Peace Pedagogy and the Practice of Persuasion

Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast


            Peace in the classroom is often advanced through the presence of persuasive texts and constructive arguments.  I wish to defend this claim by reference to my own childhood experiences in the classroom, as well as through a brief excursion into social and rhetorical theory.


Classroom Experiences and Religious Narratives

            My grade school years were spent in the traditional classroom setting of a small conservative Mennonite school that was built just across the creek from the conservative Mennonite church to which my family belonged.  At Zion Christian School we had three teachers for all eight grades which meant that during a given year we learned reading, writing, social studies, history, religion, music, and science all from the same teacher.  The teacher was not an expert in any of these fields; indeed, he or she was often a self-educated individual with only an eighth grade formal education as background.  Nevertheless, all of my grade school teachers were wise, thoughtful, and demanding in their instruction and as a child I admired them for their broad knowledge about nearly any subject conceivable.  Each classroom had two or three grades and my attention would often wander from my homework to the discussions the teacher was having with another class about another subject.  In such a context, issues raised in social studies might return in a religion class and questions about science might also get taken up in a history class.

            Far from merely producing unity and coherence, this interdisciplinary arena of learning also encouraged antagonism and conflict.  Reading the science text while listening to discussions going on about religion in another class introduced such difficult questions as the relation between science and faith or between reason and the Bible.  Doing math problems while another class was practicing the scales also introduced certain productive inner conflicts for me. 

            Perhaps the most difficult conflict that emerged for me during my grade school studies was the conflict between the narrative about the nation I learned in history class and the story of the church I learned in religion class.  As early as I can remember, I was inspired by the story of the American revolution, told as the glorious victory of tattered American farmers and craftsmen over their British oppressors, a battle that began with the shot heard round the world at the Lexington Bridge.  My childhood consciousness was also profoundly shaped by another story: the story of Anabaptist martyrs who on some occasions succeeded at "thrilling escapes by night" and on other days were imprisoned, tortured, burned, hung, beheaded, drowned, and strangled for the sake of the defenseless and nonresistant gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the classroom of my childhood, we always read American history with the Martyrs' Mirror near at hand.

             My teachers made little effort to reconcile the story of America with the story of the church, except to suggest that while American freedoms were a blessing of God to a persecuted people we needed to remember that since the American story was about politics and the nation, it needed to be kept separate from the story of salvation and the church.  The church had a higher calling, it was suggested, even though the nation had its place.  While such dualistic rationalizations may have worked for some of my fellow students, I was deeply troubled by them and asked quite a few hard questions of my teachers.  These questions sometimes turned into discussions about such issues as patriotism and war, discussions that sometimes became arguments that never were quite resolved.

            All of this is to notice how the traditional classroom setting of my grade school years provided a context of learning that encouraged the bringing together of sometimes harmonious and sometimes dissonant discourses, disciplines, and stories.  This classroom was noisy with talking, singing, and laughter, and, for me at least, raised more questions than it answered.

            In my childhood church community, it was expected that when I finished eighth grade my schooling was over and that I would now learn a trade and take a job near home.  Partly because of the guilty comments by my eighth grade teacher that I could probably go to college someday and partly because I couldn't imagine finding happiness in any of the occupations in which people around me were engaged, I begged my parents for the chance to finish high school.  Reluctantly, my parents allowed me to attend a Christian high school where I could finish in three years through an individualized, accelerated program.

            This new classroom was profoundly different from the classroom of grade school.  Instead of sitting together with other students in front of the teacher, each of us now had our own little cubicle, or office as we called it, in which we worked silently on our studies at our own pace.  Instead of classroom discussion, we asked our questions in whispers to the classroom monitor who would show up at our cubicle to help when we raised our little American flag.  Even though we began each day with a collective chapel and even though the classroom monitors would often provide occasions for gathering outside of our cubicles, the majority of our time as students was spent in isolation and in silence facing the written texts.  These written texts we studied contained very few obvious ambiguities.  The icon for Accelerated Christian Education represented the grand narrative of the whole curriculum quite well: an American flag and a Christian flag superimposed over the Bible.  In my high school, all of my studies led to the same political, social, and religious conclusions: The United States had been blessed by God as a nation insofar as it identified itself as a Christian nation, practiced free enterprise, maintained a resolute military defense, taught that the earth was created in six literal days, and reinforced the male-headed nuclear family.  True Christians knew that welfare programs, pacifism, the Democratic Party, socialism, separation of church and state, evolutionary theories, homosexuals, and abortion were threats to the Christian identity of America and needed to be opposed.

            In this classroom there was little dissonance, conflict, or ambiguity.  Knowledge came to us in narratives that were received in solitude and silence with hardly any occasion for critique, discussion or interrogation.  When we did gather together in chapel services, we engaged primarily in rituals of worship such as pledging allegiance to the American flag (as well as the Christian flag and the Bible), singing revival hymns, and being urged from the pulpit to pray for our salvation at the altar.  Nearly everything about this school contested in fundamental ways the spiritual and social knowledge I had learned in grade school.  The violence inflicted by this classroom is perhaps best signified by what is for me a very troubling memory: the day that I finally gave in and pledged allegiance to the American flag, something my parents and my church had urged me to refuse.

