The tragedy of peace education

Jean McNiff with Revital Heimann

[Word version available]

A paper presented at the Conference ‘Discourse, Power, Resistance: New Directions, New Moves’ at the University of Plymouth, April 6–8, 2003

This paper draws on a conversation between Jean McNiff and Revital Heimann. The conversation took place in February 2003 in Maccabbim, near Jerusalem.

Jean McNiff is an independent researcher. She works part time at the University of Limerick where she supports the doctoral studies of practitioners. Revital Heimann works, among other places, at the David Yellin College in Jerusalem, where she supports the action enquiries of beginning teachers.
Introduction: the problematics of peace education

Jean says:

In a paper given at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev (McNiff 2003a) I made the point that dominant forms of peace education are not necessarily premised on the kind of values that are widely believed to contribute to a form of peace that acts in everyone’s interests. The values in question are to do with freedom, justice, universal suffrage, and the reasonably fair and equitable distribution of social goods among all members of a community. Processes of peace making are popularly believed to be premised on the ideas of equal representation for all, and a form of democracy that ensures public participation in policy debates, especially about the kind of society people wish to live in. The literatures of peace education and peace making largely endorse these ideas at the level of rhetoric.

A close look however at the level of how the values might be realised in practice reveals some slippage. The values underpinning most dominant forms of peace education seem to be more to do with colonisation, oppression and control than to do with freedom for all and autonomous living. The dominant methodologies of peace education, and their realisation in practice, appear to be more to do with the concentration of power in the hands of already dominant groupings than with the equitable distribution of social goods throughout the community (see Hurley, 1994, for interesting perspectives on this point). In the case of many contexts of political and geographical dispute, such as Northern Ireland or Israel-Palestine, the hidden message is that communities can have peace provided Party B agrees to conform to what Party A wishes them to do (see for example de Bréadún, 2001; Said, 2002). This tendency is not confined to any one side, but is evident everywhere. Self-interest involving compliance by the other seems to have become an unquestioned, almost normative, stance. While this arrangement might lead to a situation of no war for both parties, and might be the kind of peaceful situation that Party A wants, it is far removed from the aspirations of what Party B would wish for themselves. The hidden assumption is that Party B can have peace provided its members relinquish their claims to independence of mind, spirit and body, and surrender to a dominant authority their capacity for free thinking and action and the formation of their own life plans. Given this set of terms and conditions, it is hardly surprising that many minority communities refuse to accept the form of peace on offer, and continue to resist, even at the cost of their own lives (see The Observer 2003a for a trenchant commentary). Given these terms and conditions, many forms of peace education appear as forms of colonisation and control, though dressed up nicely in the rhetorics of freedom and independence.

The situation denies my own values of freedom and fairness. I believe that peace education needs to be taken very seriously indeed, because it offers important political and ideological frameworks for the kinds of social practices that are endorsed at policy levels and worked towards by communities through the social institutions of formal schooling and political debate. Over time, the assumptions underpinning peace education become structured into systemic discourses and practices. If those assumptions are themselves grounded in premises whose realisation is contradictory to its espoused values, peace education will stand to promote social practices that are anything but peaceful.

In this paper therefore I want to focus again on the insufficiency of theories of peace education that do not recognise the problematic and contradictory nature of human living. I want to make a case instead for contradiction – agonistics – as a proper foundation for peace education. Especially I wish to suggest that the idea of agonistics, derived from the Greek agon, is to do with tragedy, a concept that refers to the idea that people’s good intentions are often caught up in forces outside their own control and diverted and distorted into outcomes they never originally intended. It refers to the tensions experienced when personal and social values are contradicted by internal or external forces, many of which deny the realisation of those values (Whitehead, 1989, 1999; see also Hamilton, 2002). Above all it deals with the idea of moral ambiguity, especially in the face of the understanding that not all human beliefs and values are commensurable or reconcilable (Berlin, 2002).
The nature of tragedy

In an article in The Times Higher (2002), Ken Hirschkop offers an explanation for the responses of many Americans in the face of the disaster of 9/11. He says that many Americans speak about the event as a national tragedy. The enormity of the horror of the event, says Hirschkop, is rightly viewed by many world watchers as an event of untold pain and suffering whose significance has profound implications for the sense of well being of the American public, but it should not be regarded as a tragedy. Atrocity, yes. Devastation and horrendous misery, yes. Tragedy, no. The irony within the enormity for Hirschkop is that, while many Americans react with horror and disbelief that someone could do such a thing to them, many also react with horror and disbelief at the suggestion that there might be reasons other than ‘sheer, inexplicable malignity’ for its perpetration.

