Can we teach peace?

"Education, with its supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, all its carrots and sticks, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of [human]kind" (Holt, 4)

One of the earliest critics of mass, compulsory, state-run education suggested that "‘the project of a national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government...Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hand and perpetuate its institutions..."(Godwin, quoted in Ward)

Can we teach peace in institutions which rely on obedience to hierarchy in a framework of regimentation?

How will young children experience peace when they are programmed to stand at attention for a song like the Canadian anthem if we view states as the largest purveyors of violence in the world?

The largest discretionary use of Canada’s budget goes to the military whose weapons have been used to destroy civilian infrastructure and kill civilians (a war crime) in Kosovo and Iraq, and to suppress legitimate claims of First Nations here.

While we’re spending billions on weapons, people are sleeping on streets, in crammed shelters or paying most of their incomes to house themselves and their families in this country.

Perhaps most importantly we need to ask, how do we teach peace to children when we ourselves do not engage in actions to end domination and the structural violence of poverty in our own communities?

How can we then, not teach peace, but move towards working for peace. How can we take the idea of peace and make it active in our lives, rescue it from being something taught in abstract terms in a classroom cued to the requirements of curriculum, and transform it into a living experience?

What we need is not more students marching in time toward their place in the corporate or bureaucratic machine, "well-adjusted" to society, but more disobedients, more creative individuals armed with their own unique perspectives on the world: in short, more people who don’t fit in.

"It’s the structures of society that we’ve got to change. We don’t change [people's] hearts....the idea that it doesn’t make a great deal of difference what the people are; if they’re in the system, they’re going to function like the system dictates that they function." (Horton, 103)

When we talk of teaching peace, or peace education, are we talking of challenging the un-peaceful notion of domination and hierarchy inherent in the school system itself? Or within the larger context of exploitative capitalism?

Will teaching peace in schools make more peaceful people? More peace in the world? My sense is that despite the good intentions of educators the answer is no. We need to find ways of breaking down the gap between what we teach (peace) and how we live our lives. A good place to start is with how we operate schools.

I would offer, as radical [and i hate to use the term, but] 'pedagogy' demands, that we "make the road by walking."


"Experience has come to be considered the best school of life....Yet strange to say, that though organized institutions continue perpetuating errors, though they learn nothing from the experience, we acquiesce, as a matter of course." (Goldman, Anarchism, p. 145)

Isn’t the best way to learn about peace through our own actions, by engagement with the forces of violence in our community?

People praying for peace beneath the nose-mounted gun of a U.S. warplane at the Hamilton International Air Show are arrested, handcuffed, taken to the police station and charged with a criminal offence of mischief. The lesson?: When you nonviolently act on your belief in peace you become, in the city of Hamilton, in Ontario, in Canada, a criminal.

A secondary lesson in media literacy is developed by witnessing how such actions are marginalized, distorted or outright ignored in the media, a corporate-owned, profit-driven media who on a normal day feed off violence and domination in order to sell advertising space.

It was instructive to note how the city council sided with, and funded war show proponents $100,000 per year at the expense of other socially necessary agencies, or how poorly the courts treated the non-violent arrestees when it came time for bail. We learned about trials and argued successfully for acquittal without lawyers. Finally, we learned a bit about building a community of struggle and resistance, and supporting each other as we found our way to a moral position.


My experience tells me that a Culture of Peace is not achieved by merely learning the history or theory, reading, going to classes or meetings, but through active involvement in confronting the war-makers among us.

This is true of most things: Learning happens when opportunity blends with inclination. Curriculum and schedule in the routine and coercive nature of school is for the most part a planned and scheduled waste of time, not likely to yield results worth the money and time invested in mass compulsory education.

What then, if not schools as we’ve experienced in Canada?

Perhaps "schools from which the principle of authority will be eliminated:

‘‘They will be schools no longer; they will be popular academies in which neither pupils nor masters will be known, where the people will come and freely get, if they need it, free instruction, and in which, rich in their own expertise, they will teach in turn many things to the professors who shall bring them knowledge which they lack.' "(Bakunin, quoted in Ward)

This approach would be the end of schools as we’ve known them. Child-centered learning is antithetical to present day schooling, "alternative", or otherwise. The distance between what is required and what a child gets is immense:

"All the value of education rests in the respect for the physical, intellectual, and moral will of the child....Now, there is nothing easier than to alter this purpose, and nothing harder than to respect it. Education is always imposing, violating, constraining; the real educator is he [sic] who can best protect the child against his (the teacher’s) own ideas...and peculiar whims; he who can best appeal to the child’s own energies." (Ferrer, quoted in Goldman, p163)

Where to turn for a model for change? Martha Ackelsberg, in her book Free Women of Spain points to one possibility:

"We can best understand the Spanish anarchist perspective on empowerment and the process of consciousness-change by examining their commitment to decentralism and "direct action." Decentralism referred to an insistence that revolution must be, at its core, a local phenomenon, growing out of the concrete realities of people’s day-to-day lives....Direct action meant that the goal of any and all of these activities was to provide ways for people to get in touch with their own powers and capacities, to take back the power of naming themselves and their lives.... Knowledge does not precede experience, it flows from it: ‘We begin by deciding to work, and through working, we learn’....People learn how to be free only by exercising freedom" (Ackelsberg, 32)

If we want to learn about peace, we must keep ends and means in mind and, like the Spanish anarchists, begin by deciding to work for peace, and through working, learn.

Randy Kay


Ackelsberg, Martha A. Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women, Indiana Press, 1991.

Goldman, Emma: Anarchism and Other Essays. Dover, New York, 1969

Holt, John. Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better. Dutton, New York, 1976

Horton, Myles and Freire, Paulo: We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, Temple, Philadelphia,1990.

Ward, Colin. Anarchy in Action, Freedom, London, 1998.