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Teaching peace in a time of violence

In September 2020, President Trump signed an order calling for a commission on “patriotic education,” in response to what he considered anti-American sentiments seeping into school curricula around the United States. He accused teachers of teaching a “twisted web of lies” by including lessons from the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examines American history through the lens of the African slave trade. His remarks were denounced by the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of History Teachers, and raised important questions about the roles of teachers in American society. Should teachers teach content that avoids controversy? Is it a teacher’s duty to teach love for country, even when that country has a legacy of violence?

These questions have been at the core of my own work as an educator and scholar since 1999, when I began teaching high school English, but became even more important after September 11, 2001. In the months and years that followed the 9/11 attacks, I observed the ways that patriotism was used as a cudgel against dissent by people like myself, Americans frightened by the popular embrace of racism, Islamophobia, and militarism across the country. When my students expressed these sentiments in class, I did not know how to intervene or respond, and wondered if it was even my job to do so. Yet, as the War on Terror became more deadly, and the country devolved into culture wars over immigration and gay marriage, my students increasingly looked to me for explanations about the violence both at home and abroad. As their teacher, I wanted to have answers, but was coming up short.

Things changed in 2005, when I attended a two-week training for K-12 teachers on nonviolence and social change, at the Ahimsa Center for Nonviolence at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. Along with a cohort of 30 other educators, I learned about nonviolence as a philosophy, as a political strategy, and as a force for reconciliation in diverse contexts. At the institute, I learned that the decade of 2000-2010 had been designated by the UN General Assembly as the “International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World.” The UN Resolution references the Constitution of UNESCO, which stated that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” Learning about the International Decade empowered me to think of myself as a defender of peace; as a constructor of peace in the minds of my students and colleagues whom I saw every day at school.

Inspired by my experience in 2005, I became a facilitator at subsequent institutes, allowing me to work closely with over 200 K-12 teachers hailing from all over the United States, from Hawaii to Maine, Washington to Florida. Through this work, I recognized that teachers are indeed essential to cultivating a culture of peace and nonviolence; they are embedded in schools and communities and witness how various forms of violence manifest in the lives of their students. Some seek nonviolence because they see anti-gay bullying and anti-immigrant bashing in their schools; others are concerned by the way violence is emphasized in curriculum.

One of the goals of the institute is to help teachers, called “Ahimsa Fellows,” learn how to build nonviolent relationships with students and colleagues, drawing on nonviolent principles and practices. In my role as a facilitator, I worked with the teachers as they created standards-based lesson plans exploring nonviolence; within these 400 lesson plans created over the last 15 years, teachers explored peaceful conflict resolution for 1st graders, nonviolent marches in the United States for 7th grade history, the monetary impact of boycotts in 9th grade Algebra, and environmental justice for 12th graders. Throughout the new curricula, teachers draw on a wide range of nonviolent leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, César Chávez, and Nelson Mandela, as well as a range of concepts, like forgiveness and ahimsa (Sanskrit for nonviolence), to help students understand how they might choose nonviolence in their everyday lives.

The French philosopher Jean-Marie Muller, in Non-violence in Education (2002), wrote that “Teachers must have the initial and in-service training needed to enable them to question and re-adjust their educational choices in the light of the philosophy of non-violence.” Recently, 18 teachers trained at the Ahimsa Center wrote about their experiences learning about nonviolence for a book, Teachers Teaching Nonviolence. In their narratives, the teachers describe the forms of violence that compelled them to go beyond the delivery of academic content, and illuminate how the lens of nonviolence helped them make educational choices galvanized by a belief that teachers can be agents of nonviolent social change. Their stories reveal that teachers must be willing to talk about the violence of the past, and the injustices of the present, in order to provide an education that prepares them to create a better future. Perhaps, in doing so, they demonstrate a love for country grounded less in patriotism, and more so in peace and mutual understanding.



  • Crowley, M. (2020, September 17). Trump Calls for ‘Patriotic Education’ to Defend American History From the Left. New York Times.
  • Muller, J. M. (2002). Non-violence in education. Paris: Unesco.
  • United Nations General Assembly. (2006). Resolution 61/45: International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World, 2001–2010.
Featured image by Jeffrey Hamilton

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