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Finding Teachable Moments in Threats to Peace

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Causes of War

What is war? What is peace? We know that war involves hostilities and failure to find reconciliation. Peace, on the other hand, in the words of the U.S. Mission to the UN, is "the creation of a lasting reconciliation on the acceptance of a shared historical narrative" ... with a system of justice, I would add.

The causes of war have been summarized as follows:

· Ambition, the regal concern with prestige, honor, and force by those in power. Recall the words of President Theodore Roosevelt who said, "To prepare for war is the most effectual means to promote peace."

· Competing ideologies without restraints. Think of the Cold War; the era of "containment"; the treatment of women and minorities in various cultures; sectarian conflicts; the lack of compassion or empathy for others.

· Fear, whether real or fabricated.

· The profound effects of memory and national rivalries, the denial of a shared historical narrative, the rise and fall of colonialism.

· The momentum of militarism. It has been said that a military is needed to acquire land and resources; that such a military is expensive; and therefore more acquisitions are needed to support the military requirements for expansionism and the political support for it; and so the circle goes.

· Assumptions about technology providing quick strikes to affect the "enemy" without affecting the aggressor. Think tanks in the Gulf War or drones today, and NSA surveillance.

· Miscalculations, especially about the effects of hunger, climate change, lack of justice and the rule of law, decent-paying and safe work for all, income inequality and nuclear power, the potential for disruptions resulting from divisiveness in society.

· Competition for land and natural resources, including water, oil, natural gas, minerals, etc. Think of the millions who live in desperate circumstances in South Africa, Palestine, and elsewhere in the world.

· Violations of human rights, with particular attention to the rights of the child, women, and minorities -- to be discussed even when the topic is bullying.

· Sometimes there are many causes all at once. The conflicts in South Sudan between ethnic and political groups caused by the manner in which the Sudan was colonized, its generations of poverty, competition for arable land, scarce national resources, lack of a strong national identity, the role of militias, cultures of violence born of generations of war, the availability of arms, and the failure to implement long overdue peace building and reconciliation initiatives.

Teachable Moments

Educators can help foster a culture of peace and nonviolence by linking the news, literature, and songs to discussions in the classroom, by teaching critical thinking and writing and by checking assumptions, by emphasizing empathy and cooperation in the face of multiple forces which give priority to competition.

Just think of the books, articles, news stories, reports, biographies, music, autobiographies, histories, and speeches such as Martin Luther King's acceptance of the Nobel Prize that provide source material for discussions of cooperation versus competition. The newsletter of the Council on Foreign Relations, a good source for materials, annually ranks the top conflict prevention priorities.

There are many extraordinary examples from the work of the UN on how nations have found common ground and cooperated to create an infrastructure of communications, navigational systems, and weather reporting that help make the world a closer community. Then, unfortunately, there are the stories of injustice, gender discrimination, surveillance, lack of reconciliation, and absence of support for the International Court of Justice, which make us wonder why some nations think more in terms of competition than in terms of cooperation, why they do not seek common ground with others.

These are among the reasons why our work as teachers is so important. We can teach about peace; foster empathy; encourage students to think globally and act locally, as Rene Dubos admonished us to do; and initiate global-local comparisons to enhance learning. Such comparisons can give rise to discussions about the meaning of state sovereignty and the importance of a homeland as well as to the rights and responsibilities of individuals in our neighborhoods and on our planet. We can foster the study of languages and history, and engage in activities such as the "Many Languages, One World" conference sponsored by ELS Educational Services and hosted by Adelphi University. These are just some of the opportunities for discussion in the classroom, leaving numerous opportunities for out-of-class and after-school activities.