding, and peace.

By Femi Higgins*

In recent years, several legislations have emerged that have caused conflicts within educational institutions. Conflicts can often lurk beneath the surface of educational policies, manifesting in harmful and discriminatory actions and attitudes. These damaging actions and attitudes can take the form of cultural violence and structural violence. Cultural violence refers to aspects of a society’s customs, beliefs, and practices that can harm certain groups of people, making violence seem “right” or “acceptable” within that culture. On the other hand, structural violence is about the harm caused by unfair and unequal societal systems and structures, leading to unequal access to resources, opportunities, and rights for some groups.

These types of violence actively suppress discussions on race, gender, LGBTQ+ identities, and American history. Despite the clear discriminatory implications, policymakers label these initiatives benign, although they blatantly marginalize numerous communities. While the value of education is universally recognized in the United States, education has historically been a source of conflict. Recent legislation to curb the “woke agenda” is a sordid manifestation of the larger problem.

Since the 1960s, there has been a growing focus in the United States for schools to offer ethnic studies courses and multicultural educational materials to provide students with a keen sense of ethics, respect, and appreciation of people from various social backgrounds. The intended goal of both educational approaches is to teach about the histories, cultures, and intellectual traditions of oppressed people in K-12 and post-secondary education, which is centered mainly on the values and cultures of Euro-American people. Today, educators and policymakers alike have focused on making ethnic studies a permanent fixture in primary and secondary education and integrating diverse perspectives and cultures into the curriculum. 

However, despite these efforts, we still haven’t seen much progress in reducing disagreements and improving understanding and respect between different cultures. I contend that unless state and federal educational agencies systematically address larger societal problems through a robust peace and human rights education program that brokers local concerns and considers the harmful impacts of laws rooted in racial superiority, education will continue to be a cause of violence (i.e., direct, cultural, and structural) rather than a source of unity, especially for conservative states, like Florida and Texas. 

Unless state and federal educational agencies systematically address larger societal problems through a robust peace and human rights education program that brokers local concerns and considers the harmful impacts of laws rooted in racial superiority, education will continue to be a cause of violence rather than a source of unity.

Curriculum Control: Suppressing Diversity

The curriculum is a hot topic, especially for lawmakers and education policymakers who see progressive concepts as a threat to American values and traditions. In this context, the book “The Two Faces of Education in Ethnic Conflict” by Kenneth Bush and Diana Saltarelli becomes crucial. Their seminal work uncovers how education can be a double-edged sword to heighten or reconcile ethnic tensions. This is particularly pertinent in the U.S., with its rich history of diverse ethnicities, shedding light on how education can either sow seeds of mutual respect and understanding among different ethnic groups or deepen existing divides. They explored the phenomenon of the manipulation of history for political gain, leading to a skewed representation that elevates one group at the expense of another. This manipulation and suppression of perceived subversive or divisive events, ideas, and intellectual histories are notably prevalent in education.

Given this, the ongoing restrictions on teaching topics related to gender, sexual orientation, race, and racism bring to the fore the legacies of the U.S. education system, which seems more inclined to preserve and protect certain dominances and narratives, causing more division than unity. In Florida, laws like the “Parental Rights in Education” and the “Stop Woke Act” prohibit incorporating initiatives like the 1619 Project and discussions about gender and sexuality into the curriculum—clear instances of selective highlighting or minimization of historical events to maintain control. A glaring example of this is the recent approval by Florida’s Department of Education of an AP African-American history course that dictates that instruction for middle school students include how slaves developed skills that, in some instances, could be used for their personal benefit. These political maneuvers normalize cultural violence and undercut human rights, including the right to dignified and humanizing education.

The Wealth Gap: Classrooms as Casualties 

The disparity in school funding creates unequal schooling experiences, especially between white and non-white students, leading to significantly different outcomes. These funding disparities often result in schools in low-income districts receiving fewer resources and inferior instructional materials than wealthier districts, impacting the effectiveness and quality of education for students in these areas. This includes students learning English, immigrants, and students with disabilities. Implementing courses like ethnic studies and acquiring multicultural educational resources becomes particularly challenging in communities with fewer resources.

