They’ve Got the Whole World in Their Hands

September 1, 2009

McCormack_Ken_opinionby Ken McCormack

If we are to have peace, it must begin with the children.

For five years, during the 1970s, I taught nonviolence in a public high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a few miles from where the first atomic bomb was assembled. As far as I knew, it was the only peace studies course ever offered in a public school. Now I know of another one, the Peace Village Charter School in Eugene, started two years ago.

Recently, the military has vigorously been expanding its effort by to reach into the schools and recruit children right out of classrooms. This month The PeaceWorker highlights the struggle for the “hearts and minds” of the next generation. After all, the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s succeeded largely because they were made up of students — kids in college, high school, junior high and grade school.

School Intrinsically Sustains the Power

Structure Through Force and Violence

My nonviolence class in the 70s was a humble attempt to do no less than destroy the entire basis of modern education. I initially structured it around the content you might expect, readings from the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., comparative religion, transcendental psychology, civil disobedience and the sixties. But the most revolutionary aspect of the class was that after a few initial comments, I literally turned it over to the students. They ran it.

There was a slogan at the time: “the medium is the message”— the way information is delivered is more important than its content. The form of communication is everything, and the forms of public schools, the learning environment, the standard curriculum, the grades, tests, schedules, furniture, lectures and social roles, all teach domination through force. As a member of the power structure, I relinquished my power and shifted the class from a system based on force, punishment, domination and mistrust to one based on compassion, mutual trust and nonviolence.

No Grades, Desks, Compulsory

Attendance, Army Brown Walls

We immediately, therefore, dispensed with grades. Students decided to evaluate themselves (and me and the class) through a contractual agreement. They designed their own course of study, decided what grade to give themselves and planned how to spend class time on a day-to-day basis. They also dispensed with compulsory attendance.

Students then brought in some comfortable furniture, sofas, easy chairs, coffee tables, a vase with flowers, paintings and a stereo system. They painted the standard army-brown walls a dark rich blue and covered an entire wall with fancy tie-dyed sheets.

Someone painted a large cartoon on the front wall of a guy smoking dope and then dissolving into the wall. They completely covered the outside entrance to the class with an accurate reproduction of the Tarot card for Success or Happiness, the Sun. It was brilliant. When you entered the room, you “weren’t in Kansas anymore.” You were in a happy, comfortable teen-fantasy filled with joy, laughter, mutual support and compassionate optimism. Students soon invited favorite guests from all walks of life “to delight and instruct.” It became an area of open discussion. The hour often ended with standing applause.

Once students took ownership of the space, they protected it. They guarded the entrance and hung out in their spare time. It was never vandalized. Not a scratch. See: the class became the school’s most popular — by far. Students waited in long lines to get in. The dehumanizing dishonest roles melted away like the drugged face on the wall. The Prussian design of the classic room dissolved into love and respect.

Fellow Educators Didn’t Learn Anything

But most of my fellow teachers still didn’t get it. They resented my class as a gross betrayal of “discipline.” They were wringing their hands over the rebellious long hair and short skirts, the drugs and sex, the continual questioning of authority. They wanted another kind of peace and eventually got it. “They make a desert and call it peace.”

The French philosopher Michel Foucault has convincingly demonstrated that the mania for basic skills, testing and ranking of students is perhaps the most effective extension of state power in democracies of our modern age. It is clear that the enormous files of information on students — so much in fashion — are indeed mainly tools of social control, not of quality education.

But my nonviolence class offers more than nostalgia. It is a lesson about the possible. We may not have seen the likes of that very special young generation since the 70s, but somewhere on the near horizon there must be …arising …a generation …to save this planet. Φ

Ken McCormack, a retired journalist and a member of OPW’s Board of Directors, volunteers as The PeaceWorker’s Associate Editor.

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