"We can teach about peace; foster empathy; encourage students to think globally and act locally,"

By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University


Thank you for being here and for the opportunity to participate in this important program on “Promoting Peace through Education.”

As the program charge notes, “Ever since the Charter of the United Nations was ratified on 24 October 1945, Member States, NGO’s and civil society have worked together to solve international conflicts through diplomacy instead of through violence. Determined to save human kind from the horror of war, to reaffirm faith in human rights, to establish justice and respect for international law, and to promote social progress and better standards of life, they have promised to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors for the economic and social advancement of all people. Over the past six decades they have succeeded on many counts, but conflict and violence persists with increasing ferocity.”

First, though, let us have a moment of silence for Pete Seeger, whose many songs prompted allies, and even these alien to his message, to listen, to consider “Where have all the flowers gone” as an anthem, as a warning.

Causes of War

What is war? What is peace? We know that war involves hostilities and failure to find reconciliation. Peace, on the other hand, in the words of the U.S. Mission to the U.N. this week, is “the creation of a lasting reconciliation on the acceptance of a shared historical narrative”…with a system of justice, I would add.1

The causes of war have been summarized as follows:

  • Ambition, the regal concern with prestige, honor, and force by those in power. Recall the words of President Theodore Roosevelt who said, “To prepare for war is the most effectual means to promote peace”. He also said, “No triumph of peace can equal the armed triumph of war.” This President Roosevelt was not alone in his time, or over time, for not only prophesizing, but almost praying for war, as kings of old once did.
  • Competing ideologies without restraints. Think of the Cold War; the era of “containment”; the treatment of women and minorities in various cultures; sectarian conflicts.
  • Fear, whether real or fabricated.
  • The profound effects of memory and national rivalries, the denial of a shared historical narrative, the rise and fall of colonialism, which Freud called the “narcissism of small differences,” even when they are internal.
  • The momentum of militarism. It has been said that a military is needed to acquire land and resources; that such a military is expensive; and therefore more acquisitions are needed to support the military requirements for expansionism and the political support for it; and so the circle goes. There is a tendency to “use it”, for example new technologies, if you have them, even if they are neither necessary nor desirable for the goals being pursued. This has led to atomic weapon use, chemical and biological weapon use, land mines, cluster munitions, and the lack of control of small and conventional arms.
  • Assumptions about technology providing quick strikes to affect the “enemy” without affecting the aggressor. Think of tanks in the Gulf War or drones today, and NSA surveillance.
  • Miscalculations, especially about the effects of hunger, climate change, flooding, lack of justice and the rule of law, decent-paying and safe work for all, income inequality and

    poverty, the potential for disruptions resulting from divisiveness in society.

  • Competition for land and natural resources, including water, oil, natural gas, minerals,

    etc. In “Rift in Paradise: Africa Albertine Rift”, the author states:

    “As the global population soars toward 9 billion by the year 2045, this corner of
    Africa shows what is at stake in the decades ahead. The Rift valley is rich in rainfall, deep lakes, volcanic soil, and biodiversity. It is also one of the most densely populated places on earth. A desperate competition for land and resources – and between people and the wildlife – has erupted here with unspeakable violence. How can the conflict be stopped? Will there be any room left for the wild?” 2

    Think of the millions who live in desperate circumstances in South Africa, Palestine, and elsewhere in the world.

  • Violations of human rights, with particular attention to the rights of the child, women, and minorities – to be discussed even when the topic is bullying.
  • Sometimes there are many causes all at once. The conflicts in South Sudan between ethnic and political groups caused by the manner in which the Sudan was colonized, its generations of poverty, competition for arable land, scarce national resources, lack of a strong national identity, the role of militias, cultures of violence born of generations of war, the availability of arms, and the failure to implement long overdue peace building and reconciliation initiatives.

Advocates for Peace

In a review of books about peace movements and the Nobel Peace Prize, the scholar Walter Russell Mead says, “The modern peace movement is almost two hundred years old; its origins can be placed to the period that followed the devastating wars of the Napoleonic Era in Europe. In those two centuries, peace movements have had little discernable impact on world events, and what effect they have had has often been bad: the European Peace and Disarmament movement of the 1930’s, for example, greatly facilitated Hitler’s plans for a war of revenge,” he wrote.

He goes on to say that “World peace, the conquest of poverty, the triumph of human rights: the goals are obviously important and desirable.” But he criticizes the attempts.2

As I thought about his assertions, I found two interesting insights which I think defuse the energy of his arguments. First, he indicates that initiatives to address intractable problems, such as war, poverty, and justice, are better addressed at local and regional levels rather than globally. I think we can develop this argument and show how multiple small acts in local places can provide the leverage for larger effect. This is what happened during the Vietnam era and in combating land mines, among other causes.

In his second point, he says that world peace may be out of reach, but that stopping a particular war is not the same as stopping all wars. That is, there have been effective initiatives to stop wars, as our friend Cora Weiss can attest to in personal testimony. So, if stopping a war is not the same as stopping all war, what are the implications for peace education? Perhaps it is to help educate and prepare citizens to identify particular actions in their communities for peaceful initiatives based on empathy and diversity.

