“Eternal peace is not an empty idea; it is a task”

Thoughts on peace education

by Dr Eliane Perret, psychologist and currative teacher

The recent events in Afghanistan have jolted many people awake and made them think about where we are heading in our world. One can only agree with Immanuel Kant, who in 1795 stated in his writing entitled “On Perpetual Peace”, that perpetual peace is not an empty idea, it is a task. It is a task that challenges all of us! Not only in view of the devastation left by the wars in Afghanistan, Congo, Iraq, Yemen, the former Yugoslavia and many other countries, but also in view of the countries battered by sanctions and the numerous unresolved social and political problems in many parts of the world. At the same time, there is the question of why previous efforts to live together in peace have not borne fruit. This is a problem to be faced by popularly mandated leaders and representatives of all disciplines, who are called upon to make their contribution to the resolution of conflicts and peace in the world. They must take seriously their responsibility towards their fellow human beings in the sense of the common weal, as many of them have done in the past. A reflection on their efforts and what they have already achieved is valuable and necessary.

A brief look at history

The desire to live together in peace has always been a main concern of humanity. Already Aristotle, the great thinker and natural scientist of ancient Greece, wrote down fundamental thoughts on how this deeply human need could be met. He saw humanity’s task in finding its position in the cosmos by virtue of reason and in making possible peaceful and harmonious coexistence in the state, by means of the cardinal virtues laid down in education – prudence, justice, wisdom and courage. Thoughts on peace can also be found in Roman philosophy. “In war there is no salvation, for peace we all ask,” wrote the Roman poet Virgil, referring to this great question of humanity.
  In later years, on the threshold of modern times, the Dutch scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam was very resolutely committed to peace and rightly stated in his writing “The Complains of Peace” that people need peace and tranquillity in order to be able to carry out their daily work and to establish a community for the good of all. He lamented the great misery that war brings to the individual and the whole nation. We also find important ideas in the work of Baruch de Spinoza, also a Dutch philosopher, in that he defined peace not simply as the absence of war, but as “[...] virtue, an attitude of mind, an inclination to goodness, trust, justice [...]”. He thus referred to the pedagogical task of enabling people to achieve peace through education, that other philosophers and pedagogues subsequently also explored and discussed.
  For example, Johann Amos Comenius, who had himself experienced the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, also delved into the question of education for peace. And a hundred years later, Immanuel Kant demanded the abolition of standing armies so as not to incite opponents to an arms race. For him, creating peace was not a future vision, but an achievable goal for humanity to approach by means of reason and education.
  So, we can see: from the earliest times in our cultural history, people have reflected about war and peace, and we would do well to reconsider these reflections with the necessary seriousness and respect and to commit political decision-makers to them.

“Never again war!”

Many writers also tried to stir up humanity with their works. “Put Down Your Arms” by Bertha von Suttner, “Nothing New in the West” by Erich Maria Remarque, Romain Rolland’s “Clérambault”, the trilogy by Arnold Zweig “Young Woman of 1914”, ”Education before Verdun” and “The Case of Sergeant Grisha” or also Jaroslav Hašek's novel “The Good Soldier Švejk” were intended to anchor a defence against these terrible developments in the minds of their readers. The works of these authors must not be allowed to gather dust on bookshelves or to even disappear from libraries. They are a legacy to future generations. Dealing with them supports young people in their emotional and spiritual maturation and will give them confidence, security and hope for a life in equality and peace, just like the touching pictures by Käthe Kollwitz, in which she shows us the human tragedies that wars bring with them. The engagement with these works provides starting points for dialogue as well as a conversation about what Silvio Gesell, the founder of the “Natural Economic Order”, might have meant when he wrote: “In the way father and mother converse, in the way brothers and sisters treat each other, there is already a good part of armour against war and for peace.”

War is not part of human nature

Psychology, educational science and other human sciences have also contributed with their research to clearing up the fatal error of accepting war as a necessary evil pertaining to humanity. These disciplines always were and still are particularly challenged to contribute to the way in which people may develop compassion and a spiritual connection with their fellow human beings as well as the desire to take responsibility for the well-being of all.
  Unfortunately, people had for a long time erroneously based their understanding of the question of war and peace on Sigmund Freud’s doctrine of an innate aggression and death instinct, as he had postulated it in the first half of the last century. From his point of view, waging war was therefore inevitably linked to the human existence. This assumption has been clarified since the 1960s after comprehensive and careful scientific debate: an aggression instinct belonging to the human being is a nonsensical myth! (cf. Plack 1973)

Peace education – a question of social bonding

At the same time as Freud, the Viennese individual psychologist Alfred Adler also addressed himself to the question of war and peace. He had experienced the devastation of war himself during the First World War and saw it as his responsibility to make a contribution with his work as a physician and psychologist. He came to the conclusion that the decisive factor lies in the development of social bonding.
  In sense of community (Gemeinschaftsgefühl), as he called it, he not only recognised the most important aspect of mental health, but also a protection against the seduction of people to war by power- and money-hungry strategists. In his practical work, he supported parents and educators in an upbringing concurrent with the nature of the child and helping it to develop and unfold its innate sense of community. At that time in particular, as a result of the First World War, children and young people were often mentally and emotionally neglected. With his counselling and training activities, Adler gave parents and educators a tool to help their children regain confidence and a constructive outlook on life.
  In his tradition, a large number of pedagogically active people were involved in the training of teachers and in school experiments, but their work unfortunately came to a standstill under National Socialism. Today, however, it is available to us as an important contribution to peace education, and it urgently needs to be taken up in the curricula of today’s educational training institutions.