This seeming inability by some to comprehend the catastrophe in political terms, suggests Hirschkop, is rooted partly in the lack of a tragic dimension in American popular culture. It is not, he says, that American culture avoids disasters or calamities; it is more that these are not understood in political terms, and are therefore inappropriately construed as tragic. This raises questions about how we understand tragedy. While many interpretations of tragedy exist, it is generally agreed that tragedy is not just the occurrence of disasters such as plane crashes or earthquakes.

… whatever definition is chosen, tragedy in its modern form depends on plots in which good intentions, or competing but valid priorities, are deflected or channelled towards unexpected outcomes. Tragic suffering is not inflicted by simple villainy: it represents the working-out of a complex action, in which the motives and deeds of characters often contribute to unforeseen and unintended misery. The eventual disaster stems from a sequence of events, and is sometimes the direct consequence of the actions (Macbeth) or the inaction (Hamlet) of the victim. As the complex results of an intersection of actions and motives, tragedies, even when they have distinct villains (Iago, for instance), can therefore entail an interesting degree of moral ambiguity.

(Hirschkop, 2002: 2)

This insight is instructive for an understanding of peace education. My own experience of working in politically contested contexts such as Northern Ireland, Palestine and Israel is that the situations are not only characterised by violence which can lead to personal and social disasters, but are also inherently tragic, in that the lives of so many well intentioned citizens, both those who simply want to get on with their lives and also those who are actively working for peace, are caught up in violent politically-constituted struggles with which they disagree and which systematically distort their lives and their capacity to live peacefully with their neighbours (see The Observer 2003b about the penalties facing conscientious objectors in Israel). Many are positioned such that they have to fight in order to protect themselves, often at the expense of their own values of peace, freedom and justice for all. Indeed, building peace often manifests as a violent process (Mallie and McKittrick, 2001). It is a characteristic of tragedy that it is always enacted at the level of human life-world experience, not at the level of systemic structures and processes. When tragedy happens, it is often because of the seeming irreconcilable tensions between the individual or collective and the system, either as the system stands external to the individual or collective, who therefore find themselves in conflict with others; or as the individual or collective, for a variety of reasons, has come to accept the norms of the system, often in spite of their own values base, and therefore find themselves in conflict with themselves. It is often a conflict of narratives, visions and values, as these translate into actions: the individual narratives of citizens who wish to find a way through, so that all members of the community may live with justice and peace, against the grand policy narratives that maintain the discourses and practices of division through domination and control. The tragedy of conflicts such as in the Middle East is that, while the problems might be intractable and while resolution might only as yet be a vision because of the enormous complexities of claims and counter-claims, those who do wish to find spaces to reflect on the historically and politically constituted nature of their contexts and find ways through the complexities are systematically prevented from doing so both by the official canons and also by the inexorable tit-for-tat that is a feature of the ongoing violent situation. In many cases, living with the violence, and perpetrating violence as a means of self protection or as a means of expressing moral outrage against existing injustices, constitutes the deepest tragedy for those whose goals are social justice and freedom for all.

Revital says:

My life situation is complex. First I am a mother of three sons, and an adopted son. Three of them have been in the army. Two are still in service, and one finished just recently. My other young son will be in service within two and a half years. My husband has left his job as a scientist at the university and has gone back into service to help. He believes he can and should help young people like his own sons. I myself served in the army for two years, and I reached officer rank. When I was in the army, I never imagined that thirty years later, as a mother, I would deal with the same situations as then, or that I would have to deal with the situation of being the mother of sons who would have to do things, good and bad, in order to stay alive.