In a fascinating essay entitled, “The Decline of Empathy and the Future of Liberal Education,” Nadine Dolby states that “the journey from sympathy, to empathy, to informed empathy (i.e. empathy plus knowledge), to social justice is a long slow process.” She cites research which indicates a decline in empathy during the past thirty years that researchers attribute to a “precipitous drop due to the innate distancing of social networking technologies, and the rise of violence in video games and other electronic media.” Yet, we know that there are biological roots to empathy and cooperation. The fields of neuroscience, primatology, social psychology and cognitive studies demonstrate that while competition is innate to humans and animals, so is cooperation and empathy.3

The classroom is a setting that can foster empathy and, Dolby goes on to state, “this is not a choice but a mathematical necessary, as the world’s resources are finite. The planet, as we know it, simply cannot survive if we continue to pretend that competition is the only natural way to relate to the order of things.” She says, “By prioritizing nurturing or empathy” through classroom exercises, we can affect positive outcomes. We can help our students understand their connections to other people, species, and the earth.

In another scholarly study, middle- and high school and community college students learned about group dynamics and the “bystander effect” as part of the Heroic Imagination Project. Students learned why some react righteously and some fail to act at all, useful lessons for peace education.4

Teachable Moments.

Educators can help foster a culture of peace and nonviolence by linking the news, literature, and songs to discussions in the classroom, by teaching critical thinking and writing and by checking assumptions, by emphasizing empathy and cooperation in the face of multiple forces which give priority to competition.

Just think of the books, articles, news stories, reports, biographies, music, autobiographies, histories, and speeches such as Martin Luther King’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize that provide source material for discussions of cooperation versus competition. The newsletter of the Council on Foreign Relations, a good source for materials, annually ranks the top conflict prevention priorities. For this year, it cites:

  • The Syrian Civil War
  • Growing violence and instability in Afghanistan
  • Growing political instability and civil violence in Jordan
  • The potential for a severe North Korean crisis
  • The potential for a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. or an ally
  • A highly disruptive cyber-attack on U.S. critical infrastructure
  • Renewed threat of military strikes against Iran
  • Increasing internal violence and political instability in Pakistan
  • Civil war in Iraq
  • Strengthening of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.5

Note, however, that this list focuses on governments and guerrillas, and does not include conflict and instability arising from a lack of usable land, potable water, or protection from rising seas because certain leaders choose to ignore the reality of climate change.

Nevertheless, there are many extraordinary examples from the work of the UN on how nations have found common ground and cooperated to create an infrastructure of communications, navigational systems, and weather reporting that help make the world a closer community. Then, unfortunately, there are the stories of injustice, gender discrimination, surveillance, lack of reconciliation, and absence of support for the International Court of Justice which make us wonder why some nations think more in terms of competition than in terms of cooperation, why they do not seek common ground with others.

These are among the reasons why our work as teachers is so important. We can teach about peace; foster empathy; encourage students to think globally and act locally, as René Dubos admonished us to do; and initiate global-local comparisons to enhance learning. For example, when listening to today’s panelists, consider the global and the local, whether in terms of Small Island States compared to the shorelines of Connecticut and New York, both affected by storms and rising water levels, or early childhood education and development, whether in terms of distant lands or today’s debate in New York State. Such comparisons can give rise to discussions about the meaning of state sovereignty and the importance of a homeland as well as to the rights and responsibilities of individuals in our neighborhoods and on our planet.

These are just some of the opportunities for discussion in the classroom, leaving numerous opportunities for out-of-class and after-school activities.


Schooling is intended to teach the responsibilities of citizenship as well as to enhance the knowledge, skills, abilities and values necessary to lead a fulfilling life in meaningful work and at home. Surely, this is consistent with and may have inspired the words in the UN Charter: “to reaffirm faith in human rights, to establish justice and respect for international law, and to promote social progress and better standards of life, they have promised to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors for the economic and social advancement of all people.”

To help us explore these themes and possibly find paths to peace, we have two remarkable panelists. Each will speak for about ten minutes, leaving time for discussion.

Her Excellency Ambassador Janine Coye Felson, UN Mission Belize, is special advisor to the President of the General Assembly. She will comment on climate change as cause of violent conflict, and what steps the UN is taking to mitigate it.

Next, we will hear from Dr. Rima Salah, Assistant Clinical Professor at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center, former UNICEF Deputy Director, and Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General for the UN Mission in Central African Republic and Char, among other posts. Dr. Salah is a strong advocate for children and peace building, and will focus on Human Rights violations as causes of conflict, with special emphasis on the effects on children.

Thank you.


1 “U.S. Mission to the United Nations: Remarks at a Security Council Open Debate on War, it’s Lessons, and the Launch for a Permanent Peace,” July 29, 2014.

2 Mead, Walter Russell. “Peace Out: Why Civil Society Cannot Save the World,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2012, pp. 144-149.

3 Dolby, Nadine. “The Decline of Empathy and the Future of Liberal Education.” Liberal Education, Spring 2013, pp 60-64.

4 “In Life and Business, Learning to be Ethical,” The New York Times, January 11, 2014, p. B5.

5 “Annual Survey Ranks the Top Conflict Prevention Priorities.” The Chronicle, January 2014, pp. 3 and 4.

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