THE HFG REVIEW OF RESEARCH (Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 2000)
TEACHING ABOUT VIOLENCE
Introduction: Teaching about Violence
James M. Hester, HFG President
Since 1969, when its grantmaking program was launched, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation has supported more than 500 research projects on violence, aggression, and dominance. The fields in which these studies have been made include the biological sciences, social sciences, and humanities, as well as law and criminology. The results have been published in hundreds of books, articles, and monographs. Most of these publications have been designed for the academic community and have contributed to the gradual enhancement of understanding of the causes and manifestations of violent behavior. Undoubtedly, many teachers have drawn upon this wealth of knowledge to enrich classroom instruction that bears upon violent behavior.
In relatively few instances, however, are college courses offered that focus specifically on violence. There are several reasons for this. A structural problem is that the study of violence cannot be presented within the confines of a single discipline. Courses that draw upon information from a variety of disciplines are difficult to organize within the structure of most colleges. Individual professors have difficulty designing a course whose content exceeds the limits of their own specializations. It is exceedingly demanding to read broadly enough to be able to have access to all the most recent relevant material from a wide variety of disciplines.
Another reason courses on violence are not offered is that even in our extremely violent society it has not been customary to accept the study of violence as a part of the standard curriculum. Aspects of violence have long been taught in courses on psychology, sociology, and criminology, but it would be unusual in most colleges and universities to present a course on the substantial role of violence in the history of Western civilization or of the United States.
It is natural to highlight the positive aspects of our history, culture, and society, as many curricula do, but it is folly in the preparation of young people for responsible citizenship to ignore an aspect of our society as central and persistent as violence. Voters obviously need informed understanding of the nature and causes of violence and the possibilities for its reduction in order to support intelligent public policies.
In light of these and other considerations, members of our board of directors suggested several years ago that the foundation explore the possibility of stimulating teaching about violence that draws upon the results of the research we have sponsored and other studies.
First, we looked for comprehensive courses already in place, and one of our grantees called such a course to our attention, a team-taught course at a major American university. That course proved to have serious shortcomings. Perhaps under the apprehension that students would be more engaged with personal stories than the dry findings of science and social science, the course we examined focused too closely on the testimony of victims, leaving students with the idea that violence is done by bad people to good people, neglecting to analyze what might motivate very ordinary people, not monsters, to commit terrible acts. The course treated war, for example, exclusively through several sessions on the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Yet through those readings a student would never be introduced to the moral complexities of modern war or learn that in that period difficult decisions had to be made by governments and by individuals about using violence to confront violence. The course included some inspirational but not realistic advice about the control of violence through the transformation of the world into a place of perfect social and economic equality but minimized the extent to which even well-intentioned attempts at social engineering can go wrong. Clearly, there was a need for further thinking about the design of a "Violence 101."
Our next step followed another suggestion from our board, that we conduct a competition for the design of a comprehensive undergraduate course on violence. This proved to be an extremely useful undertaking. In response to a call for proposals, seventeen of the submissions seemed promising enough to warrant a grant for further development. The winner of this final round was Professor Robert Jackall of Williams College, whose outstandingly comprehensive syllabus is presented in this issue. We do not suggest that anyone simply copy Jackall's course but rather that it can serve as a guide to course development or provide study modules that might be used in a variety of ways.
The many excellent syllabi that were submitted raised issues for fruitful discussion about the process and problems of teaching about violence. Once you have the list of books, are you ready for the classroom? To address this question, we convened a conference in June 1999 and invited a group of scholars whose entries in the competition were varied in approach and had impressed us with their quality. The result of that conference is this set of essays. As you will see, the contributors do not agree about the scope of violence studies or the approach to teaching about potentially disturbing issues.
An introduction by Susan Cunningham concerns what we teach when we teach about violence: definitions, delimitation, and what those choices mean. The central presentation is Robert Jackall's curriculum, designed to support his argument that the study of violence is a window into the body of cultural and intellectual understanding of the human experience. This contrasts interestingly with Barsh and Marlor's argument for embedding the subject matter of a course on violence within the students' personal experiences.
As mentioned above, one of the stumbling blocks in the development of truly interdisciplinary courses on violence is the inability of professors to incorporate information and views from outside their fields. Three of our essays are designed as advice to scholars from outside (as well as inside) the disciplines of social psychology, history, and political science about how these disciplines can contribute to a comprehensive treatment of issues of violence. Finally, an anthropologist reflects on violence in his own culture and on ethical quandaries in studying violence and teaching about it.
We hope that readers of this issue of the HFG Review who are teachers will find this material useful, will incorporate aspects of these lesson plans in their own courses, or be inspired to develop their own curricula loosely based on the models provided here. We hope educators will be moved to consider the problems our contributors bring up and to anticipate and address them in the process of teaching. We hope deans and department heads will consider incorporating violence as a focal topic in university courses. And, as a result of all this, we hope that students will learn to cut through the commonsensical myths about violence and achieve firmly grounded understandings of this major human phenomenon to take into their subsequent professional and personal lives and thereby be better equipped to make a difference in the real world.
| back |