Author and teacher Colman McCarthy urged students at Girls Preparatory School to become peacemakers in a violent world by reaching out to those in need and using their collective power to push for everything from a peace curriculum to higher wages for school workers.
“Nobody should graduate from high school without staging one student strike,” Mr. McCarthy said Monday in an address peppered with humor and stories of his work teaching peace. “You learn a lot about power that way.”
Mr. McCarthy, a Washington Post columnist for nearly 30 years, runs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington, D.C. He visited GPS in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, spending time with several classes and then addressing about 700 students at an afternoon gathering.
GPS Headmaster Randy Tucker said Mr. McCarthy’s ideas may be controversial, but they should be heard.
“Not everyone in that room agreed, but they did listen,” Mr. Tucker said. “Schools are supposed to be about thinking big thoughts. We should not be afraid to hear those things.”
During a wide-ranging talk, Mr. McCarthy said Dr. King’s legacy has been sanitized by the media and politicians.
“They diminish his message by categorizing him as a civil rights activist,” he said. “He was much more. He was a fierce critic of our militarized economy, our military adventurism and the impact that profligate military spending had on the poor.”
In 1967, exactly one year before his death, Dr. King delivered an anti-war speech calling the government of the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” Mr. McCarthy said.
“The media rarely uses that quote,” Mr. McCarthy said. “This is not the ‘I have a dream’ King.”
If Dr. King were alive today, Mr. McCarthy said, he would be one of the biggest critics of a military budget that is $878 billion a year — or about $28,000 a second.
“Most people think pacifists do not believe in force,” Mr. McCarthy said. “It’s not true. We believe in the force of justice, the force of truth, the force of love.”
Not everyone was swayed, however.
“I just don’t agree with him,” said senior Katelyn Fink. “It was definitely interesting to hear him talk, but I don’t think a lot of his ideas are plausible.”
Mr. McCarthy, who teaches at high schools and colleges in the Washington, D.C., area, does not give grades, homework or tests, he said, because he considers them forms of “academic violence.” As he was introduced Monday, he led about 700 students in rousing chants of “No more homework.”
“How many of you have taken a course in peace studies?” Mr. McCarthy said later, watching as the students sat unmoving in their seats. “Now, how many of you are required to take algebra and geometry?” he said as hands shot up across the auditorium.
“Unless we teach you peace, somebody else will teach you violence,” he said. “If violence was effective, we would have had peace a long time ago.”
At one point, Mr. McCarthy held up a $100 bill and offered it to the student who could identify six people he named. The students aced the first three: Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Paul Revere. But only one knew Jeannette Rankin — the first female member of Congress — and no one could identify Emily Balch or Jody Williams, both of them Nobel Peace Prize winners.
“If this was a peace-loving, peace-seeking society, every hand here would have gone up,” he said, pocketing the bill. “Why is it that you know all about the men who break the peace, and not about the women who make the peace?”
After a standing ovation, students rushed to the stage to snap up books by Mr. McCarthy and talk with him. The editor of the school newspaper, Sugandha Singh, said hearing from Mr. McCarthy was an “amazing” experience.
“To have the chance to hear how important it is to actually teach peace — all we learn about in school is war,” said the GPS senior.
Linda Mines, head of the history department at GPS and the Hamilton County historian, headed the committee that brought Mr. McCarthy to campus. She said she knows not everyone will be comfortable with his message.
“Whether you agree or not, this makes for wonderful fodder for discussion,” she said. “The greatest learning occurs when people are passionate about what they’re hearing, whether for or against.”