Similarly, schools in geographically isolated areas face unique funding, staffing, resource acquisition, and transportation challenges. This discrepancy in resource allocation manifests economic violence – a situation where people are harmed economically and denied the means to live well and have a fair chance in life, often due to their financial conditions. This translates to limited access to high-quality teaching, advanced courses, and enrichment opportunities that nurture critical thinking and problem-solving skills in education, including a disconnect from nonprofit and social services, particularly affecting low-income families. This form of economic injustice further deepens socioeconomic divisions, limits social mobility, and sustains cycles of poverty.

Proposed Solutions: The Path Forward

The link between education and conflict is tricky and complex, but it isn’t something we can’t change. Some states are trying out ideas like ‘restorative justice’ programs, introducing multicultural curricula, robust language programs, and making ethnic studies a requirement. But only some of these steps are working as we’d hoped. Many people need to see the connection between what’s taught in schools and the bigger societal conflicts. Plus, how we allocate resources, privatize education, and deal with local power and identity politics often makes schools a battleground instead of a place of learning.

To make schools a place of unity and not a source of conflict, I suggest that our education agencies focus on three key areas to tackle underlying sources of conflict: 

  1. Integrating peace education in K-12 and post-secondary education. Peace education is not just a “feel-good” addition to the curriculum; it’s essential. It’s like giving students a compass in our diverse world, ensuring they know facts and figures and understand the importance of respect, empathy, and collaboration across different cultures and viewpoints. Imagine a math class where students don’t just learn about numbers but analyze real-world issues related to peace and conflict, such as data on refugee movements, understanding the economic impacts of war, or deepening their understanding of geometry and its connection to national borders and historical land divisions. Picture a social studies lesson that doesn’t just touch on wars and treaties but dives into the root causes of conflicts and explores how they’ve been resolved—or could be—in different parts of the world. Science lessons could explore how public health issues, like pandemics or lack of access to healthcare, can lead to social unrest or conflict. Discuss the role of science in addressing these challenges and promoting health equity. Hands-on experiences, such as role-playing negotiation scenarios or working on community projects, teach students how to apply peace principles in real-world situations.By weaving peace education throughout the K-12 and post-secondary curricula, we’re equipping them with the understanding and tools they’ll need to advocate for peace, understanding, and collaboration in whatever field or community they choose to be part of.
  2.  Move from a top-down approach to curriculum development to a transparent and inclusive curriculum development process. Curriculum development is often a source of contention and can alienate various community groups. Federal State agencies should ensure that the curriculum development process is transparent and involves many stakeholders. Using the family and community engagement offices to build curriculum development committees of educators, community leaders, parents, students, and experts from various fields (history, sociology, gender studies, etc.) to help create a curriculum holistically representing the country’s diverse history and values. This process can facilitate open dialogue and discussion, reducing the likelihood of bias or exclusion of essential topics. Furthermore, including community input can increase the likelihood of the curriculum being accepted and integrated successfully within schools.
  3. Establish comprehensive teacher training on intercultural sensitivity and conflict transformation. Teachers are on the frontlines of the educational experience. They directly impact students and play a crucial role in shaping their perspectives. Federal and state agencies should prioritize and fund comprehensive training for educators on intercultural sensitivity, conflict transformation, and effective teaching strategies for navigating multilingual and multicultural classrooms. Teachers should be equipped to handle tough questions, facilitate respectful dialogue among students with differing viewpoints, and create an inclusive classroom environment. By doing so, schools can foster a safer space for all students to learn and express themselves, and educators can better address and navigate controversial topics to promote understanding and unity.

Implementing these changes can foster enhanced societal cohesion and mutual respect, reducing stereotypes and prejudices ingrained within our communities. By transforming our education system in such a manner, we create a more inclusive and equitable learning environment and cultivate a society where diversity is valued and respected – a society where understanding and appreciation of varied cultures and identities lead to harmony rather than conflicts, building a more robust, united nation for future generations.

As we strive to forge a path towards unity, acknowledging the challenges is the first step. By addressing the deeply ingrained issues within our educational system, we can transform schools from sources of conflict into spaces of enlightenment, understanding, and peace. The America of tomorrow depends on the choices we make for our schools today.

About the author: Femi Higgins is the Founder and Managing Director of Tangible Culture and is an Adjunct Professor in the Communications Department at the State University of New York at Oswego. As an educator-activist, Femi has developed curricula—particularly related to social justice, intercultural learning, and peace education— for educators and movement workers in the U.S. and abroad. They are pursuing their doctorate at the University of San Francisco in international and multicultural education, focusing on peace and human rights education.

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