For four years I’ve been teaching a required interdisciplinary course on violence and nonviolence, called Peace and War, at Johnson State College in northern Vermont. The course, planned as an inquiry, invites students to take a long, dispassionate look at the human penchant for organized violence, to analyze its roots and explore alternatives. By now almost 800 students are its veterans. Most other U.S. colleges and universities that have courses or programs in Peace and Conflict Studies offer them as electives and thus reach only a self-selected clientele, but at JSC every upperclass student is part of the course’s flock. In any given classroom, a student experienced in meditation practice may be sitting next to someone who’s gone through Army basic training, who may be right behind someone who prefers not to let life be disturbed by the front page of any newspaper. How did this benign coercion come to exist at a small, public, nonsectarian institution? And what have been its results?
The answer to the first question is "opportunity seized." The Johnson faculty revised the school’s General Education Plan in the 1990s to include a specification that each student take the same capstone "thematic interdisciplinary course," their hope being that this common intellectual experience would provoke a cross-campus, beyond-the-classroom dialogue. When the call went out for topic ideas, my suggestion of Violence and Nonviolence, influenced by my Quaker affiliation and my adolescence in the 1950s