PEACE in Action

Schools and Alternative Schools

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Building a Culture of Peace in Schools and Communities
Schools and Alternative Schools

Today's schools meet the needs of some children, but not of others. Some find school interesting, others boring, even oppressive. Here are some thoughts about an alternative type of school that can meet the needs of children with a variety of different inclinations and abilities.

Violence usually results from untransformed conflicts. A conflict has three aspects: A, B and C:

A. Attitudes can range from empathy and understanding to anger and hatred.

B. Behavior can range from being kind and helpful to others, to hurting them verbally or physically.

C. A contradiction between two or more incompatible goals is the underlying source of a conflict. Psychologists usually seek to improve people's attitudes and behavior, which can be helpful, but without addressing the underlying contradiction, which is the source of the conflict, no lasting improvement in relations will occur.

I prefer the term "conflict transformation" to the more familiar "conflict resolution" because it is rarely possible to resolve a conflict completely in the sense of making it disappear. It is possible, however, and necessary, to transform conflicts so that they are carried out nonviolently.

There are five basic possible solutions to a conflict between two actors with one contested issue, for example two children fighting over an orange:

  1. One can get it;
  2. the other can get it;
  3. they can share it equally (a compromise);
  4. they can destroy it in fighting over it so that neither neither gets anything ("negative transcendence");
  5. they can find a creative way, a kind of quantum jump, which gives to each everything she or he wants; for example, one gets the peal because she wishes to use it in baking a cake, while the other wishes to eat the flesh ("positive transcendence").

The challenge is to find a transcendent solution that simultaneously meets everyone's legitimate needs. Let us consider the following example of two students with conflicting needs:

Student A, bully:I hate the school—the training, discipline, being forced. I am suffering, bored to death. I would like to burn down the whole thing, with some of the worst teachers inside.

Student B, bullee:I love the school. I am learning so much, every day—language, history, mathematics. But that guy A is always tormenting me. He cannot stand it that anybody simply likes the school.

Conflict Worker:Is that right, A, that you attack B because he is so fond of what you are hating? The school is so strong, you don't dare hit the school. So you hit B instead. He cannot hit back, and you know that!

Student A, bully:Just talk any way you want. I am not going to hate this school less for that reason. Go ahead with your analysis, just go ahead!

Conflict Worker:So, what are we doing with this? The example is from Japan, but the phenomenon is global. What happens is that the bullies are studied and punished, the bullees are studied and assisted, and the relationship between the two is studied and improved. "The school system" and "society" (meaning top elites) usually prefer a bully-oriented approach, iron clad, "zero tolerance." This is a primitive, immature individualization of a rather deep problem.

The statements quoted above point to the school itself as a problem. A traditional school suits B very well. A finds himself a simple job, joins a motorbike gang, and becomes a dropout. The tough teacher will leave A to his punishment. A soft teacher will call a class meeting, and then start mediating between A and B. But all of this has one thing in common: the focus is not on the school as such. The focus is on A and B.

So let us start with a first jump: instead of looking at A and B as perpetrator and victim, a perspective that also will be needed, let us look at them as two school politicians.

A is right: the school is disciplinary, instilling respect for space (building, room, desk), time (the hour, the minutes in between) and authority (teacher, authorities, school plan). What is being taught usually coincides with the ideology of men, more particularly dead white males, the upper and middle classes, and the dominant nation. A lack of choice spells authoritarianism. And the result has been a plethora of alternative schools.

But B is also right: very many are thriving with the school, exactly as it is.

A seems to want a school with more freedom of choice, not only where knowledge and skills are concerned, but also as to where, when and how. B seems to want clear guidelines, both as to content and where-when-how. Shall we have an alternative school for A, with a course in repairing motorbikes, and a traditional school for B? Will the conflict really be solved just because both of them have their goals satisfied? We make the conflict too easy if we disregard the idea of being together.

We are looking for one school where both feel at home, not a traditional school for B and a special school for A. We want positive transcendence, not a compromise, nor a negative transcendence eliminating all schools.

Weak positive transcendence would give them a voucher which they could then redeem in different schools, according to their choice, as they are moving through the school years—quickly for some, slowly like syrup for others who are only longing for the end of this publicly financed suffering. A year at a different kind of school abroad is today generally recognized. Why not a year at a different kind of school in one's own country, even one's own town?

Strong positive transcendence would build more types of schools (traditional, Steiner/Waldorf, experimental in general) into the same school building, and then let them blossom together. Let the students select their classroom, and decide themselves whether they want to stay or continue searching. Of course, this can become restless. But the honey bee flying from flower to flower is sucking honey from a number of places, and may fertilize even more if the itinerary is more chaotic. A ministry for honey bees would probably authorize only one normal itinerary for all bees. But perhaps the bee learns better by finding out for itself?

The problem is the either-or of the debating culture, the typical two outcomes considered by lawyers, who make up most of today's legislatures: either A wins, or B wins. The possibility that two parties could both be right, or both partially right, or both wrong, is usually ignored. A more pluralistic society would have used the both-and of dialogue cultures to let human diversity be mirrored in social diversity. The universities are far ahead in this regard, permitting the students much leeway in planning their own studies. It is high time that the high schools followed suit!

Johan Galtung, a Professor of Peace Studies, is founder and director of TRANSCEND, a peace and development network ( This article is based on a section from his book "TRANSCEND & TRANSFORM: An Introduction to Conflict Work." London and Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press (, 2004, pages 60-62.

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