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Former reporter pushes peace studies

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PAOLI, Pennsylvania (Reuters) -- Colman McCarthy loves the long-shot. Good thing, too, because the journalist-turned-peace activist is betting that warlike humanity will some day evolve into enlightened creatures guided by love and harmony.

"We can't be the final product of evolution, unless there's some kind of cosmic sick-joke going on," McCarthy chuckled after treating a classroom of sleepy teen-age boys to a varied discussion about gun violence, forgiveness and U.S. foreign policy.

For years now, the bespectacled 64-year-old has been trying to get American educators to see violence as learned behavior that can be overcome by adding comprehensive peace studies programs to the curriculum at the nation's 80,000 elementary schools, 26,000 high schools and 3,100 colleges.

"People who are going to be on death row are now in first- or second-grade, and so are people who are going to be in the White House. If we don't teach them peace, someone else will teach them violence," he told Reuters during a recent visit to an Episcopal-run prep school in the Philadelphia suburbs.

"The most revolutionary thing anybody can do is to raise good, honest and generous children who will question the answers of people who say the answer is violence. That's what the schools should be doing."

Statistics on the sheer toll of violence are commonplace: 10,000 people murdered with handguns each year in the United States, and domestic abuse the leading cause of injury among U.S. women, he says.

But McCarthy doesn't expect to be embraced by modern academia any time soon, despite the rash of peer mediation classes that has sprouted among U.S. schools since the 1999 massacre at Colorado's Columbine High School.

He says kids need to study closely the history of the peace movement, starting with the lives and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan brothers and other radicals.

And he wants to teach kids that American violence goes hand-in-hand with widely accepted conventionalities such as economic competition, conspicuous consumption, tax cuts, U.S. foreign policy and gigantic Pentagon budgets.

His introduction to Martin Luther King is not the parent-approved civil rights leader proclaiming the dream of racial harmony who is known to most schoolchildren.

McCarthy's King is the unbowed nonviolent agitator who spoke out early against the Vietnam War, criticized the U.S. government as the world's "greatest purveyor of violence" and predicted "spiritual doom" for a nation determined to spend more on weapons programs than on social programs.

"No textbook quotes King on Vietnam, though all carry 'I Have a Dream' excerpts," he said.

Pacifist past

McCarthy's nationally syndicated left-liberal columns appeared on the Washington Post's op-ed pages for nearly 30 years. But in 1997, the venerable newspaper let him go, saying his columns were no longer generating a high enough profit. The Post had no comment last week on his departure.

Now he works pretty much full-time as director of his Washington-based nonprofit Center for Teaching Peace. He teaches regular classes in peace studies at two public high schools and three universities in the Washington area, and at a juvenile detention center in suburban Maryland.

A Roman Catholic who once spent five years in a Trappist monastery, McCarthy also travels around the country for speaking engagements, lugging along a bag stuffed with sample textbooks in hopes of enticing new schools to consider his courses.

But the schools that can afford the few thousand dollars he charges as a visiting speaker are usually private, limiting his outreach to a narrow audience of affluent youths.

"He has made thousands of students stop and consider," said Terry Shreiner, head master of the School at Church Farm, which has no formal peace studies course of its own. "As Colman suggests, it's not about asking the right question, but rather, it's about questioning the given answer."

But McCarthy's lanky frame is most at home in front of a classroom of youths. The students hear that corporate executives who doctor financial records to score bigger bonuses probably started out as school kids who cheated on tests to get higher grades.

Soon the discussion shifts to steeper ground -- 40,000 people who die in wars each month, and the $11,000 per second that McCarthy says the United States spends on the military.

"Eleven thousand dollars -- eleven thousand dollars -- eleven thousand dollars -- eleven thousand dollars," he says, counting each second on his fingers to illustrate the point.

McCarthy claims there is reason to be optimistic that peace studies will become part of U.S. education some day. Over the past three decades, he says, the number of colleges offering degree programs in peace has grown from one to about 70.

Not that his ironic wit is a sucker for optimism, mind you.

"If we were to hurry up and start today, we could get peace studies into every school in the country by the year 23,000," McCarthy joked. "You've got to love the long shot. If you don't, then don't go into this business."

Copyright 2002 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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