Conflict Resolution in the Humanities,
Particularly World Literature and US History
After World War II, when major powers emerged with nuclear technology that had the potential destroy all of civilization, perhaps the planet itself, there was no playbook.
Thus superpower leaders, while sometimes teetering on the brink of holocaust, had little to draw upon academically or experientially as they tried to protect their nations’ interests, knowing that a misstep would make their nations’ political or economic circumstances a moot issue. These leaders would need to think critically and creatively in order to ensure the survival of society. It might be argued that they did in so
far as a nuclear disaster has been thus far avoided. That sort of creative and critical response, plus a fervent and reverent respect for life and “the other” (who might be anyone of another culture or race) are perhaps the goals of every teacher of the humanities. Teachers everywhere dream that by virtue of their study, their students will be better citizens than previous generations, regardless of the complexity of personal, national and international events.
Tolerance is the first step towards conflict resolution.
In my case the opportunity to advance that universal hope has presented itself in the curricula for both History and Literature, where I have found it possible to teach tolerance, the first step toward conflict resolution, by way of examining diverse cultures and to look at practical ways in which conflict has been, should have been, or can be avoided, particularly in American History.
Working as a teacher of Ancient World Literature in an Catholic High School.
From 2000 to 2011, I was a teacher of Ancient World Literature in an American Catholic High School, coursework which by its nature required a consideration of some of the world’s major belief systems, both in terms of precepts found in scriptures and philosophies, along with the practical application found in stories and poetry. Our texts were parts, albeit small, which we tried to fit into a whole, of Zoroastrian precepts, the Hebrew Bible, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Upanishad, and Upanishads, The Tao Te Ching and The Analects. We investigated ancient belief systems of the Sumerians, Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, belief systems which seem to have passed into history, but may have importance in contemporary cultures. It was always interesting to find that, while our study of faiths around the world was of necessity limited, it was always rather easy for 14-year-old students, most of whom were Roman Catholic Christians, to find similarities between their own faith or philosophy and the ideals and beliefs of other ages and places. This is not to say that they could not define differences; they could. However, by the time they had discovered all the similarities, differences became were relegated to the sphere of interest, not conflict. The literature always had a humanizing influence on my students.
I introduced my students to a prehistorical conflict.
With regard to Zoroastrianism, a very brief look at a small portion of a Persian epic, introduced students to a pre-historical conflict between good and evil. An outsized character whom they came to love chose evil and thereby chose suffering. While my students have hardly had opportunities to choose evil proportionate to the evil of the epic, they know enough of the human condition to perceive the possibility. Naturally most of my students had some experience with the Hebrew Bible and tenets of Judaism, which also exist in Christianity, but often they had not taken the time to study the humanity of those ancient people and to connect with them on a personal basis, a step toward Judeo-Christian understanding. When these students read the account of Jesus’s birth in the Qur’an, the majority noted the differences, but in all humility saw them as a touching and thought-provoking variant of the story in which they believe, a connection rather than a source of conflict.
Willing to sacrifice his life to save a bird
The same young people were shocked to find the Hindu King Sibi being willing to sacrifice his life to save a bird’s life. But placed in the context of Ahimsa and the belief that all sentient beings have a soul, these teenagers, already disposed to love for animals, admired the king’s integrity and compassion regarding all creatures. While US students always find the subordination of Confucianism difficult to understand and/or accept, if they examine it in its philosophical and historical context and meet the practitioners of Confucianism in literature, they respect the idealism of this thought system. Those in authority were directed to love in an agape, selfless manner, caring consistently about the well-being of
subordinates. In the study of Taoism, students found their own Thoreau-like emphasis on nature and discovered their own desires to preserve it to the best of human ability. They clearly connected with Lao Tsu’s emphasis on freedom and the equality of all creatures.
The US History spans only a few hundred years
While U S History spans only a few hundred years, it is taught at least three times to US students and is a source of many lessons pertaining to conflict resolution. Too often the histories of too many civilizations recount wars. On the one hand, it is normal to pay attention to cataclysmic events; on the other hand, perhaps we have become too used to them and begin to think of them as part and parcel of human existence and fail to discern that the causes of war can be greed and/or revenge disguised as morality. Even a young nation, such as the United States, has had too many conflicts to examine each carefully and at least two of the conflicts, the Civil War and the US role in World War II, remain very challenging for those who would be peacemakers because of the dearth of viable non-violent courses of action available during those periods of history. This is not to say that the pursuit of such solutions should be ignored—only that it is complex. However, certain approaches to teaching history and to teaching specific conflicts, such as the early conflicts between settlers and native peoples, the world wars, the Vietnam and Iraq wars, have been selected as a source of investigations into conflict resolution as it might have been practiced in the past and as it might be in the future.