Developing an inner defence against war

The horrors and misery of the two world wars and the shock of the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted many people to discuss the question of how another war could be prevented.
  A milestone in this development was the founding of the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 by prudent and mature individuals from all over the world. UNESCO, a UN sub-organisation, stated in its preamble: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.”
  With this in mind, Unesco drew up material plans for schools with valuable suggestions on how to teach various school subjects in a way that might bring people together. It would be worthwhile to evaluate them in terms of their foundations and successes.

Prophylaxis as a way

Unfortunately, this is not the place to describe in more detail the numerous contributions to peacebuilding made by other exponents of the human sciences. For example, the neo-psychoanalysts of the 1930s made valuable contributions to the question of education for peace. The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan formulated an impressive appeal to all those working in health and social services to participate in the possibilities of prophylaxis he had conceived to prevent another war and to make lasting peace possible. An International Congress on Psychohygiene in London in 1948 and the UNESCO Tension Project in Paris were also dedicated to this topic. Among the psychiatrists involved was the Hungarian psychoanalyst and physician Franz Alexander, who, subsequent to the aforementioned congress, published the article on “Psychiatric Prophylaxis against War”. And also, Maria Montessori, the Italian reformist educator, stated in a book contribution: “The true defence of nations cannot be based on weapons. For wars follow each other, and victory never secures peace or the welfare of anyone – nor will it ever be able to do so unless we use education as a great ‘armour for peace’.”

Failed considerations

Many educationalists and psychologists saw education as a possible way of prophylaxis, and after the Second World War various peace education programmes were devised. What to do to create a reluctance in children and young people to be instrumentalised for war? These considerations did not always lead to the desired result. For example, exhibitions of pictures documenting the atrocities of war were created. But the children confronted with them either developed fears, nervousness or insecurity, or they became accustomed to violence and emotionally deadened. Today, it is clear from research in developmental psychology that this path was not suitable, because it reduces the child’s basic trust in his or her fellow human beings, in the human community, and generally weakens the child’s entire personality. Children need adults who act as role models, who show them the way towards peace and give them the necessary protection so that their mental development will not suffer.
  The Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura with his research on aggression as well as the research group around Monroe Lefkowitz with his long-term study “Growing up to be violent” published in 1977 clearly showed that children orientate themselves on role models in their immediate environment. If parents and teachers do not take on the appropriate role, children look for role models elsewhere, for example in the media.
  This is an insight that should definitely be taken note of by all those who expose our children and young people to the very widespread depictions of violence in films and video games which glorify violence.

Peace education begins at the family table

Research findings in the human sciences in recent decades show that human beings are social in nature and that children can be led to love peace through upbringing and education in responsibility, compassion, solidarity and cooperation. Therefore, peace education begins in the family and is continued at school by living together in the class community (sic!). If peace education is to succeed, it must begin in the first interpersonal relationships in which a person develops his or her personality and forms a sense of social connection. There is no substitute for the reciprocity in the relationship between parents and child, the deep emotional bonds, the unity in the shared future, the togetherness in shaping and securing life. If the conversation at the family table is alive, a child will experience sympathy and interest in the concerns of its fellow human beings beyond the family framework. Here the child’s emotional desire is laid to be active in the world later on and, on a smaller or larger scale, to make a contribution in the sense of the bonum commune. As an adult, a child brought up in such a way feels equal to the demands of family, work and community and shows interest, expertise and commitment in political debate. These people will not allow themselves to be stirred up against their fellow human beings, and they will know how to use their intellect and reason courageously to oppose ideological seductions critically and resolutely, neither allowing themselves to be driven into war nor submitting passively and defencelessly to violence.
  We are therefore today called upon to review what has been achieved so far and, on the basis of a scientific view of humanity, to rethink what we can contribute to the growth of a generation that carries the idea of peace within itself.  •

Sources and other texts for research and further deliberation:

Adler, Alfred.: Die andere Seite. Eine massenpsychologische Studie über die Schuld des Volkes. (The Other Side. A mass psychological study of the guilt of the people.) Publishing House: Verlag Leopold Heidrich, Vienna. 1919

Alexander, Franz.: “Psychiatrische Prophylaxe gegen den Krieg (Psychiatric prophylaxis against war)”. In: Pfister-Ammende M. (ed.). (1949): Psychohygiene. Grundlagen und Ziele (Psychohygiene. Foundations and aims). Bern: Hans Huber. pp. 164-174

Buchholz, A.; Gautschi, E.; Hanke Güttinger, H.: Friedenserziehung heute – eine Besinnung (Peace education today – a reflection). Unpublished manuscript

Lefkowitz, M. M.; Eron, L. D.; Walder, L. O., & Huesmann, L. R. (1977). Growing up to be violent: A longitudinal study of the development of aggression. Pergamon.

Montessori, Maria. In: Roth, K.F.: Erziehung zur Völkerverständigung und zum Friedensdenken (Education for international understanding and peace thinking). EOS Publishers. 1981.

Plack, Arno (ed.) Der Mythos vom Aggressionstrieb (The myth of the aggression drive). Munich: Paul List Publishers. 1973.

Sullivan, Harry Stack (1947). “Remobilization for enduring peace and social progress”. In: The fusion of psychiatry and social science. H. Swick Perry (editor), New York: Norton, 1964, pp. 273-289; https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1947.11022643 (accessed 15 September 2021)

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​