From another perspective, I am a citizen in this country [Israel], a citizen who tries to believe, wants to believe, that I hold a democratic point of view, and who believes that every citizen has the right to live in peace, to say what they want, to have an equal voice, and to live a useful life and enjoy the same rights as others. It horrifies me to see that injustice is justified by the situation, this dreadful situation that puts us in the position of justifying the hurt of some people by others. Nor can I make universal judgements about what is right and wrong, because sometimes violence is the right way. It is right to stop terrorists from bombing civilian centres and carrying out atrocities and hurting people. But the costs to other people are so high, for those who want to live in peace and those who just want to get back to their families in the evening. It hurts me deeply to see what is going on here between these two peoples, these two nations, and inside Israel as well between minorities and the majority of Jewish people. I believe that a person, an individual, is an individual everywhere. But some people are making our lives hell.

From yet another perspective, as a professional educator, I do not claim to educate other people, but I do give them the opportunity to learn. I want to give them the opportunity to be open to others, to develop their own humanitarian values, to live with love and compassion, and to bring these qualities to their work with children in schools. I want to encourage them to understand how they can improve the quality of learning experience for themselves and for the children they teach. I work with Israeli Arabs and Jews in the same class, and it is heartbreaking to hear people say that they cannot get to class on time because they had to stop at a checkpoint for hours, and I know that the soldier who was standing at the checkpoint could have been my son. It is heartbreaking. On the other hand, I see the news and hear that fifteen people were killed by a bomb in a mall, innocent people doing their shopping, and it is equally heartbreaking. Or I hear that a soldier, a friend of my sons, was killed a week ago, and we attended the memorial service yesterday morning. And another son of another neighbouring family was killed only this morning. Where does it end? Where is the greater violence?
The agonistic nature of peace

Jean says:

In this paper I do not wish to focus on the nature or origins of conflict. I want rather to focus on an aspect of official canons, namely the nature of the form of peace that should be the basis of any healing and reconciliation that must take place if regions that are characterised by violence are to enjoy any form of peace with justice.

To my mind, most current forms of peace education do not recognise the agonistic base of conflict. Too often they are animated by assumptions about the rightness of what is known and the rightness of who knows it, about the unambiguous moral positioning of all participants, and about the certainty of concrete situations. It is somehow assumed that someone is right and someone is wrong, that someone is legitimated in claiming the moral high ground, as if there is one form of morality to which everyone subscribes. It is somehow assumed that arguments are to do with right and wrong, not to do with competing rights, and it is assumed that problems can be successfully brought to closure. These assumptions do not engage with the realities of human experience, namely that human experience is to do with conflicting claims for rights and goods, and each one of these claims can be understood as legitimate in its own terms. Nor is there a moral high ground that is recognised as such by all. What is moral for one is not necessarily moral for another, nor is there a universal set of standards by which to determine whose morality is the right one for all. To assume that issues of moral ambiguity are resolvable by an appeal to the dominant canons of any one culture is to impose a set of parameters on the concept of peace that threatens to turn peace education into a grand narrative of dominance and control. To assume that moral ambiguity is resolvable in the first place is to strip human experience of its tragic nature and reduce it to the level of skilful performance. Peace education thus becomes tragic in form and in content. Peace education, a field whose underpinning philosophies should be informed by the highest principles of human well-being itself is distorted into a form of terrorism when the values of freedom and the truths of multiple ways of living are shoe-horned into culturally-specific ways of being.

A more appropriate basis for peace education, in my opinion, is to understand peace education as premised on the agonistic basis of human living. Human living is, by and large, characterised by contradiction and conflict. These are not pathologies. They are the experiences of daily living. Indeed, contradiction and conflict, I believe, are essential for maintaining an open stance to ongoing learning (see McNiff, 2003b). Peace education has to engage with the ideas of contradiction, the ideas that values are frequently denied in practice, and that people have to work long and hard in order to live in the direction of those values. Further, it needs to be recognised that values themselves are often in conflict. One person’s deeply held value of freedom is often contradicted by their equally deeply held value of social justice. Justice and freedom are in many ways incommensurable. I cannot exercise my freedom to do as I please without jeopardising the freedom of others to do as they please. Exercising my freedom to drive my big car seriously diminishes other people’s freedom to enjoy clean air or their freedom to conserve limited environmental resources. We cannot have it all ways. Sadly, many forms of peace education are premised on an assumption that we can. This view needs to be transformed. Rather than work from an assumption that values are always commensurate at an individual and collective level, and that conflicts can, and should, be resolved, peace education needs instead to work from a recognition of frequently irreconcilable moral ambiguities and competing rights claims. Peace education needs to recognise the inherently tragic nature of human living, so that it rescues itself from becoming a narrative that deals at a surface level with overcoming disasters and glossing over human frailty, and instead becomes a critically-engaged context for the expression of the deepest compassion for all as the basis of working for universal freedom and social justice.

