Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Students pessimistic, pragmatic about peace

Park University students and faculty debated the nature of peace, and the chances for peace, during a Peace Teach-In on Sept. 21-22. The event was held to commemorate the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21.
17 Park classes scattered across many disciplines took part in the discussion.

Many discussions began with the question, “What is Peace?” In LE100 (freshman orientation) class, several students stressed the importance of inner peace as a starting point for a larger peace. One smartly pointed out the subjectivity of peace, and what a difficult concept it is to pin down. The class then discussed the theories of negative peace (the absence of violence) and positive peace (the conditions necessary for each individual to reach their full potential). All agreed that positive peace does not exist in the U.S., and probably anywhere in the world.

In a communications class, peace was variously defined as “unity and connectedness” and “Seeing the best in each other and wanting the best for each other.

In an English class, students said "Peace is being devoid of conflict," “Peace is living in harmony;” "It's a utopian ideal;" and "It sounds a lot like equality." The last comment is consistent with several peace studies theorists who discuss the importance of addressing structural issues like discrimination and equality as a prerequisite to peace.

One class, a psychology class, discussed cultural values and conflicts. One recurrent theme was power and control. In the words of the professor, “People want power to control resources so they are more certain that they will have their needs met and their lives will be/become more predictable. We talked about UN Peacekeeping forces, and the ineffectuality of the UN in general, because no one wants to give up control.”

The psychology class also brought up what Park’s Peace Journalism class has been discussing all semester-- the role of the media in exaggerating and exacerbating conflicts. From a psychological perspective, the problem is basic human nature - how do you get people to stop rubbernecking when they drive past an accident?

Finally, several courses discussed whether peace is possible. One student (facetiously?) stated that peace won’t happen “unless/until we face alien foes. That will bring us together to fight a common enemy and eliminate borders.” Others said it will happen “if we can learn to coexist despite our differences.”

In a communications class, when asked if peace is possible, 9 said no, and 3 said yes. One said only on a small scale. Two said that only negative peace (characterized by the lack of current violence) was possible.

In the LE100 class, the students were simultaneously pessimistic and pragmatic. Peace probably isn’t possible on a large scale, one freshman said, but perhaps can be attained between, for example, feuding communities on a smaller scale. Several said that as long as humans are flawed, as long as we are jealous, greedy, and experience schadenfrude, that there cannot be peace. Most agreed that true peace is probably an unobtainable ideal, but that striving for peace (or at least, an imperfect partial peace) is nonetheless worth the effort.

One student said the question about peace being possible missed the point, and that a better question is, Will we make peace happen?

In Peace Journalism class, students also discussed if peace is possible. The answer was generally no, at least not on a large scale. This is because of the many differences between peoples, according to students. However, most students believed that peace is possible on a smaller scale—within one country, or even through the efforts of just one peacemaker. A short video shown in class demonstrated the theory that just one person can make a positive difference for peace. The video, “In their own words: Ken Payumo’s story,” chronicles how a UN official protected a compound with 12,000 IDP’s. Armed with nothing more than a stern “no”, Payumo faced down menacing South Sudanese soldiers who wanted to storm the compound.

The university-wide discussions about peace were productive and thought provoking, and will hopefully encourage ongoing dialogues about this important topic.

The Teach In was sponsored by the office of the Faculty Coordinator for Internationalization.

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