Published on Thursday, December 19, 2002 by Reuters
Ex-Journalist Sees Schools as Peace Training Ground
by David Morgan
PAOLI, Pa. - Colman McCarthy loves the long-shot.
Good thing, too, because the journalist-turned-peace activist
is betting that warlike humanity will some day evolve into
enlightened creatures guided by love and harmony.
"We can't be the final product of evolution, unless there's some kind of cosmic sick-joke going on," McCarthy chuckled after treating a classroom of sleepy teen-age boys to a varied discussion about gun violence, forgiveness and U.S. foreign policy.
"People who are going to be on death row are now in first- or second-grade, and so are people who are going to be in the White House. If we don't teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence," he told Reuters during a recent visit to an Episcopal-run prep school in the Philadelphia suburbs.
"The most revolutionary thing anybody can do is to raise good, honest and generous children who will question the answers of people who say the answer is violence. That's what the schools should be doing."
Statistics on the sheer toll of violence are commonplace: 10,000 people murdered with handguns each year in the United States, and domestic abuse the leading cause of injury among U.S. women, he says.
But McCarthy doesn't expect to be embraced by modern academia any time soon, despite the rash of peer mediation classes that has sprouted among U.S. schools since the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School.
He not only advocates peer mediation but says kids need to study closely the history of the peace movement, starting with the lives and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers and other radicals.
And he wants to teach kids that American violence goes hand-in-hand with widely accepted conventionalities such as economic competition, conspicuous consumption, tax cuts, U.S. foreign policy and gigantic Pentagon budgets.
Take, for example, his introduction to Martin Luther King -- not the parent-approved civil rights leader proclaiming the dream of racial harmony who is known to most schoolchildren.
McCarthy's King is the unbowed nonviolent agitator who spoke out early against the Vietnam War, criticized the U.S. government as the world's "greatest purveyor of violence" and predicted "spiritual doom" for a nation determined to spend more on weapons programs than on social programs.
"You may agree or disagree. But at least now you know he said it," McCarthy explained during a lecture to the student body of the School at Church Farm, a racially diverse boys' prep school in Paoli, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles west of Philadelphia.
"No textbook quotes King on Vietnam, though all carry 'I Have a Dream' excerpts," he said.
Then there's the theory of justifiable war. "The 'Just War Theory' of Christianity is contaminated. Interpose the word 'slaughter' and call it the 'Just Slaughter Theory'. That has an impact," he cheerfully points out.
McCarthy's nationally syndicated left-liberal columns appeared on the Washington Post's op-ed pages for nearly 30 years. But in 1997, the venerable newspaper let him go, saying his columns were no longer generating a high enough profit. The Post had no comment last week on his departure.
"Work for a corporation, and you play by its rules," McCarthy said.
Now he works pretty much full-time as director of his Washington-based nonprofit Center for Teaching Peace. Unlike current peace demonstrators and popular radicals such as Michael Moore or Noam Chomsky, McCarthy says he is not so much trying to point out the problems as find solutions.
McCarthy teaches regular classes in peace studies at two public high schools and three universities in the Washington area, and at a juvenile detention center in suburban Maryland.
He also travels around the country for speaking engagements, lugging along a bag stuffed with sample textbooks in hopes of enticing new schools to consider his courses. But the schools that can afford the few thousand dollars he charges as a visiting speaker are usually private, limiting his outreach to a narrow audience of affluent youths.
"He has made thousands of students stop and consider," said Terry Shreiner, head master of the School at Church Farm, which has no formal peace studies course of its own. "As Colman suggests, it's not about asking the right question, but rather, it's about questioning the given answer."
McCarthy has published several books. His latest, "I'd Rather Teach Peace" (Orbis Books), appeared earlier this year.
His byline still graces the Post from time to time, as well as other publications. In The Progressive magazine, he recently blamed Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter for presidential decisions in the 1970s that he says led to the rise of Osama bin Laden and the current threat of a war against Iraq.
Still, the turmoil that has gripped the world since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has brought new recognition to McCarthy, a Roman Catholic who once spent five years in a Trappist monastery.
"It's been great for the speaking circuit. Everybody wants to hear from these odd-ball pacifists. We're like the two-headed chimp in the circus," he reflected.
This year, he also was named an ambassador of peace by Pax Christi USA, the Catholic peace-making organization.
But McCarthy's lanky frame is most at home in front of a classroom of youths, whom he playfully taunts with lame jokes delivered with a slightly sardonic-sounding Long Island accent. He introduces himself as a pacifist, anarchist and vegetarian, all rolled into one.
"I consider grades to be a form of academic violence," McCarthy then says wryly, using a sure-fire attention-getter.
The students hear that corporate executives who doctor financial records to score bigger bonuses probably started out as school kids who cheated on tests to get higher grades.
Soon the discussion shifts to steeper ground -- 40,000 people who die in wars each month, and the $11,000 per second that McCarthy says the United States spends on the military.
"Eleven thousand dollars -- eleven thousand dollars -- eleven thousand dollars -- eleven thousand dollars," he says, counting each second on his fingers to illustrate the point.
McCarthy claims there is reason to be optimistic that peace studies will become part of U.S. education some day. Over the past three decades, he says, the number of colleges offering degree programs in peace has grown from one to about 70.
Not that his ironic wit is a sucker for optimism, mind you.
"If we were to hurry up and start today, we could get peace studies into every school in the country by the year 23,000," McCarthy joked. "You've got to love the long shot. If you don't, then don't go into this business."
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd