Social Sciences and Peace Education

An edited version of this article was published in Teacher Plus magazine (April, 2015 issue) under the title Understanding Peace Through Social Science.  

The centrality of peace for the present and future of humankind has received wide recognition over the last few decades. The United Nations Resolution 53/25 (1998), for instance, declared the period 2001-2010 as the ‘International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for the Children of the World’. And the importance of peace was further underscored by the United Nations Resolution 53/243 (1999) which adopted a ‘Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace’ for the new millennium.

It is now also being widely recognized that, as Gandhi had once stated, if we are to reach real peace at the global scale we shall have to begin with the children. As an example, the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance adopted by the UNESCO General Conference on 16 November 1995, states in Article 4.1, “Education is the most effective means of preventing intolerance.” And it further notes in Article 4.4: “We pledge to support and implement programmes of social science research and education for tolerance, human rights and non-violence. This means devoting special attention to improving teacher training, curricula, the content of textbooks and lessons, and other educational materials including new educational technologies.” (See also, Rajgopalan, 2009)

In this piece I will thus discuss two questions: ‘How can Social Science teaching serve the cause of peace?’; and perhaps equally importantly, ‘What sort of peace should it seek to promote?’ As the answer to the first question depends partly on the answer that one proffers for the second, I will begin by briefly describing the main dimensions and types of peace; and by attempting to demonstrate why one type of peace may arguably be better than the other. I will then present some illustrative approaches through which teaching of History and Social Science can be used to serve the cause of peace (education).

The Dimensions of Peace

Peace can be conceptualized as having two different dimensions – In the first dimension; on the one hand, we have war, violence, and strife; and on the other hand, we have settlements and agreements which end or prevent hostilities or violence. On this dimension, thus, peace is assumed to exist if these are no war or open and violent hostilities. (Johnson & Johnson, 2006)

In the second dimension of peace we have “discordant, hostile interaction aimed at dominance and differential benefit and characterized by social injustice, at one end; and mutually beneficial, harmonious interaction aimed at achieving mutual goals and characterized by social justice, at the other end.” (ibid.) On this dimension, peace is said to exist only if the relationship is characterized by positive relationships, mutual benefit, and justice.

Though it may be desirable to have a peace which is not marked by conflicts in any form, in reality, peace may not be characterized by a complete cessation or absence of conflict, but rather by the management of conflicts in a constructive manner. Thus, it becomes important to think about the different ways in which peace is sought to be achieved and maintained (i.e. imposed peace and consensual peace), and if one of them could be said to be preferable over the other.

Imposed peace, as the name suggests, is a peace which has been forced upon the party/parties concerned; and is supported by power and domination. Typically, groups in power use their military might and/or economic power to coerce less powerful groups to end wars or hostilities and accept peace by signing treaties. As Johnson & Johnson (n.d.) remark, “The long-term result often tends to be structural oppression, the establishment of social institutions (such as education, religion, and mass media) that create the social, economic, and political conditions (i.e., systematic inequality, injustice, violence, or lack of access to social services) that result in the repression, poor health, or death of certain individuals or groups in a society.” Imposed peace, thus, may help in supressing the conflicts; however, since the fundamental causes and grievances often remain ignored or unaddressed; there is little chance of such peace leading to long-term improvement in relationships between the two parties. Such peace may be described as ‘negative peace’.

Consensual peace, on the other hand, is based on the concerned parties coming to an agreement, which not just ends violence and hostilities but which all of them also believe to be legitimate, just, and beneficial. “It establishes a relationship based on harmonious interaction aimed at achieving mutual goals, justly distributing mutual benefits and being mutually dependent” (ibid.) Consensual peace, furthermore, can be said to have two levels: peace-making, in which the parties involved reach an initial agreement and a framework for resolving future conflicts; and peace building, “in which the economic, political, and educational institutions are used to create long-term peace.” This type of peace may also be described as ‘positive peace’.

Based on the above, it can be reasonably argued that children’s education should have long-term focus on creating the conditions for positive peace (as opposed to negative peace) – with an attention on dealing with the structural issues; and with the aim of creating long-term harmonious relationships which are based on mutual respect and social justice.

Social Science Teaching and Peace

In this section I will briefly describe some of the ways in which history and social science curriculum and teaching can be used to serve the cause of positive peace. Though these approaches are described under separate headings, most of them are inter-related and interdependent.

Shared Rights and Freedoms

One of the most fundamental ways in which social science can help the cause of peace is by making students aware of shared rights, responsibilities and freedoms. These topics are rarely discussed in the home environment of many children around the world (especially those from less developed nations or from regions embroiled in conflicts). As the Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (UNESCO) states, “The first step in tolerance [which is an important enabler of peace] education is to teach people what their shared rights and freedoms are, so that they may be respected, and to promote the will to protect those of others.” Thus, such awareness may not only help children become better prepared to stand up for their own freedom; but also make them less likely to be party to any attempts to take away the freedom of others. Discussing global human rights in class could be a good example of this approach.

Cultural and Social Awareness

Another way of promoting peace through social science teaching is to improve the cultural and social awareness of the students. Geography lessons, for instance, could be used to make people aware of the richness of the cultures of diverse societies around the globe. History lessons may similarly be used to show how societies and cultures (including aspects such as morality, beliefs, faiths etc.) are dynamic and have changed over time and space. And while discussing these issues, special care should be taken to show (i) how people can have different and yet valid perspectives on the same issues; and (ii) how differences of all kinds (cultural, perspectival, linguistic, customary etc.) can and must be dealt with sensitively and empathetically, without negatively stereotyping other groups. The commonalities that underlie the differences should also be stressed upon, to prevent or help reduce the apprehensions that children may have of ‘the others’.

Global Perspective

Another approach, which is closely related to the point made above, is that of helping the children develop a ‘global perspective’. This means that they should be guided not only to become sensitively aware of the diversity in human societies around the world; but to also begin to think critically about commonly accepted ideas such as nationalism and patriotism and their pros and cons. (See Page, 1985 for more)

Examples from political science could be used to show how the birth of an idea in one era (for example, liberal democracy) or in one part of the world (say the birth of communism); or the change in the political regime in one country or region (say Iran or the Middle East) or the adoption of a resolution by one organization (say the UN) can have positive or negative repercussions around the globe for long periods of time. The teaching of economics could similarly be used to highlight the economic interdependence between nations; and the impact of destructive wars between a few nations on the financial health of countries around the globe.

 A realization of the interconnectedness of human societies may help them develop a perspective that appreciates why social injustice or war in one part of the world, can impact their own lives and the lives of their children; and prepare them to take on the rights and responsibilities of a global citizen.

Environmental Issues

Discussion on environmental issues can also be effectively used to further the cause of peace education through social science teaching. It can be shown through discussions in the environment and geography classes, for example, how deterioration in the regional environment was partly responsible for wars and conflicts in Latin America (specifically between Salvador and Honduras in the first case; and in Mexico in the second case; see Gut, 2003 for details).

The large scale environmental impact of the Gulf War, the exploitation of resources of the developing nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia by some of the developed nations; and the impact it has on the environment, economy and the society of the exploited countries (see for example, Obi, n.d.); as well as the examples of water- conflicts (see for instance, Tulloch, 2009) can similarly be used to showcase the close link between environmental issues and peace. Such understanding, it may be hoped, will sensitize the children to the impact of wars on the global environment, and thus, on their own lives and societies.

Since most environment issues, by their very nature, have both global and local linkages and ramifications, they also lend themselves well to show the close connection between the three points discussed above – shared rights and freedoms, social and cultural awareness, and global perspectives.

Social Justice

Social science classes may also be used to explore the concept of social justice and its various dimensions, to highlight the relationship between social justice and peace, and to show how long-term peace is contingent on “relationships based on harmonious interaction aimed at achieving mutual goals, justly distributing mutual benefits, being mutually dependent and respectful, and establishing a mutual identity” (Johnson and Johnson, 2006). Lessons from history (such as those of peasant and working class revolutions around the world – from ancient Greece and Rome, to modern day Russia and China; or repeated modern-day conflicts such as those between Israel and Palestine) can be used to show how long term peace may not be achieved till ‘structural oppression’ has not ceased and made way for structural liberty.

Similarly, the history of colonial exploitation, and the structural oppression of the underdeveloped nations that continues in its wake (see, for example, Open veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent; or Johan Galtung’s criticism of the “structural fascism” of the United States and other Western countries); the distrust and hatred that it causes among oppressed nations; and the conflicts and wars that it may potentially lead to, can also be integrated with social science lessons.

