Good Neighbors Who Both Mend Fences | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Good Neighbors Who Both Mend Fences

TC is home to complementary-'"and groundbreaking-'"initiatives in peace education and conflict resolution
As someone who has spent a good part of his career focusing on conflict resolution, Peter Coleman recognized familiar patterns in President Barack Obama’s first major speech before Congress.
“He was really trying to identify higher goals that we all share to mobilize people to rise above the fray of partisanship,” says Coleman, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, TC alumnus, and Director of TC’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR). “It’s a mind shift from games. From both a hard-bargaining perspective and a security-and-threat perspective, the basic metaphor of conflict is as a game that you need to know the rules in order to win. Obama’s perspective is more relational and, ultimately, more constructive.”
A similar kind of understanding underlies Janet Gerson’s take on the implications of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. “When democracy is used as the excuse to literally destroy schools, libraries, cultural institutions, government, roads and infrastructure, then one has to really question ‘democracy’ in a deeper way,” says Gerson, Co-Director of the Peace Education Center at TC. “The U.S. signed on to the rules in the UN Charter, which are the basis of collective security. Then it violated those agreements and set a precedent for other countries to do the same thing. That has huge implications for international law and the collective international cooperation that was built through 50 years of human rights work at the United Nations. In educating for global citizenship, peace education seeks to inform people about international law and agreements.”
As areas of study offering courses and specializations, peace education and conflict resolution operate out of separate houses at TC—the former is based in the Department of Organization and Leadership, and the latter in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies—but they are close cousins, albeit with some important distinctions. Both tend to focus on the larger implications of contentious issues in order to shed light on why they sometimes breed destructive conflict, and both seek to develop practical means of resolving problems. One difference between the two fields: peace educators seek to educate toward comprehension of the underlying and systemic causes of various forms of violence, while conflict resolution tends to be more theory- and research-based in devising methodologies for education and direct intervention.
Teachers College has played a major role in the development and expansion of both peace education and conflict resolution. The first graduate-level courses in the field of Peace Education were initiated at TC in the 1970s by faculty members Willard Jacobsen, whose field was science education, and Douglas Sloan, of what was then called the Department of Philosophy and Social Science. They were helped by Betty Reardon, who had extensive international experience in the development of the field. Reardon would become founding Director of the Peace Education Center, which Gerson now co-directs with Tony Jenkins. For many years, Reardon was also Director of Peace Education activities at TC.
Conflict resolution—both at TC and as a field in general—has been substantially influenced by the seminal research of TC Professor Emeritus Morton Deutsch, the founder of ICCCR.
“Being in World War II and experiencing the devastation and horror of war, even though I felt the war against the Nazis was justified, I became interested in prevention of war,” Deutsch recalls. “And just before I resumed graduate studies, there were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So I was aware of the dangers introduced by atomic weapons, and I was aware of the UN Security Council, which had been newly formed. I had an image of them either cooperating or competing and had different senses of what the consequences would be for the world.”
Reardon adds that the preparation “of people who are going to be educated through the schools, or informally, to be confident enough to make their own analysis, choose courses of action and become engaged—that’s what peace education is essentially about. It’s about learning to use the knowledge we gain from historical experience and from research in a way that’s going to help us move out of where we are now, in a world of violent conflict.”
(Deutsch and Reardon got together recently for a videotaped conversation, viewable on the TC Web at
Both fields, by definition, have a decidedly international bent and look to have an impact in situations around the world.
Case in point: the ICCCR’s recent efforts to make The Handbook on Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, a landmark text co-edited by Deutsch, Coleman and TC alumnus Eric Marcus, available in Arabic. Considered a negotiator’s bible for everything from labor disputes to marital discord, the Handbook integrates authoritative research and definitive examples for professionals and students involved in a wide variety of conflict resolution fields. It has previously been translated into Polish and Japanese.
“Colleagues who worked in the Middle East were coming to us, telling us they had few resources in Arabic to conduct peace-building initiatives on the ground,” says Coleman. “They were having to create their own materials. They asked us, ‘Any chance you’d consider translating the book?’ We went to our publisher, Jossey Bass, and they said they couldn’t do it, but that we could pursue it on our own.”
Coleman turned to Naira Musallam, a Ph.D. student in TC’s Social-Organizational Psychology Program who also works with him at ICCCR. Musallam is fluent in Arabic, has interned with such organizations as the International Center for Transitional Justice and the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, and has a network of professional contacts in the Middle East who could clue her in on which chapters would be most useful.
Musallam supervised the translation of some nine chapters and wrote a regionally relevant preface, and then Coleman turned to the book’s regional distribution—in most of the Middle East, a significant challenge with any book of American provenance. He considered distribution through the U.S. Department of Defense—not as ironic as it might seem, given the military’s changed mandate once the invasion of Iraq was complete. “They’re doing peace-building now,” Coleman says. “Setting up forums where elders can negotiate around water rights. It certainly wouldn’t hurt them to have resources to help train local folks to work collaboratively.” Ultimately, however, Coleman chose to distribute the book through local NGOs and seek endorsements of the book from Arab leaders.
Musallam’s preface most likely also helped with that effort, because it connects the book’s methods to Muslim tradition. “What the handbook offers is really very consistent with many of the traditional values and traditions around dispute resolution in local communities in the region,” Coleman says. “This is simply a scientific, research-based framework which helps identify specific strategies that might enhance that approach. So it’s not saying, ‘Here’s a Western science model that’s better than yours, and you should use it because we know more.’ Instead, it’s saying, ‘This is consistent with many of your more constructive practices, but it’s science-based and may help orient you more specifically to particular tactics.’”
