Colmen McCarthy’s Peace Studies Class Comes Under Scrutiny

Last month, two 17 year-old students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland called for a ban of the Peace Studies course that has been offered as an elective to Seniors at the school since 1988 and is taught by Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post reporter and founder of the Center for Teaching Peace. According to the Washington Post:

“[The students] acknowledge that with the exception of one lecture they sat in on this month, most of what they know about the course has come from friends and acquaintances who have taken the class. But, they said, those discussions, coupled with research they have done on [Coleman] McCarthy’s background, have convinced them that their school should not continue to offer Peace Studies unless significant changes are made. This is not an ideological debate, they said. Rather, what bothers them the most is that McCarthy offers students only one perspective.”

Despite the furor, the school’s administration intends to keep teaching the course. As Principal Sean Bulson stated:

“Peace Studies is one of the things that makes B-CC unique…It’s been an institution here, and kids from all across the spectrum have taken it. It’s not about indoctrination. It’s about debate and dialogue.”

McCarthy doesn’t hide the fact that he is a strong opponent of violence of any kind. However, he was puzzled by the students’ opposition:

“He said that although the two sat in on a recent class, they have not talked to him in depth about their concerns.

‘I’ve never said my views are right and theirs are wrong,’ he said about the students who take his course. ‘In fact, I cherish conservative dissenters. I wish we could get more of them in.’

But McCarthy’s unwavering belief in the importance of his work is summed up by his statement that “unless we teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence.”

The Peace Studies course is currently taught at seven other Montgomery County, Maryland high schools. Back in the 1990s, when I had the pleasure of teaching this semester-long course at Wilson High School in Washington DC as part of my graduate school training, it was called “Alternatives to Violence.”

While teaching this popular elective emphasizing nonviolent conflict resolution in interpersonal, community, national and international situations, my goal was to expose the students to ideas and topics they had never been confronted with before. And just as the Washington Post article stated, I remember many lively debates between myself and the students and amongst the students themselves.

We talked about such subjects as the civil rights movement, the death penalty, environmental activism, and political peace movements, among other things. Never was there any attempt to sugar-coat the facts. In talking about the death penalty, for example, of which about half of the students were in favor of and half opposed, we discussed the number of people who were executed and later found innocent of the particular crime for which they were imprisoned.

Rarely did any of the students not have a strong opinion one way or another. They were open-minded but not easily swayed if their own personal experiences didn’t comport with something in the curriculum. I remember one boy who was frustrated by my obviously idealistic insistence that talking through a problem was a way to resolve most disagreements.

He looked at me and said something along the lines of “Ms. Weckerle, you’ve obviously never been to my neighborhood. There we hit first and talk later.”

I learned a lot from those kids.

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