The injustices toward the natives are understood and not denied
The first conflict recorded first hand by westerners in North America was, of course, the conflict with the native peoples. It’s long over, and the injustices are understood and generally not denied. But there is an important contemporary issue; along with greed, another rationale for destroying native peoples was their “otherness.” Their wisdom, values and value were ignored, and their differences were vilified. Hindsight allows today’s students to apply the lessons learned from regret and shame to the present day, and to pay careful attention as to how “the other” is viewed and treated.
Blindnes to human suffering cost million of lives worldwide
A study of the US participation in World War I provides high school students with an opportunity to examine how the flaws of human nature, pride and shortsightedness, might help propel a country (many countries actually) into a catastrophe, pointless for all involved except perhaps arms dealers and power brokers. Absolute blindness to human suffering and what I would call a perverted view of justice cost millions of lives worldwide as well as a devastating economic disruption and political cataclysms. The young student of history who may be a future policy maker has, in the 21st century, the necessary perspective to make a case against such conflagrations.
It is also useful for students to compare American attitudes after World War I with American attitudes after World War II. After World War I, the US withdrew from the misery of the aftermath and remained isolated until forced into world affairs. An devastated and impoverished Germany, singularly required to take responsibility for a conflict for which it was partly responsible rose from the ashes of World War I to ignite a second world conflict. It is instructive to note that, following the Second World War, the US engaged it’s former enemies and by helping them restore their nations economically and politically, not only prevented conflict, but created international relationships that have endured to this day. More importantly, the student realizes that poverty and injustice create conflict.
Most Americans were fearful of the spread of communism
The Vietnam War divided the United States and the divisions were painful and disruptive for at least a generation. Most Americans, while they were ignorant of the issue of nationalism and fearful of the spread of communism, do not defend the role of the government in sustaining that conflict, which ultimately led to near 50,000 deaths and humiliation for the US. Nor can the tremendous pain and suffering and loss of life in Vietnam ever be justified by history. Again the message is education about the culture, politics and goals of other societies. Understand that it is generally accepted that fear and misunderstanding led the US into war with Iraq, though alongside this view is the competing belief that the war evolved into a war of liberation from a dictator. The task for students now, and certainly in the years to come, when more information is available, is to understand the possibility of fear and self-deception as causes of conflict and to apply this understanding to future problems. Indeed, considering the traumatizing effects of 9/11, the issue of “the other” may have been significant in the US decision to make decide that preemption, though ironically it turned out that there was nothing to preempt, could be justified.
Human progress toward peace and away from violence
With the current interest in social history, and technologies that make it easier to capture and retain ever increasing amounts of data, the historical record can more easily become one of human progress toward peace and away from violence. Teachers of US History can draw from a wealth of peacemakers—abolitionists who would eschew violence in favor of awareness, Jeanette Rankin, the first American woman to be elected to Congress and perhaps the only one to lose her seat because of pacifism, Dorothy Day who advocated for the homeless, Martin Luther King whose non violent movement ended segregation and other injustices, Daniel Ellsberg and the Berrigan brothers who had the courage to point out the evil of war despite the threat and/or reality of incarceration. Certainly a creative and knowledgeable teacher will find many more examples of Americans who advocated for tolerance and peace.
How to fight intolerance and violence
So, in conclusion, an American high school instructor who is assigned to teach US History or Ancient World Literature will find opportunities to address the root causes of intolerance and violence. The ancient scriptures will make manifest the human values and aspirations that diverse civilizations share. Stories and poems from the ancient world will bring to life, real people who struggled for peace and justice. An analysis of the cause of wars and other conflicts certainly will provide a roadmap for those who seek peace. A study of brave individuals who put their well-being, or even their life on the line, will inspire young people to do whatever may be required to eliminate intolerance and the conflict that intolerance breeds.