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Volume 3, Number 2, February 2003

The Community College in Peace and War*
by David J. Smith

*This article originally appeared in Community College Week on August 19, 2002. Reprinted with permission.


Within the next month, it is possible that the U.S. will be at war with Iraq. Regardless of your views of the correctness of this action, it has become clear to American educators that more efforts have to be placed in exposing students to issues of violence, war, and peace.

As a community college educator, my students represent a wide range of characteristics: from first time underachievers to returning students matured by age and experience. From my perspective, all can benefit from considering current global and local issues of conflict.

It is my contention that community colleges have a special obligation to examine issues of conflict and resolution because community colleges, as open door institutions, are “democracy’s colleges.”

We have all heard the expression, “Everything changed on September 11.” Though ubiquitous, it is sorrowfully true for those impacted directly and personally by the horrific events of that day. However, for most people the effect of those atrocities has been less traumatic, yet still quite personal.

As educators of learners who are often at life’s crossroads, we are at times permitted a glimpse into the private lives of our students. I frequently have been a confidant to my students, knowing about their personal anxieties, misfortunes, hopes and triumphs in a way that often places me in a role of a therapist. Immediately after Sept. 11, I spent time in class and with students one-on-one, reflecting on the events of that day and trying to help them find meaning in the tragedies. For some of my students, their views were not ones that could be shared at home with family or friends, but they felt safe and supported in a college classroom or a professor’s office.

As community college educators, we have front row seats (often not shared with our colleagues in 4-year institutions) to the interplay between public events and personal impact. Our students are affected more than most by the public realities of the day: changes in welfare laws, single parenthood, divorce, mental illness, domestic violence, military service call-up, HIV/AIDS and unemployment. You name it, we have seen it, and witnessed our students soar on or sink under those realities.

Of all the challenges facing our students, the ones that are the most arduous yet humanizing are associated with conflict. Conflict, whether it is a good thing (and transforming) or a bad thing (and debilitating), takes innumerable forms. It is often characterized by personal internal struggle that might manifest itself physically or emotionally. It is, so to speak, the “stuff of life.”

Since 1998, I have taught a general education course on peace and conflict studies. Once found only at small liberal-arts and religious four-year institutions, the field has recently gained ground at public institutions. In 2000, the Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development reported that there were 590 peace and conflict programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the U.S. and Canada. This was up from 254 in 1995. While more institutions are developing programs or freestanding courses, only a handful of these entities are community colleges. This is troublesome in light of the fact that, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, 44 percent of all American undergraduates — some 10.4 million students — are enrolled at community colleges.

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