The aim of reconceptualising peace education will occupy much of my energy in the coming time. I draw my energy from working with colleagues such as Revital, who are deeply committed to finding ways of living in peace with dignity.

Revital says:

When I stop to analyse it, the situation [in February 2003] is almost at the bottom of the barrel. From here it can only go up. That gives me the patience and the faith that, yes, it will take time but sooner or later things will get better. I don’t think however that we are at the bottom yet, and that’s why I feel so trapped. Everywhere I look, I do not see that we are at the deepest point yet. The economy is failing; society is disintegrating. People are much more violent now. We are not yet there. It is all going downhill and I don’t know how to stop it. I am sure that once we get there, things will get better, but when will that be? I can only say that it will take time, but things must get better. That’s what gives me hope.
Turning hope into reality

Jean says:

Literatures exist about the need for social hope (for example, Rorty, 1999). New literatures are developing about how to turn social hope into social reality (Murithi, n.d.). In my view, education is a main driver of social change, and educational research is a main driver of education practices. My aim now is to work with others, especially colleagues in Israel and Palestine, to find ways of testing whether a reconceptualising of peace education might lead to more peaceful social practices. In saying this I am setting out a research programme that will be a main focus of my work for the coming time, and that I intend to document rigorously for public dissemination. I hope to bring to the task my experience of supporting teachers and professional educators in Ireland and elsewhere as they undertake their action enquiries (McNiff, 2002). I also intend to learn from work such as that undertaken by Colin Smith (2002), who explores ideas to do with shared living theories of education. He speaks about how all members of a community can contribute to decisions regarding educational practices by creating their own theories of education, and sharing them with one another in the pursuit of commonly agreed goals. When I speak about the reconceptualisation of peace education, I have in mind the involvement of individuals who hold themselves accountable by offering their own living educational theories as a public account of how they are seeking to live as fully as possible their values of peace education with the intention of generating shared living theories that could contribute to the education of social formations in peace.


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De Bréadún, D. (2001) The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. Cork, The Collins Press.

Hamilton, M.L. (2002) ‘Living our contradictions: caught between our words and our actions around social justice’, The School Field, 12(3/4): 19–31.

Hirschkop, K. (2002) ‘A nation in real need of some tragic characters’, in The Times Higher, December 20/27.

Hurley, M. (ed.) (1994) Reconciliation in Religion and Society. Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies in association with the University of Ulster.

Mallie, E. and McKittrick, D. (2001) Endgame in Ireland. London, Hodder & Stoughton.

McNiff, J. (2003a) ‘Peace education and other stories of violence’. A paper presented at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva. Available at

McNiff, J. (2003b) ‘The agonistic base of a new scholarship of teaching in higher education’. A paper presented at the conference ‘Discourse, Power, Resistance: new directions, new moves’, University of Plymouth, April.

McNiff, J. with J. Whitehead (2002) Action Research: Principles and Practice (second edition). London, RoutledgeFalmer.

Murithi, T. (n.d.) ‘Practical Peacemaking: Wisdom from Africa.’ Working paper, United Nations Institute for Training and Research, Geneva.

Rorty, R. (1999) Philosophy and Social Hope. London, Penguin.

The Observer (2003a) ‘Inside the mind of a terrorist’, Comment Extra, 9th March, p. 24.

The Observer (2003b) ‘Netanyahu nephew faces jail as army refusenik’, The World, 9th March, p. 7.

Said, E. (2002) The End of the Peace Process (second edition). London, Granta.

Smith, C. (2002) ‘Supporting Teacher and School Development: Learning and Teaching Policies, Shared Living Theories and Teacher-Researcher Partnerships, in Teacher Development, 6(2): 157–179. Available from

Whitehead, J. (1989) ‘Creating a living educational theory from questions of the kind, “How do I improve my practice?”’, in Cambridge Journal of Education (19)1: 137–53

Whitehead, J. (2000) ‘How do I improve my practice? Creating and legitimating an epistemology of practice’, in Reflective Practice 1(1): 91–104.

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