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1. History of Peace Education

Learning Objectives

At the end of this section, the participants will:


  • Understand the roots of peace education and its modern development
  • Identify key thinkers and theorists in peace education
  • Discuss key trends in peace education

Guiding Questions 

As you read this section, consider the following questions: 


  • How did the historical events of the 20th century shape the peace education movement? 
  • What is missing from this history? 



If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

-Isaac Newton

The History of Peace Education

Peace education can be defined simply as “the process of teaching people about the threats of violence and strategies for peace,” and may take place inside or outside a classroom (Harris, 2008, p. 15). With this broad definition, the history of peace education is arguably as old as human history, as cultures throughout the world have learned - and then taught the next generation - how to live peacefully with others. Diverse religious and philosophical traditions have been a rich and influential source of peace learning, even though people have also promoted violence in the names of these traditions.


Peace education in its modern form, however, has its roots in academia and the field of peace studies. Peace education scholar Ian Harris describes this modern peace movement as beginning in nineteenth century Europe with many intellectual efforts to learn about violent conflict, evolving into socialist political thought, and spreading to the United States and elsewhere before World War I. Scholars then began to study war and started trying to educate the public about its dangers. More and more people tried to persuade each other and their governments to use mediation instead of war to solve international conflicts. For example, influenced by the progressive ideas of the American educational theorist John Dewey, many teachers across the United States began using progressive education to teach their students about our common humanity in order to promote peaceful social progress (Harris, 2008, p. 16-17).


In the early 1900s, women became an especially active part of this modern peace education movement. At this time, peace educators began campaigning for social justice, arguing that poverty and inequality were causes of war. These campaigns were often led by women.


Maria Montessori is one example of an influential mid-20th century theorist who found new connections between peace and education. She linked teaching methodology to peace-building, hoping to help the next generation avoid the violence of authoritarianism. Other peace educators at that time, such as Herbert Read, began encouraging the use of art and students' creativity to promote peace, while others, such as Paulo Freire, focused on training students for critical analysis and reform of society.


International organizations, including various United Nations bodies, as well as many non-governmental organizations, have been growing in influence and importance since the end of World War I, and have contributed greatly to the movement to achieve global peace. Although the League of Nations failed, the establishment of the United Nations achieved new levels of global cooperation, norms, and ideals. The Charter of the United Nations has since served as inspiration for the development of peace education, as educators aspired to help in the global effort to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” “to reaffirm faith in the …dignity and worth of the human person [and] in the equal rights of men and women,” “to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained,” and “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” (United Nations, 1945).  With this mandate, the study and promotion of sustainable peace through education began to take on new urgency and sophistication to achieve these universal ideals.


Peace studies became a more serious academic subject soon after World War II. The threat of nuclear war throughout the Cold War encouraged many scholars to devote their studies to creating a sustainable peace. Since the 1980s in particular, peace education scholarship has developed in many directions. Some have emphasized minimizing masculine aggression, domestic violence, and militarism; others have sought to foster empathy and care in students; and many have argued that critical thinking and democratic pedagogy are vital.


With the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), created in 1989, peace education and human rights education took on new importance, as this type of education came to be seen as a fundamental right that all children should have. As UNICEF scholar Susan Fountain writes, “It is significant that the framers of the CRC viewed the promotion of understanding, peace and tolerance through education as a fundamental right of all children, not an optional extra-curricular activity”. International organizations of all types, along with local teachers and communities, felt renewed pressure to provide peace education to all students as part of their core studies; this provision became an explicit duty for everyone in society, and especially for those involved in formal education.


Since the 1990s, peace education scholarship from around the world has provided an even greater variety of perspectives on the practice and its goals. In documenting the implementation of peace education, scholars have found varying degrees of emphasis on positive or negative peace*, on local or global peace, and subordinate or dominant status of students. Scholars have argued that the context of the peace education program has become one of the most important factors in shaping the form it takes. In other words, the content and emphasis of a given peace education program depends to a large extent on where it is taught. Some programs focus primarily on positive peace, while others may address negative peace.


Thus, peace education has evolved to emphasize local peace potentials and local traditions of conflict transformation. Teachers and others have shaped their programs to address the needs and goals of their communities. For example, some scholars have suggested ubuntu - an ethical philosophy of southern Africa that roughly translates to “I am because you are” - as a helpful component of peace education in parts of Africa. 


The history of peace education, therefore, has various roots and has developed on various paths; nonetheless, every instance of peace education can be seen as part of a larger movement toward the creation of a more peaceful world.


Despite their differences in local context, peace education teachers have much in common. Many peace educators seek to promote some combination of the following ideals: human rights and the rights of the child, social justice and the minimization of structural violence, critical analysis and transformation of violent concepts and institutions, non-violent interpersonal and inter-communal conflict resolution, universal empathy, global familiarity, and peaceful coexistence with the environment. Around the world, teachers have drawn upon the work and research of international activists, scholars, and each other for ideas. At the same time, these peace educators' work continues to inspire further work and study concerning new possibilities for peace education.


Thus, the trend in recent history appears to be one of moving toward an expanding informal network of activists, scholars, teachers, and others that draw on each other's work to improve their understanding and promotion of peace. New participants join the movement every day, and peace education continues to evolve in its theory and in its practice.

Questions for Comprehension and Reflection

  1. What are the key historical trends of peace education?
  2. This history, like all histories, is from one perspective. What is left out of this history of peace education?  
  3. Task: Learn about the history of peace education in your country or region by researching on the Internet, in the library, or by interviewing a local peace educator. Who have been the key figures in peace education? What organizations are working locally or regionally to promote peace education? 
  4. How can the above research help you incorporate peace education into your curriculum?


Fountain, S. (1999). Peace Education in UNICEF. New York: UNICEF. Retrieved from www.unicef.org/girlseducation/files/PeaceEducation.pdf


Harris, I. (2008). "History of Peace Education" in Monisha Bajaj, ed., Encyclopedia of Peace Education. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2008) Retrieved from (http://www.tc.edu/centers/epe/PDF%20articles/Harris_ch2_22feb08.pdf)


Murithi, T. (2009). "An African Perspective on Peace Education: Ubuntu Lessons in Reconciliation," International Review of Education (55), p. 221-233.


United Nations. (1945). Preamble of the UN Charter. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/cyberschoolbus/peace/frame2.htm


Salomon, G. (2002).  "The Nature of Peace Education: Not All Programs Are Created Equal" in Nevo & Salomon, eds., Peace Education: the concept principles, and practices around the world, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, p. 3-13.



* Positive peace is the presence of social justice and equality, and the absence of structural or indirect violence. Negative peace is defined as the absence of violence. In order to create negative peace, we must look for ways to reduce and eliminate violence.




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