Rauhan Kasvatus Instituuti

Professor Hilary Cremin: The next 40 years of peace education

To confront the structural violence of our societies, including new forms, we need to rethink the notion of peace and look away from overly-cognate pedagogies, drawing on art, music, meditation, story-telling and poetry instead.

When I discovered that the Peace Education Institute in Finland had made my book Positive Peace in Schools the subject of a reading group, I could not have felt more honoured. It is therefore with a great deal of pleasure that I take up the challenge of commemorating their 40th anniversary through writing this short piece which shares my thoughts about peace education over the next 40 years.  

It goes without saying that I see this through the lens of positive peace. This beautiful concept from Johan Galtung appears timeless to me. Two questions emerge. Firstly: How will we work towards the reduction of structural and cultural violence in the future whilst avoiding the negative peace that results from focussing only on direct violence? Secondly: How will we work towards an inclusive peace that goes beyond the reduction of violence; towards harmony, and a sense of balance with the natural world and inner and outer peace?  

I will turn to the first question. It seems important to recognise the changing face of structural and cultural violence. Whilst older forms of indirect violence persist (for example, men currently own more than 50% more of the world’s wealth than women, and the richest 1% of the global population have twice as much wealth as nearly 90% of the global population new forms are emerging. For example, the climate emergency is causing a kind of slow structural violence that is harming millions already (the Earth’s damaged water system is resulting in floods and droughts). Cultural violence upholds this structural violence through a lack of willingness to acknowledge and respond to the scale of the problems, or else a tendency to offset the need to change onto others.  

Another ‘new’ form of cultural violence which has structurally violent effects comes from ‘post-truth’ politics, which  Lee McIntyre in 2018 has defined as: “an assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence.” The decline of traditional media, the rise of social media, and the use of fake news for political ends have created the ideal conditions for widespread denial of facts surrounding smoking, vaccines, evolution and election results. Our hard-wired cognitive biases can easily be exploited by those who have much to gain politically and economically from this new form of cultural violence. Particularly concerning is the rise of the hard right in Europe and their ability to scape-goat refugees for their own ends using these methods.   

Unfortunately, this cultural violence is not restricted to social media. Equally concerning is the rise of behavioural psychology, or nudge psychology as it is sometimes known. In the UK, for example, there are now behavioural psychologists in every branch of government. Whilst nudge psychology has hitherto been seen as mainly benign (how to nudge healthy eating habits, for example) there are concerns around behaviour being influenced at a population level by psychologists routinely working with government. This goes to the heart of our ideas around peace, justice and democracy. As we have seen in the recent global pandemic, what counts as science (and what does not) is decided by ever-smaller groups of people, and behaviour can be shaped by the tactics of fear.  

The issue for peace educators is that we can no longer rely on rationality to further the aims of peaceful coexistence. This applies to education in schools as well as in colleges, universities and community settings. If behaviour can be influenced by the clever techniques of behavioural psychologists, then education will struggle to compete. As a rule, people will act in structurally violent ways if they are incentivised or frightened, regardless of what they have been taught in a peace education classroom. How then do we break through to urgently address new and old forms of structural and cultural violence? 

This is the million dollar question! I see the future of peace education over the next 40 years going forward in two ways. Firstly, affect and embodiment can be important antidotes to the harmful exploitation of our bio-psychological needs. We need to draw on the Arts and methodologies such as ‘ethics of care,’ (which involves putting a caring student-teacher relationship at the heart of learning) and nature-based learning (such as forest schools) if we are to recognise students as embodied beings.  A form of peace education that takes account of body, mind, heart and existential questions could learn from activists and others involved in green politics who favour small-scale, local and community-based initiatives.   

Peace has aesthetic qualities that can be appreciated through art, music, dance, meditation, story-telling and poetry, but these have often been neglected in peace education classrooms in favour of more critical, rational and overly-cognate pedagogies.   

Secondly, notions of ‘peace’ need to grow beyond the UN-driven liberal securitised agendas of the past 40 years, and the education that flows from this will need to take account of ‘many peaces’. If we are to wean modernist peace educators off universalising twentieth-century grand narratives of emancipation, global peace and one-size-fits-all democracy, we will need to take account of the contingent liminal aspects of peace that come through post-modern perspectives.

Ultimately, peace education in the next 40 years will not enjoy the same level of certainty and coherence as the past 40 years. The old narratives are no longer fit for purpose, but new narratives are not yet clear, and may never be. Peace educators will need to respond to local conditions whilst keeping an eye on global realities and be adept at multi-scalar working.  

Their work will involve creating the conditions for peace in hearts, minds and classrooms as best they can whilst recognising their own position and the impact of their lives and choices on diverse others. If they can do this, young people will learn from their example, and may be able to transcend the structural violence that has been endemic in cultures of schooling for the past 40 years.   

Hilary Cremin is Peace Education Research Professor at the University of Cambridge. She researches, writes and teaches about peace education and conflict transformation in schools and communities. 

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