Teaching Peace: Students Exchange Letters with Their Teacher

teachingpeaceBy Colman McCarthy. Vanderbilt University Press, 2015. 194 pages. $22.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

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This book is not a “new release,” per se, but its arrival in my mailbox was very timely. I read it while cable news and the Internet were filled with stories about still more black men being killed by police, and with the stories of police officers being slaughtered at the hands of deranged domestic terrorists; stories of terrorist attacks and military coups overseas; of violent and hate-filled rhetoric (and behavior) in our presidential campaigns.

In other words, just another violent summer in America.

Colman McCarthy’s life’s work has been to try to change this. Some readers may recall McCarthy’s work as a columnist for the Washington Post for many years: I first became familiar with him as an occasional guest on CSPAN while he was at that job. In the years since, in addition to writing essays and a number of books on the subject of peace (including I’d Rather Teach Peace, a book I highly recommend to everyone, especially educators), McCarthy has been working in high school and college classrooms teaching semester-long courses in peace studies, usually on a volunteer basis. Readings in these classes include the writings of, among others, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, and Howard Zinn. Students in these classes also discuss current and controversial topics such as pacifism, militarism, the death penalty, and whatever else might be going on at the time. McCarthy has also brought many guest speakers into his classrooms over the years, including Nobel Peace Prize winners, political figures, social activists, Peace Corp volunteers, and everyday people who he (or his students) believes have meaningful stories to tell.

This book, as the title indicates, comes in the form of letters written back and forth between McCarthy and his (mostly former) students. Many were students who signed up for his class thinking it was a free ride to bump up their GPAs: No tests! Not many papers! Focused on what sounded like a less-than-challenging topic! These letters frequently contain an opening confession to that, an owning up on the part of the student, an admission that that’s what they were looking for. Instead, they came away transformed, after having been personally and intellectually challenged. McCarthy is apparently one of those rare educators who demands that his students turn inward more than outward, who uses the reading list consisting of writings by others as a catalyst for self-examination, whose idea of a research paper is to research one’s own life, priorities, values, and history.

Many of the students whose letters are included here express a debt to their teacher for making them work hard, for making them think, for making them squirm and think outside of their narrow spheres of existence. Teachers know those are the thank-you notes we treasure the most. The authors of these letters include high school kids who have grown up in all manner of difficult circumstances, children of privilege who are seeking answers to questions big and small, young adults considering careers in the military, others who have made that choice and who later regretted it (and still others who didn’t), ex-students who were moved by what they learned in McCarthy’s class to join the Peace Corps or other forms of public service, some who are struggling with their decisions not to consume alcohol or eat meat (both being part of McCarthy’s own lifestyle choices), and others who simply need a reference or a lead for an internship or a job. And some are literally stories of life and death, as with the particularly heartbreaking exchange of letters between McCarthy and death row inmate Joe Giarratano, an episode in our country’s never-ending struggle with capital punishment which features an appearance by then-governor of Virginia Tim Kaine. McCarthy uses the (sadly, lost) art of letter writing to deal with each of his correspondents with respect and nurturing—most of the time.

Frankly, McCarthy can be sarcastic with his charges at times, in a way that can sound patronizing. While his sarcasm never stoops to the level of meanness, it certainly strikes me as uncharacteristically condescending. And the (thankfully few) short interchanges with students on the topic of grades could have been edited out completely. Many educators—myself included—are conflicted over the topic of grades, and McCarthy is no different. He gives them because he has to, and his policies seem quite generous. Nevertheless, as every teacher knows, sometimes students complain about their grades, and unfortunately, those grievances are aired here. I think their inclusion distracts from the much more important conversations and ideas that are the premise of the book.

And it’s that premise which begs the much bigger questions: Why aren’t peace studies a part of every school’s curriculum? Why aren’t courses like the ones taught by McCarthy over the years part of every child’s education? Why are these classes considered even remotely controversial (on a few occasions, as discussed here, students and other teachers, as well as some parents, protested against the presence of McCarthy and his class in their schools)? How is teaching about peace somehow offensive as opposed to teaching about war?

Reading these conversations had me questioning what’s in my own middle school world history curriculum, in terms of how much time is spent on topics like battles, conquests, weapons, and “great military leaders,” as opposed to peace, nonviolent conflict resolution, art, culture, and peacemakers. It’s a conversation that I believe educators who are Friends need to have, with their supervisors, their colleagues, and especially with themselves, if we are truly teaching with integrity. There’s always another side to the story. Colman McCarthy has dedicated his life to telling—and living—this other side. His life is an example worth considering. This book is a good place to start.

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