Other Approaches

While raising awareness among children about the issues discussed above are decidedly important, providing them with the tools to work for the cause of peace is also equally vital – And some of the important tools that one needs to work effectively for peace, are also tools that one is likely to be taught in good social science classes. For instance, the ability to use narratives, perspectives, facts, arguments and evidences which is needed for any good historical research; can also be used effectively for the cause of furthering peace. Textbooks on history and social sciences may sometimes contain partial or biased information that lead to worsening of tension or conflict. Skills of critical and independent thinking can help students unveil such cases and respond to them appropriately.

Furthermore, case studies from conflict zones around the world, can be used to teach children not just about world geography but also about the large scale physical destruction, environmental impact, demographic changes (deaths, migration etc.) caused by the conflicts in the region. Historical case studies can similarly be used to teach history as well as the impact of war on the societies being studied.

Suitable co-curricular activities, especially those which involve interactions and collaboration with children of different communities, may be encouraged. Topics such as shared cultural heritage, common environmental challenges, sports, common ‘heroes’ in areas such as social work, education, politics etc. may lend themselves well to formal and informal cooperative learning; and also lead to projects that involve and encourage interdependence between schools that are based in different communities.

And finally, it would also be important to use the social science classroom as a space to practice the values, skills and behaviours that may be required by the students ‘in the field’ while  working for the cause of peace. This would include skills such as being able to truly appreciate others’ perspectives, debating and discussing effectively and working collaboratively to reach an agreement, or disagreeing respectfully if required. Certain values such as integrity, compassion, acceptance, cooperation; and an unshakeable belief in the power of dialogue and non-violence can also be strengthened in these classes. Since many history and social science topics are both relevant and contested, teachers may be able to create such spaces for their students from the early or middle school years onwards.


We may thus conclude by stating that while education at large can and should be used to encourage peace; the teaching of history and social sciences lends itself particularly well to furthering the cause of positive or consensual peace in and among our societies; by making children aware of their shared rights, responsibilities and freedoms; improving their cultural and social awareness and encouraging them to deal with differences sensitively and empathetically; helping them develop a global (as opposed to parochial) perspective; using discussion on environmental issues to not just make them aware of the environmental challenges but to also highlight the interconnectedness of human life and societies; and helping them appreciate the close link between social justice and long-term positive peace. The lessons can also help them develop certain skills (such as debating effectively, thinking critically, and disagreeing respectfully) and values (such as integrity, compassion and openness) which are of central importance in not just helping them become good social science scholars, but also in helping them work effectively for the cause of peace.


Galeano, E. H. (1997). Open veins of Latin America: Five centuries of the pillage of a continent. New York: Monthly Review Pr.

 Grewal, B. S. (2003) John Galtung: Positive and Negative Peace. Auckland University of Technology.

Gut, K. (2003) Environmental causes of violent conflicts: Selected case studies from Latin America. Retrieved 8 June, 2013 from here

Johnson, D. W. & Johnson, R. T. (2006). Peace education for consensual peace: The essential role of conflict resolution. Journal of Peace Education, 3(2), 147–174.

Johnson, R. T. and Johnson, D. W. (n.d.) Peace Education in the Classroom: Creating Effective Peace Education Programs.

Obi, C. L. (n.d.) Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta. Retrieved 8 June, 2013 from

Page, J. S. (1985). Peace Education and the Teaching of History. The History Teacher 37:pp. 42-56. Queensland History Teachers’ Association

Rajgopalan, P. (2009). From Agenda to Action: Interpreting and Implementing the NCF Peace Education Guidelines. Educational Policy Research Series Volume I Number 3

 Tulloch, J. (2009). Water Conflicts: Fight or Flight? Allianz.

UNESCO (1974) Recommendation concerning Education for International Understanding, Co-operation and Peace and Education relating to Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Retrieved 8 June, 2013 from here

For more on Johan Galtung’s work on peace and conflict resolution, see his excellent Choose Peace: A Dialogue Between Johan Galtung and Daisaku Ikeda and Searching For Peace: The Road to Transcend. For a comprehensive approach to educating for a just and sustainable future and to read about ways to practice peace education in schools and communities see Peace Education, 3d. ed; and for an historical account of peace education see Handbook on Peace Education

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