The outreach to Arab communities mirrors other ICCCR efforts, including an ambitious research program that involves participation with several other universities in a Department of Defense grant. The focus of that effort, Coleman says, is to study “the effects of culture on negotiation and multinational collaboration processes in Middle Eastern countries. When multinational teams try to work together, they can have a lot of problems working across cultures.”
Coleman also has been working with Andrea Bartoli, formerly of Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs and now holder of the Drucie French Cumbie Chair of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, on a genocide prevention institute. The goal is to develop, under the auspices of the Universal Declaration for the Prevention of Genocide, a network of people with expertise in that field in every country across the globe. Representatives of 15 countries at a time attend week-long events at Columbia or George Mason, where they listen to experts and discuss possible strategies. Many violence-torn countries, such as Haiti and the Congo, have participated, but so, too, have far less turbulent nations, such as Norway.  
“Genocide prevention can be implemented at all different levels of escalation,” Coleman says. “It can be implemented in Norway, where there’s no inkling of genocide actually happening, or it can happen in the Congo, which may be on the brink of such atrocities. We hope to get sufficient funding to institutionalize this institute in order to help establish this global network for best practices in genocide prevention. We also continue to conference in people who have graduated from the institute and are doing things on the ground that are interesting so they can talk about what works and what doesn’t.”
Peace education, too, focuses globally while also seeking to facilitate—through formal and informal channels—locally generated educational responses to violence. On the global level, Monisha Bajaj, a professor in TC’s Department of International and Transcultural Studies and TC alumna, has created a new online Encyclopedia of Peace Education. Posted on TC’s Web site at, the Encyclopedia brings together “a body of scholarship and practice that has very fluid boundaries,” Bajaj says. “There really isn’t a space for practitioners, scholars and students and people from all over the world who are claiming membership in this community to interact and share ideas, to trace the development of the field, and to look at the proposals people are putting forward for the future of the field. I wanted to create that kind of space.”
The local impact results through the efforts of co-directors Gerson and Jenkins to advance the development and global networking aspects of Reardon’s work. This they’ve done working with visiting international peace education scholars and also through an annual event called the International Institute for Peace Education (IIPE), which Reardon describes as the field’s “moveable feast.” First held at TC under the auspices of United Ministries in Higher Education, IIPE marked its 25th year in 2007 with a celebration at the UN, co-sponsored by UNESCO, that drew hundreds of peace educators from all over the world. This year’s Institute will be held in Budapest with the theme “Human Rights Learning as Peace Education: Pursuing Democracy in a Time of Crisis.” The event will honor the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognize the UN’s International Year of Human Rights Learning.
“The IIPE seeks to affect education policy and practice in host countries,” Jenkins says. “Two years ago, for instance, the Institute was held in the Basque Country in Spain. One of the main partners was the Ministry of Education. At the time they were developing a Basque plan of action for peace and human rights education. Together with colleagues participating in the Institute, we were able to help with some theoretical foundations and give them the legitimacy, for the work they were trying to do, of the practical experience of IIPE’s international network of peace education scholars and practitioners. The plan they developed is probably one of the best I’ve seen put forward around the world, at any level in terms of policy. They’re asking, How do we educate government? How do we educate civil society for peace? How do we integrate this learning into schools?”
With the goal of further developing the international and community aspects of peace education, Jenkins, Gerson and educators from the IIPE network began developing efforts called Community Based Institutes on Peace Education (CIPE), which are more region-specific. So far, CIPEs have been held in the Ukraine, Peru, Tanzania, the Philippines and Colombia. Jenkins points to Colombia as a particularly gratifying success story because organizers there have managed to create eight regional hubs, each with a coordinator funded by a combination of government and NGO support. Efforts are underway to establish a ninth, in Soacha, outside Bogota. “It’s an impoverished community where a lot of the rural people first come as they’re moving into the city, looking for employment,” Jenkins says. “They’re the most vulnerable of the people. It’s where the rebel groups are doing all their recruitment of child soldiers. So now, there’s a partnership that sprung up among CIPE-Colombia, UNICEF and the World Bank, and the local mayor and the Ministry of Education. They’re exploring how they can make this work as a model community, integrating peace education on all these different levels and working to train teachers and empower them.”
One key characteristic of IIPE and CIPE is that they never impose solutions on local groups. As a case in point, Gerson cites the CIPE she and Jenkins are co-facilitating in India in late March with Sanristi, a local NGO. The focus is on religious- and gender-based violence.
“Are we as internationals going to tell these 300 women who work in violence in India what to do?” Gerson asks. “Or can we instead bring to bear our sophisticated experiences of what education has done for peace in other places? Can we help these women to work together toward the common, pragmatic issue, which is that in India, gender violence is part of the norms of culture, while still maintaining their individual identities and diversity? In fact, in many cultures, violence toward women is a norm. How can we contribute to the discussion? We don’t want to impose our Western solutions. It doesn’t work, and it’s antithetical to the values of human dignity and integrity that inform peace education.”
In a world that can sometimes seem ever more destructive, it can be hard to keep such insights top of mind, and to act with sensitivity and restraint. But for those who have spent years working this ground, progress is measured in increments.
“Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Bashir would not have been brought before an international court,” Reardon says, referring to the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of orchestrating atrocities against citizens in Darfur. “Twenty-five years go, a woman in India who survived attempted murder by her mother-in-law and husband would never have been able to go to court, as now happens, if murder charges can be brought. So, most people, I think, are beginning to be infected with the notion that all human beings are, in fact, human. And that’s progress, indeed.”

Published Monday, Jun. 8, 2009