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Peace Education, Not Patriotic Education

Book burning scene from "Indiana Jones" movie

By Patrick Hiller, September 20, 2020

The President’s call to “restore patriotic education in our schools” via the creation of the “1776 Commission” aimed at controlling public school curricula once again set off my alarm bells. As a dual German-American citizen, I grew up in Germany and by design of the education system became very familiar with my birthplace’s history. 

As a social scientist, I study processes of polarization, dehumanization, and demonization of others. I know from both personal experience and professional expertise that peace education counters those conditions which lead to violence. 

Trump’s call for “patriotic education” is dangerous. 

Instead, our schools need peace education to help contend with this moment of reckoning with racial and other forms of inequality in a genuinely inclusive way – and give our children the best opportunity to learn from the disastrous mistakes of the past.  

As Germans we are still grappling with a genocidal history where both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust are alive. I remember reading a children’s novel in school depicting the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of a German boy and his Jewish friend who tragically dies in a bomb raid huddled in the doorway of a bomb-proof bunker. The families who once happily lived alongside his family in an apartment building denied him entry, because it was their patriotic duty to protect the “German race.” His parents had already been arrested and most likely sent to be killed after those same neighbors reported them to authorities. 

Later, in formal history classes, I got an unfiltered curriculum that laid bare that ordinary Germans became complicit in evil. And on multiple occasions I have stood in front of the patriotic sounding slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”), marking the entrance gate of the concentration camp in Dachau. 

I find it shocking that a recent report might indicate that “almost two-thirds of young American adults do not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.” 

All Germans know what happened, and we certainly don’t ask for “patriotic education” that suits a white supremacist narrative about the history of the nation. 

The takeover of the educational system played a key role in Nazi Germany. Schools were key instruments to solidify the Nazi power structures. The Nazi curriculums’ aims were to promote racial ideologies that ultimately justified the Holocaust. All took place in the context of “patriotic education” based on the supremacy of a so-called “pure” German race. 

Trump’s remarks and plans take us on the same path by denying the realities of systematic racism on black, indigenous, and other people of color throughout U.S history – including the horrors of chattel slavery, forced displacement and genocide of native peoples, race-based immigration bans, and Japanese internment, for instance. 

Instead of a dangerous “patriotic education,” peace education curricula emphasize the dignity of all people and aim to decrease direct violence—every day more than 100 Americans are killed with guns and 200 more are shot and wounded—and indirect violence. The latter, which social scientists also call “structural violence,” is the ongoing systematic discrimination and oppression that black, indigenous, people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, Muslims, the poor, and other non-dominant groups face day after day, whether accompanied by overt racism or not. 

Peace education includes all forms of formal education ranging from kindergarten through doctoral programs. Case studies on peace education in different contexts have already shown how impactful it could be in the current US context. Peace education programs have proven to be a successful way to educate about and overcome social inequality, peace education is capable of addressing even the most protracted problems, and peace education can challenge historical narratives which justify and normalize past and present forms of oppression and violence

There is no magic switch to turn on peace education nationwide. Many schools, however, already have peer-mediation, anti-bullying, and conflict resolution mechanisms or simply adopted principles of inclusion, kindness, and respect—as I observe in my son’s elementary school in a small town in Oregon. 

There is still a need to create further public awareness and political support for the introduction of more formal peace education curricula throughout all areas of education. 

The Global Campaign for Peace Education is extremely helpful and can be used as a starting point for anyone uncomfortable with Trump’s push for “patriotic education” to start a conversation in the community, with school boards, or with local and national elected officials. 

The German history of “patriotic education” and Trump’s current demand that “our youth will be taught to love America,” requires resounding pushback so that our youth do not grow into a new generation of fascists. 

Remember the book burning scene in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? While it was entertaining and a mockery of the Nazi ideology, the historical context of this scene was a very real and very scary nationwide “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Action against un-German spirit). Are you confident to put it beyond Trump and his enablers to literally or through policies initiate book burnings? I have seen too much in the last three years, and so I will not. 

Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, Advisory Board member of World Beyond War, served on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association (2012-2016), is a member of the Peace and Security Funders Group, and is Director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation.

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