The United Nations has declared 2000 the International Year for the Culture of Peace. Ole Mjos examines the universities' role
In the past 20 years the world has experienced a shift from cold war and full-scale conflicts between states to civil wars such as those in Rwanda, Sri Lanka and the Balkan countries. The efforts of the United Nations have often seemed useless in local or intranational conflicts where "the people" voluntarily mobilise and engage in ethnic cleansing.
Meanwhile in the West, we have seen a rise of racism and neo-Nazism. Analysts find a celebration of contempt for fellow human beings in some contemporary music and in the cinema, theatre and football.
The role of universities and colleges has often been far from honourable. In these institutions national identities and nation-states were mentally constructed and historically legitimised. The resulting myths of sovereignty and superiority have been passed on to students.
The supposed "neutral and objective" science of history was a central element in this myth-making process, while natural scientists let themselves be used to legitimise the supremacy of the white race as well as atomic bombs and star wars military technology programmes.
However, in addition to ideologies of supremacy and war, there have been alternative voices in academia. The potential to remedy universities' negative role is the starting point for a conference on Higher Education for Peace in May 2000 in Tromso, Norway.
The conference aims to reinforce the vision of the Unesco World Conference on Higher Education in Paris in 1998 by challenging universities and colleges to fulfil their role as peace-builders and promoters of human rights. It will offer a unique opportunity to exchange research results and education strategies that promote creative thinking about peace studies in higher education.
The major challenge in ensuring the culture of peace is a focal point on the education agenda is to approach it from as many angles as possible.
One of the questions to be settled is simply what peace education is about. Its contents and methods - focusing in particular on higher education and its impact on the whole field of education: formal and informal, from universities to day-care centres and communities - will be explored from different perspectives. How might syllabuses, pedagogy, organisation and evaluation in higher education affect the notion of "peace" and "conflict transformation" in civil societies and states?
Further, there is a need to discuss how peace education teaching programmes might challenge the traditional divide between theory and practice in the institutions of higher education. The fact that both conflicts and acts of peace are based on human relations should constitute peace-building as a practical discipline.
The answer might be to include innovative and creative methods of education in the traditional academic disciplines, and to transform experiences of practical peace-building in the sciences of nature and humanities. Another challenge is to develop methods of education that enable and motivate the students to take part in practical peace efforts.
The conference aims to improve the understanding of the origins of peace and violent conflict. We intend to integrate practical experiences of conflict resolution and prevention based on experiences of means and methods of conflict resolution in Mali and former Yugoslavia, as well as reflections on ongoing conflicts.
Last, but not least, the conference will pay attention to students' perspectives on peace education. With the objective of breaking new ground, the younger generations of the institutions of higher education have the courage and capacity to challenge old conventions. Similarly, it is today's students who will have to meet the challenge to create a culture of peace within and outside the educational institutions in future.
Through research and communication of research results to students, academics can provide their students and the larger community with awareness of current and potential conflicts and world needs. In arranging a conference open to the active participation of students, researchers and scientists, we have a chance to combine knowledge, experience and dreams in a way so as to change the culture of war to a culture of peace. Ole D. Mjos, a professor in the Centre for Environment and Development Studies at the University of Tromso, chairs the organising committee of the Tromso higher education for peace conference. More details at http://www.peace.uit.no