Peace Education – OpEd


Living Together in Peace

The United Nations has designated the 16th of May as a day devoted to Living Together in Peace. It therefore seems appropriate to discuss the need for reforming our educational systems so that they will prepare young people for international cooperation and harmony rather than for participation in aggressive wars.

Traditional School Systems Aim at Indoctrination in Nationalism

School systems have traditionally aimed at producing nationalism in their students. Within the Roman Empire, students were taught the motto “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (It is sweet and noble to die for one’s country). In the era when the sun never set on the British Empire, schoolboys in England were taught the same motto, and the Roman Empire was held up as an ideal. One said the “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”.

If the reader will excuse a personal note, I can remember attending elementary schools in the United States where every morning we pledged allegiance to the US flag. With hands on our hearts, we students repeated “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands – one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I believe that with small changes in wording, this ceremony is repeated every day today in all American schools.

I can also remember, later on, my great surprise in learning that many of the wars conducted by the United States have been aggressive and unjust. There had been no hint of that in the history lessons of US schools. I believe that the situation is the same in every country. History lessons are an indoctrination in nationalism. In history, as it is taught, one’s own country is always heroic and in the right.

Today, in an era of instantaneous communication, global economic and cultural interdependence, and all-destroying modern weapons, the absolutely sovereign nation-state has become a dangerous anachronism. Blind nationalism too, has become a dangerous anachronism. Therefore we need to reform our school systems, but the process of making the needed changes is slowed the habits of teachers and administrators, and by shelves full of nationalistic history books.

The Urgent Need for Peace Education

Since modern war has become prohibitively dangerous, there is an urgent need for peace education. Why do we pay colossal sums for war, which we know is the source of so much human suffering, and which threatens to destroy human civilization? Why not instead support peace and peace education?  Many groups and individuals are already working for this goal. With even a little more support, they would be much more effective.

Reformed Teaching of History

Educational reforms are urgently needed, particularly in the teaching of history. As it is taught today, history is a chronicle of power struggles and war, told from a biased national standpoint. Our own race or religion is superior; our own country is always heroic and in the right.

We urgently need to replace this indoctrination in chauvinism by a reformed view of history, where the slow development of human culture is described, giving adequate credit to all who have contributed. Our modern civilization is built on the achievements of many ancient cultures. China, Japan, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, the Islamic world, Christian Europe, and the Jewish intellectual traditions all have contributed. Potatoes, corn, squash, vanilla, chocolate,  chili peppers, pineapples, quinine, etc. are gifts from the American Indians. Human culture, gradually built up over thousands of years by the patient work of millions of hands and minds, should be presented as a precious heritage – far too precious to be risked in a thermonuclear war.

The teaching of history should also focus on the times and places where good government and internal peace have been achieved, and the methods by which this has been accomplished. Students should be encouraged to think about what is needed if we are to apply the same methods to the world as a whole. In particular, the histories of successful federations should be studied, for example the Hanseatic League, the Universal Postal Union, the federal governments of Australia, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, and so on.  The recent history of the European Union provides another extremely important example. Not only the successes, but also the problems of federations  should be studied in the light of the principle of subsidiarity

Reformed Education of Economists and Businessmen

The education of economists and businessmen needs to face the problems of global poverty – the painful contrast between the affluence and wastefulness of the industrial North and the malnutrition, disease and illiteracy endemic in the South. Students of economics and business must look for the roots of poverty not only in population growth and war, but also in the history of colonialism and neocolonialism, and in defects in global financial institutions and trade agreements. They must be encouraged to formulate proposals for the correction of North-South economic inequality.

The economic impact of war and preparation for war should be included in the training of economists. Both direct and indirect costs should be studied. An example of an indirect cost of war is the effect of unimaginably enormous military budgets in reducing the amount of money available for solving the serious problems facing the world today.

Since the unending growth of any physical quantity on a finite planet is a logical impossibility, students of economics must be encouraged to think about how a steady-state economic system may be achieved.

Teaching Global Ethics

Professors of theology should emphasize  three absolutely central components of religious ethics: the duty to love and forgive one’s enemies, the prohibition against killing, and the concept of universal human brotherhood. They should make their students conscious of a responsibility to give sermons that are relevant to the major political problems of the modern world, and especially to relate the three ethical principles just mentioned to the problem of war. Students of theology should be made conscious of their responsibility to soften the boundaries between ethnic groups, to contribute to inter-religious understanding, and to make marriage across racial and religious boundaries more easy and frequent.

The Social Responsibility of Scientists

Since In teaching science too, reforms are needed. Graduates in science and engineering should be conscious of their responsibilities. They must resolve never to use their education in the service of war, nor for the production of weapons, nor in any way that might be harmful to society or to the environment.

The Growth of Global Consciousness

Besides a humane, democratic and just framework of international law and governance, we urgently need a new global ethic, – an ethic where loyalty to family, community and nation will be supplemented by a strong sense of the brotherhood of all humans, regardless of race, religion or nationality. Schiller expressed this feeling in his “Ode to Joy”, a part of which is the text of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Hearing Beethoven’s music and Schiller’s words, most of us experience an emotion of resonance and unity with the message: All humans are  brothers and sisters – not just some – all! It is almost a national anthem of humanity. The feelings that the music and words provoke are similar to patriotism, but broader. It is this sense of a universal  human family that we need to cultivate in education, in the mass media, and in religion. We already appreciate music, art and literature from the entire world, and scientific achievements are shared by all, regardless of their country of origin. We need to develop this principle of universal humanism so that it will become the cornerstone of a new ethic


*John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).


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