Teaching Peace in the Time of Trump
This week begins a new school year in which I’ll be playing a small part in teaching an introductory course on conflict in our world at George Mason University. I’m not the lead instructor, and I’ll mostly be listening and learning, looking for material to use in the textbook I’m writing with Doug Irvin-Erickson, who is the actual instructor.
Still, I can’t NOT worry about the challenges and responsibilities that come with teaching about peace and conflict studies now that we are almost two years into the Trump administration. Some of the questions I ask are the same ones that have been around since I was on the other side of the professorial desk in the 1960s. Some of them are new.
Five seem to stand out. The first three lead to the next two, which really focus at how I’ll be dealing with Doug’s students.
Peace Begins at Home
When I first started teaching courses on peace and conflict studies in the 1980s, the problems seemed to exist largely “out there.” Sure, the U.S. was a party to the Cold War, but the challenge to those of us who wanted a change in Reagan administration policies seemed to be to understand the Soviet Union better. Those of us of a certain age will remember Sting’s song, “The Russians.” If not, the music and visuals are worth the time.
Now, the problem(s) and the solution(s) start at home. It’s not just Trump. It’s a whole raft of global issues that have American public policy at their core (like terrorism) as well as domestic ones we can no longer ignore (like gun violence, wherever you stand on
What Are My Students Like?
George Mason is a state university that largely serves students from a purple state. While the school has a conservative reputation overall, the conflict analysis and resolution program tends to attract left of center students. Nonetheless, there will be at least a few students in the class who support the administration. A far larger number of them will have friends and family members who support the president.
Our challenge is to teach them all, whatever the ideological mix happens to be. On the one hand, we can’t alienate the pro-Trump students by encouraging the president’s opponents to sharpen their arguments. Rather, when discussing the day’s issues (which we assume will cover the possible impeachment of the president), we have to find ways to get both sides to listen to each other, understand the “other’s” point of view, and, only then, sharpen their own arguments.
The Myth of Objectivity
There is one thing we can’t do that my own faculty members at least claimed to be. We can’t be objective.
My professors who claimed to be objective analysts in the classroom certainly had view on the Vietnam war or the civil rights movement which were the issues of my college years. They came through whether they wanted to or not.
Personally, I was lucky in that the faculty members I disagreed with saw themselves as mentors and many became life long friends who disagreed with me until the days they died or retired. Many students are not as lucky. They feel brow beaten by their students. In other words, there is more than a grain of truth to the arguments made by the likes of Jonathan Haidt whose new book on political correctness and more I’m looking forward to when it comes out next month.
More importantly, I can’t be objective even if I wanted to be. The internet has made my views public. In fact, this blog post will be live before the students meet me.
So, my views will be out there on the class’s agenda. Whether I want them to be or not. Whether students see them accurately or not.
I have argued for years that we have to address issues like these in the classroom when they occur, especially when and if they shake us all up, teacher and student alike. I was teaching political science at Mason in 2001. Once we finally resumed classes (remember that we are in Northern Virginia), my classes spent weeks talking about 9/11 in the context of what they were learning about comparative politics.
We had to. Living where we do, we all knew people who had been in harm’s way that day. A couple of us knew people who had been killed or wounded.
Over the course of the semester, we spent more time on comparative politics and less on the attacks. Still, the specter of what happened that morning hung over the entire semester.
There is no question that we covered less comparative politics than in any other semester I taught the course. However, although I can’t prove it, my impression is that the students saw the links between what happened in the real world through the lens of theories of comparative politics better than any other group I taught over the years.
So, we plan to use the course as a semester-long teachable moment in which our job is to help our students see how the issues that come up in the class—Trump’s presidency and the issues it leads to ranging from racism to America first values—connect to the principles of conflict analysis and resolution. As instructors, our main job becomes managing the discussion (we are, after all, supposed to be conflict resolution experts) and guiding them toward conclusions in which a) the students see the other points of view better and b) more importantly, they see how principles of conflict resolution help them understand our divisions.
So, What Do I Do?
As we will say in our book, there is not simple road map for us to follow. We don’t know what our students will want to talk about, let alone what will happen across the river in Washington. Still, three themes will guide us.
Flexibility. In preparing, we will have to assume that the class will not go as we planned. So, we should focus on the key conflict resolution/peacebuilding points we want to make in the course of that session and make certain we get to them. To some degree, we can anticipate what the students will say. However, if I’ve learned anything from 40+ years in the classroom, it is that student will surprise me. As someone whose classroom style revolved around the content I provided, I tend to highly script my classes. I’ve also learned over the years that I can’t do that during politically charged moments. I have to fight my instincts to overprepare the content of a class session in favor of anticipating the craziness that might break out in the room and focusing on the handful of points I want the class to see that connect the news of the day to the topics on the syllabus. Frankly, that is not very hard when your subject matter is conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
Respect. More importantly, I have to keep remembering something I learned from my faculty members at Oberlin and Michigan, most of whom objected to my political views and the actions I took to promote them. Every one of them, however, treated me and my views with respect. They listened. A few of them even came to agree with what my friends and I were saying. That even led to some bizarre events, including a weekend when a few of us convinced our Michigan political science professors (none of whom are still alive) NOT to offer themselves as hostages in North Vietnam because we were convinced that their doing so would NOT deter the Nixon administration from bombing. Seriously, I have come to respect the respect (yes, I intentionally used the same word twice) they showed me. More importantly for what I should do now, our students should not have to worry about whether Dour or I respect them despite their support for the president. Or any other view that they hold. I have lots of tools I use that work for me, but my sense is that these are highly idiosyncratic. The general point, however, is clear. Students have pretty good bs detectors. Conservative students probably expect us to NOT treat them with respect. They probably won’t respond right away if we do. But, if my experiences on both sides of the professorial desk are any indicator, you can learn to disagree effectively without letting the power that is inherent in the professorial role get in the way—too much.
Skills. One obvious thing for Doug and me to do in an introductory class on conflict in today’s world is to focus on the skills we peacebuilders bring to the table. For instance, helping students learn how to use role playing is something they should get out of the course anyway. Similarly, as a fan of Daniel Yankelovich’s one liner that a dialogue is a discussion that is so intense that it leaves neither party unchanged, I love using charged discussions to help students see how and why they themselves changed—or didn’t as the case may be. That means being open to discussing emotion openly (another intentional use of the same word twice in a sentence) in the classroom and being prepared to deal with the feelings as well as the evidence that come out.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Also published on Medium.