Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict
WRITING FOR PEACE IN THE COMPOSITION CLASSROOM
by Michael Eckert
". . . Peace hath her victories
Milton, "To the Lord General Cromwell"(1652)
It is almost a cliche to lament that we live in a violent age. As teachers, we wring our hands over incidents of student violence, and we despair over the lack of reasonable discourse in public forums and in the media, for our students model their behavior and their discourse on talk radio and television. Deborah Tannen’s recent book, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (1998), examines the current American predilection for confrontation and the conventional wisdom that debate is about winning, not about resolving; about conquest, not conciliation.
This essay is not intended as a meditation on how we got where we are--in one sense, all of human history has brought us to this point. Rather, this is a reflection on how to get beyond where we are, to break the cycle which all too frequently leads from angry words to harmful blows. Teachers can do it, and they can help students do it. Teachers can do it in the philosophy and psychology and sociology classrooms, but they can also do it in the literature and even the composition classrooms. Teachers can answer the challenge issued by Ihab Hassan and recalled in Mary Rose O’Reilly’s The Peaceable Classroom (1993): "Is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other?"(p. 9).
While the philosophy and literature classes might seem the natural venues for such an inquiry, we should not ignore the composition classroom, particularly the class in argumentative and persuasive writing. Students enter such a class with all kinds of preconceptions about argument –it is loud, raucous, vituperative, and occasionally violent. At least this is what they suggest when I poll them on the first day of class. Yet alternatives to this conventional, adversarial model exist: the Rogerian model is one alternative which strives to build common ground rather than scorch it, and the Toulmin model acknowledges the importance of seeking consensus. These views may seem counterintuitive to many students, but education seeks to expand minds, and argumentation is one mechanism for expanding minds by opening them. And opening minds is one key objective of the second semester writing course that I teach at Montgomery College.
In order to open minds through argument, I have recently begun structuring my classes around the twin issues of peace and war. I was inspired to try this by a speech of Michael True’s, "Learning a Language of Peace: Globalization from Below," delivered at the 1994 Hawaii Peace Research Conference. In one of his suggestions for expanding nonviolent social change, he argues "for the need to tell the stories of nonviolent activits and to make their history accessible to a larger audience….We need to fix our attention… on the individual peacemaker"(p. 61). This suggestion led to a couple of assignments in my class. In one, an essay on personal argument style, students tell a story about a time when they personally tried to make peace. They relate the situation and then analyze how they tried to ameliorate the situation; whether or not they were successful is less important than what their strategies were. Besides allowing them to write from experience, this assignment allows students to cast themselves in the role of peacemaker and requires that they assess their strategies in playing that role.
The second assignment linked to True’s focus on the individual peacemaker is a short research assignment: an encomium on a "peace hero." I distribute a list of American nonviolent social activists-- the list includes such names as Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, and Cesar Chavez--and students select one figure. They then spend a couple of weeks locating and reviewing sources, both primary and secondary, before submitting an annotated bibliography which summarizes and evaluates each source. Then, working from the sources they evaluated as most useful, they write an encomium using the Rogerian model, urging that this person be honored as a "peace hero." In using the Rogerian model, the students must assume a resistant audience and attempt to build common ground by highlighting the needs and values shared by their subject and audience. In the end, students have learned more about research, they have identified a specific audience, they have learned more about the nonviolent alternative, and they have learned about building common ground.
Another recommendation that True offers involves the effort "to de-escalate violence and to resist injustice in our communities. Recommitting ourselves to local initiatives for justice and peace enables us to cooperate with others similarly involved"(p. 60). This suggestion inspired another assignment: the peace proposal. For this assignment, I ask my students to identify some area of modern life which needs to be less violent. After brainstorming together, the students generally narrow the focus to areas such as the schools, the highways, the family, etc. They next investigate what causes may produce this violence or what effects may ensue. After positing causes and effects, they must devise specific recommendations on how to reduce violence in their chosen area. In support, they must research similar programs or recommendations to determine feasibility. For example, one student wrote about police brutality. He first researched statistics on police brutality in the U.S. Then he discussed possible causes—poor training, lack of oversight, and covert racism were among those he enumerated. After determining that relatively few cases were attributed to racism, he concentrated on recommending better training and backed his recommendation with references to the results of existing programs. It is a challenging assignment, operating on several levels—defining the issue, examining causes or effects, proposing a solution, and justifying that solution. It also pushes them into acknowledging that individuals such as themselves, not just "peace heroes," can be part of the effort to "de-escalate violence and to resist injustice" through entering a dialogue about the issue.
One last assignment in my class is not inspired by any particular essay or remark, but rather grows from my own belief in the transformative power of literature. For this assignment, students choose a piece of imaginative literature about the effects of war. During the last four semesters my students have read "Editha" by W. D. Howells, "Private Charles Gordon" by William March, "War" by Luigi Pirandello; and Tao Chien’s "Peach Blossom Spring," Wilfred Owen’s "Dulce et Decorum Est," and a set of poems by Native Americans. The purpose of this assignment is evaluation: students must choose at least two works and compare them in order to determine which is the more powerful expression of nonviolent sentiment. Thus students need to identify what makes a work of literature powerful; they must analyze the works and evaluate which one is more effective and why; and they must argue for their position regarding the relative effectiveness of these works. Alternatively, students might choose to respond to the work imaginatively, either writing a reply or looking at the situation from a different perspective. One of the most creative responses I have seen was a student’s poem narrated by the slain son being mourned in the Paiute "Lament of a Man." Again, this is a sophisticated, multi-faceted assignment, but most students have had some experience responding to literature; this assignment merely requires a more precise focus.
Some composition instructors might voice objections to this approach. One might ask if this enterprise isn’t one-sided. Another might ask if the assignments aren’t too directive. In reply to the second concern, I appeal to Nancy Comley’s essay "A Release from Weak Specifications: Liberating the Student Reader"(1985). She observes that "students should be encouraged to examine their reading processes, to confront what they bring to a text from their daily lives and from their schooling, and to consider how such emotional, cultural, and intellectual baggage affects the inferences they make when they read"(p. 131, emphasis added). These assignments, built around a common theme, provide students with rhetorical situations and probable audiences, thus liberating the students to question conventional wisdom and approaches to problem solving. In response to the first concern, I appeal to a profound conviction that what Orwell called "the politics of language" can serve peace as well as war. Michael True argues that we need to learn "a new language: the grammar of satyagraha (in Sanskrit, "truth-seeking"); the syntax of alay gandal (in Filipino, "to give dignity); that is the linguistics of ‘nonviolence’ . . . . Our capacity to resist violence, and more importantly to construct peace, depends upon empowering ourselves and others"(p. 59). This approach to English composition is an attempt to empower students by helping them develop a linguistics and rhetoric of nonviolence.
A fitting close to this essay would be a string of student testimonials about the transformative experience of this class. I wish that I could provide such closure, but in fact response to this approach has been mixed. Some students drop the class as soon as they learn its focus; others stay in the class, successfully complete it, but complain on student evaluations about the narrow focus; some are indifferent. But a few, perhaps a third of the students I have taught in the course over the last two years, appreciate the theme of the class and the manner in which it is taught; specifically, they appreciate the many different perspectives they have encountered regarding this controversial issue. And they often leave the course arguing much more effectively than they did at the beginning of the course. I am still developing this approach; for that matter, my thinking about the theme and approach continue to evolve. In a way, I think of the course as I think of peace—it is a work in progress.
Michael Eckert teaches English and philosophy at Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland. He has taught previously at American University, Jacksonville University and the University of Florida.
© Michael Eckert