Rearticulating Peace Education to go Beyond Cognitive Blindness: Educating for Connections Between School and Society

David Ragland
The University of Toledo
Center for Nonviolence and Democratic Education

The tragic events that occurred at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and the most recent shooting in a Cleveland high school, can and should be put in context. That context arguably includes the violence in U.S. society in general, as manifest in high levels of gun possession (legal and illegal), police violence, and the nation’s predisposition toward solving the majority of its international conflicts by violent means rather than diplomatic ones.

Violence, direct or indirect, is pervasive and often difficult to identify because it is so ingrained in our culture. Many teachers do not recognize that their teaching practices, — whether they be simply didactic, authoritarian, disciplinary, or sometimes culturally insensitive, or even prejudicial — contribute to violence in schools. Similarly, corporations, policy makers and military strategists do not necessarily see their practices toward the communities, other nations and natural environments in which they exist and do business as violent. Educators know that a violent or abusive home life for students can lead to problems in school. Yet, the aforementioned entities and teachers rarely relate violence in schools to corporate, governmental, or bureaucratic violence at work in our society. Rosemarie Stallworth-Clark, (2007), similarly suggest that teachers, scholars and practitioners have not made the psychological connections to these social ills that are “underlying causes of school violence” (p. 15).

Ignoring this connection can be attributed to “cognitive blindness”: an inability to see what is openly present, but is obscured for some particular reason – especially as it is manifest close to home. An example is cognitive blindness in terms of race in America. Many Americans believe that because there is opportunity, that it is available to all Americans and find it hard to believe that some do not have access. This may be one of the underlying reasons for the legislation that ended affirmative action in Public Universities in Michigan. NPR’s Jack Lessenberry (2007) attributed the failure of students like Jennifer Gratz to challenge affirmative action for the rich, to cognitive blindness. To be sure, schools are a microcosm of society; conflicts in society tend to be reproduced in schools.

Leaders of governments may encourage nonviolence in schools but the lessons learned have more to do with what they do, i. e., large military expenditures as opposed to funding to improve education and other social and domestic infrastructure. Politicians rarely make the connections between their actions and the violence in schools, if they do, the outcome does not reflect this awareness. Tony Jenkins (2007) suggests that the failure to think in ways that are critical have to do with a “lack of imagination” (p.23). This lack of imagination is a failure to look deeper and is in essence part of the cognitive blindness. As a result, cognitive blindness, allows the separation of the domains of school and society and, in fact, seals them off from each other.

John Dewey was engaged in the project of dissolving separations between school and society, suggesting that democracy and education ought to be a unified project. Similarly, Peace Education scholars are engaged in bridging the gulf between theory and research on violence with their innovative practices of education for peace in schools.
Betty Reardon in Comprehensive Peace Education (1988) suggests that traditional forms of education are dualistic, dividing pedagogy from society, and are assumed to be value free. Reardon describes how education is never value free, which entails an obligation for educators to explore the ways in which hidden value systems and suppressed political agendas at the macroscopic level may contribute to violence at the local level.

Moreover, Reardon articulates how such a critical approach, including an understanding of the complexity of history and socio-cultural context, can result in beneficial transformations of conflict. Understanding the roots of violence can help students, teachers, policy makers and larger social institutions see and act in the world from a perspective that identifies and deals with conflicts critically, thereby transforming them and the parties engaged in them. Peace education theory and practices embody values that help students develop capacities to participate in such social, group, and interpersonal changes. It is therefore a necessary component of teacher education, thereby eventually becoming integrated organically with school curricula.

To be sure, curricula must be student centered giving voice to the experience as well as the hopes and dreams of students, which implies that teachers need to take the time to learn about student interests. This is particularly true for urban schools, where such interests typically are not included in the standard curriculum. Curriculum in urban schools must do several things – attend to and help describe the environment students live in, empower students so that they become alert and vigilant, and offer culturally sensitive perspectives of hope so that students become interested in achievement, for the right reasons.

According to Maxine Greene, in Variations on a Blue Guitar (1980) any aesthetic education is potentially transformative, signifying “an initiation into new ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and moving”(p.7). Greene continues that this kind of education signifies “ a special kind of reflectiveness and expressiveness” in students, as opposed to the “anesthetic” orientation that is void of critical thinking and characteristic of the standardized testing environment. As we have learned from recent school shootings, when teachers fail to recognize their own violence in teaching practices, or violence received from students’ environment and students fail to perceive and reflect on situations that hold the potential for violent conflict, the result tends to be overt violence. Democratic, multicultural and aesthetic education, which is synonymous with peace education, on the other hand, has the possibility to draw students into an orientation that stresses expanded, sensitized awareness and a thoughtful reflectiveness openness to possibilities of seeing and knowing.

From the perspective of Reardon, Dewey and Greene, a hybridized conception of education for peace that makes connections, and has the content to dissolve dualisms, can help students and educators see past cognitive blindness. The perspective advocates for student-centeredness, where teachers and administrators listen to students to create safe schools and inform the curriculum, as Pedro Noguera (2007) suggests. This re-articulated aesthetic education for peace uses art to spark critical consciousness, suggests unlimited possibilities that not only increase student success, but reduce violence and help students to become wide-awake (Green, 1978) to their global and local responsibility. The creation of a peace education curriculum using art has the possibility to teach students peace in a way that will empower them to transform their orientation into one that is less violent, not only behaviorally but also in terms of their caring vigilance and ability to interpret volatile situations and their consequences.


Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2004). Building bridges from school to home. Instructor. 114(1), 24-73.

Green, M. (1978). Wide awakeness and the moral life (Ch. 3). Landscapes of Learning. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Jenkins, T. (2007). Rethinking the unimaginable: The need for teacher education in peace education. Harvard Educational Review, 77(3), 15-17.

*Newman, M. (2007, October 10). Gunman Opens Fire at Cleveland High School. New York Times.

Noguera, P. (2007). How listening to students can help schools improve. Theory into Practice, 46(3), 205- 211.

Pennycook, A. (2007). Language, localization, and the real: Hip-hop and the global spread of authenticity. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 6(2), 101-115.

Reardon, B. (1988). Comprehensive peace education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Stallworth-Clark, R. (2007). The psychology of violence and peace. Harvard Educational Review, 77(3), 15-17.

*Websource: http://jackshow.blogs.com/jack/education/index.html: Retrieved 12/2/07

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