Interdisciplinary Inquiry


Gandhi and Education - Part III - Principled Nonviolence

In contrast with strategic nonviolence is an explicit focus on nonviolent attitudes. Principled nonviolence belongs to the philosophical lineage of virtue ethics, supporting the idea that altering character-orientation precedes, undergirds, and reinforces any desirable behavioral change. This internal change underscoring action is drastically different from using tactical nonviolence to achieve a given result. Transformation occurs internally first, as a shift in values and beliefs, before emanating outward to effect social change.

Principled nonviolence draws inspiration from Gandhi’s ethical and spiritual writings and his lived-example. Certainly, some of Gandhi’s principles were also practices, but they could never be isolated from an underlying value-orientation. The practices reflected a core identity, rather than means to an end.

This approach to Gandhi’s legacy also has implications for education. If education for conflict resolution can be aligned with strategic nonviolence - relying on tactics related to specific objectives - a pedagogy modeled on principled nonviolence would be close to the philosophical tradition of Aristotelian virtue ethics. It would necessarily be holistic, aimed at cultivating students’ internal beliefs and identity. I locate this approach within the field of peace education.

Conflict resolution education teaches how to resolve conflict peacefully and effectively, equipping students with tools for problem-solving and avoiding violent interaction. Ideally, the skills acquired are useful in both classroom settings and a wider context. While the hope is that conflict resolution training in the classroom would have broader application, the most compelling rationale for its implementation is usually reactionary – a desire to reduce or eliminate school-based violence. While these tactics may bear minimal resemblance to Sharp’s program of nonviolent action, violence – whether in a classroom or political arena – usually originates in a power struggle. Conflict resolution education cannot be equated with strategic nonviolence, but it is the pedagogical model that, in its inclusion of Gandhian theory, is most concerned with methods and tactics of nonviolence, contrasted with ethics or religious ideology. I believe that the parallel is valid because both strategic nonviolence and conflict resolution education solicit Gandhi’s assistance in accomplishing a specific objective, often dismissing the spiritual characterization of his lived example. While conflict resolution education has produced encouraging results, the lack of virtue-orientation may renders it inadequate for long term social transformation.

I view peace education as predominantly modeled on Gandhi's core being, not solely his tactical approach to resolving conflict. This parallel is to be understood loosely; even the most essentialist-oriented of peace educators would not likely advocate the strict asceticism to which Gandhi adhered. Peace education shares its conceptual roots with conflict resolution education. Previously, at earlier stages in the development of each field, the two were more similar in scope and content. Peace education, however, has expanded due to an evolving understanding of the nature of peace, to the point where it is now closely associated with the philosophical tradition of virtue ethics.

One way of viewing the evolution of peace education is based on the work of noted peace scholar Johan Galtung, who famously distinguished between what he called negative peace and positive peace. Defined as the absence of violence, rather than the presence of life-affirming qualities, peace is reduced to a negative concept and suffers from limited applicability. Reducing or eliminating violent conflict represents a worthwhile cause, but for those working in peace-related fields these initiatives are always situated in the larger context of positive peace.

Violence can either be experienced directly or it can be structural, affecting people through social, economic, and cultural structures and processes. The understanding of violence as embedded in structures – expanding the more limited, negative concept of peace – represents a new challenge for peace educators. The project of peace education is no less than complete transformation of society because the definition now includes a concern for justice. This holistic, broadly understood view of peace education is the working definition for this series of blog posts and is supported in Gandhian literature.

There is increasing agreement amongst peace educators that building peace is a normative ethical process that requires an attitudinal shift. Yet a lack of consensus exists about exactly how to best facilitate this deep personal transformation through education. Instead of a strategic, top-down approach, most peace educators look to the example of how Gandhi actually lived – trying to impart Gandhi himself, instead of merely teaching about him. One criticism of peace education is that it suffers from the absence of a cohesive curriculum or core content. The strategic focus has all but disappeared in some pedagogical approaches, leaving peace education wide open with very little criteria for what to include or exclude from teaching. In this way, both conflict resolution education and peace education are insufficient representations of the Gandhian legacy. A third possibility will be discussed in the fourth and final blog post in this series.

(Part 1)

(Part 2)

(Part 4)

Rebecca Joy Norlander

Posted at 03:54 PM

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