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Volume 3, Number 2, February 2003

The Community College in Peace and War
(page 2 of 2)

As a discrete discipline, peace and conflict studies has only recently come into its own. With roots in the United States going back to post World War II, most colleges that supported such programs in the beginning had missions that were aligned with pacifism or nonviolence. Peace and conflict studies does not lend itself to easy description. At times, it has been considered politically radical and therefore not objectively academic, especially in public-education settings. In fact, peace and conflict studies today is less politically doctrinal and more interdisciplinary in its approach. Its central mission is to assist students in understanding the sources of and responses to conflict. Courses and programs frame the material in a global and multicultural context. Peace and conflict studies curricula focus on exploring not only “negative” peace, often thought of as the absence of violence and war, but also “positive” peace — that is, the proactive efforts society and individuals can make in creating and maintaining a just and nonviolent world.

In my introductory course, coverage starts with a social-science understanding of conflict and violence. The “nature” versus “nurture” argument on human violence is considered. From there, we explore conflict in various contexts, including family life, school, media portrayals, literature, past and current world events, various forms of discrimination, historical figures such Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., conflict resolution, Native American cultures and the visual and performing arts. As a culminating activity, students prepare a paper and presentation on a topic related to peace and conflict in the context of their major or area of interest. Of late, students have given presentations on rap music, violence in children’s programming, domestic violence, Buddhism and conflict, the persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in World War II and the process of claiming conscientious-objector status.

It is a fluid course. I made changes after the Columbine school shootings, and will make changes this fall to reflect our post-9/11 reality, adding units on terrorism and understanding Islam.

As mentioned, few community colleges have dealt with the subject as a separate program or course. The study of conflict and violence is often treated as an intracourse unit in other subjects such as sociology, history, philosophy or political science. Unfortunately, such treatment is sometimes unavoidably scant and often fails to show the connectedness that violence and conflict have to other fields — a connectedness that can only be grasped through an interdisciplinary analysis. Many community colleges — including mine — that offer a legal assistant/paralegal studies program offer a skills-based conflict resolution course emphasizing mediation. Though valuable, most of these courses focus exclusively on the legal system and how different means can be used in lieu of litigation to settle disputes. Little time is devoted to understanding the nature and underlying causes of conflict or how overall peaceful resolution can be reached and sustained.

Which brings me back to September 11. What should community colleges commit themselves to in a post 9/11 world? Does peace and conflict studies add to the community college academic environment? Can community colleges support this field? There is now an urgent need to expose students to world traditions and cultures. Council for International Exchange of Scholars Executive Director Patti McGill Peterson told the American Council for International Intercultural Education in April, “Responding to the international imperative requires going beyond area studies to design courses that examine where cultures intersect, integrate or clash, because that is the world the ‘globally competent learner’ will need to understand."

There is considerable and appropriate support for multi-cultural and international education, but more needs to be done — especially in understanding conflict and violence. Helping students understand how conflict affects their lives — as well as the lives in other parts of the world — is a valuable experience, and should be an essential component of global learning. Our community-college colleagues are no less capable of presenting this material than faculty at four-year institutions. In fact, many community college instructors are far ahead of our four-year colleagues in teaching in interdisciplinary ways, because we are often configured in multi-disciplined units or teach in several content areas.

As community colleges come to grips with the impact of 9/11, we need to consider appropriate curriculum initiatives that will make our students better equipped to understand the world of today and tomorrow. Peace and conflict studies can be an essential part of the solution.

David J. Smith, JD, is a tenured associate professor in the Social Sciences Division at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland. He teaches legal studies, conflict resolution, and peace and conflict studies. He is a member of the Maryland bar and a trained mediator. David also serves as a commissioner on the Harford County (Md.) Community Mediation Program.

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