            My experiences in a Mennonite grade school and a fundamentalist high school have profoundly shaped my views of what it means to be an educator who is committed to peace.  While I have fond memories and good friends from both contexts, I believe the greatest possibilities for ethical education are found in the pedagogical model embodied by the little Mennonite country school of my childhood.

In my grade school, the classroom was first of all a social space in which the ethical practice of oral communication and collective discussion were the primary media of knowledge and truth.  In this classroom, I learned that the story of the church was in conflict with the story of the nation, a conflict that encouraged me to see my location in the world as ambiguous and contested. In my high school, the classroom was first of all an individual space in which the solitary experience of silent reading and personal exchange were the primary media of knowledge and truth.  In this classroom, I learned that the story of the church was intrinsic to the story of the nation, a unity that encouraged me to view my place in the world as stable and unified.  The former context advanced nonresistant vulnerability and peace; the latter militant triumphalism and violence.  In what follows, I seek to elaborate and defend these claims about peace pedagogy through an exploration of human subjectivity in recent social theory and by demonstrating the centrality of rhetorical communication to peaceful social transformation.



Social Identity and Human Communication

            Modern theories of human subjectivity have acknowledged the inherently social character of the human self.  Social theorists, following Marx, have acknowledged for example that "society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand," as Marx put it succinctly in the Grundrisse.  More recently, however, some postmodern social and cultural theorists have been unwilling to accept that people are merely produced or determined by social relations and conditions. These theorists, often deeply influenced by the discipline of psychoanalysis as well as Marxist political theory, have sought instead to explain human motivation and agency by reference to a combination of subjective and social factors that are mediated through human communication.  According to this approach to social identity, human subjects both "shape and are shaped by" their historical communities, to use a phrase invoked by Edward Said in his book, Culture and Imperialism (xxii).  Furthermore, human subjects have agency in the world not because they are motivated by some central core of individuality that exceeds sociality, but rather because of the conflicting claims of the communities they inhabit, as well as because of the inherently unstable quality of language itself.

            Contemporary social theory, then, provides us with a view of human subjectivity that is both social and particular.  Humans are social insofar as they come to selfhood only through a prior set of encounters, exchanges, and discursive patterns to which they have access along with others in their communities.  Humans are particular insofar as they struggle to constitute a unique and coherent sense of self from conflicting narratives, logics, and languages that are available to them.

            These theoretical understandings can be illustrated by reference to my experiences in grade school with historical narratives.  On the one hand, I was constituted as an American in my classes through reading and discussing stories of the American revolution, memorizing and reciting the Gettysburg Address and the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, and going on field trips to the William McKinley monument.  On the other hand, I was constituted as a Mennonite through hearing the stories of nonresistant Anabaptist martyrs, discussing the Schleitheim Confession of Faith, and attending a Mennonite church.  These narratives that laid claim to my sense of self and belonging conflicted with one another at many points and my subjectivity was shaped uniquely by the particular negotiation of social loyalty and identification I performed in receiving and processing these texts.  As I see it now, my experience in high school can be read as a struggle to maintain a particular construction of self with respect to religious and national identity which was vulnerable to the ritual of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.  I had similar experiences in college whenever I confronted a text, a chapel service, an instructor, or a fellow student whose story differed significantly and persuasively from my own.

If the self is something that is stitched together from conflicting and mutually exclusive paradigms and stories, then we must consider several implications that attend any such encounter with human difference and social antagonism.  I consider three such implications in what follows.

            1. The human subject is profoundly vulnerable to communication with others.  If there is no inner core of self that can underwrite human social identity and protect it from critique and subversion, then the subject risks contamination in any communicative encounter with another.  All that remains to resist self-subversion is the power of precedent, privilege, and habit.  All aspects of identity and affiliation including such areas as gender, religion, nation, family, ethnicity, race, and vocation are experienced by humans both as securely natural and fearfully unstable.  While prior articulations of selfhood establish a certain trajectory that resists subversion and transformation, humans are always negotiating the place of the previously established self in a changing social context full of communicative exchanges that both reinforce and undermine the received experience of self.

            This understanding of human subjectivity helps explain both the possibility of constructive transformation and destructive violence.  As Christians, for example, we accept the premise that an encounter with the story and community of Jesus has the capacity to radically reorient and regenerate the self.  Further, we assume that such transformation involves a giving up of an earlier, sinful pattern of self-construction which signifies nothing less than a humanizing rebirth as a new person in Christ.  The name we give communication practices designed to produce such a transformation is "evangelism."   On the other hand, we also understand that some narratives and forms of address have the capacity to produce profound and destructive hurt in their audiences.  Such communication practices seek to deny the human subject a component of selfhood that is necessary for his or her humanity.  The name we give to such communication is "abuse" or "hate speech."  As Renata Salecl writes, "In the case of hate speech we are dealing with the attacker's demand that the victim question (his or her) perception of wholeness, his or her sense of identity" (152).  One way to explain the difference between evangelistic and imperialistic communication, then, is to say that the former seeks to rejuvenate and regenerate the subject while the latter seeks to destroy and colonize the subject.

            2. The human subject is surprisingly resistant to communication with others.  If the self is an accumulation of prior communicative exchanges, then it also builds up an intuitive anxiety about communication contexts in which that communicative past is undermined or questioned.  Indeed, it is arguable that as the threads of identity that stitch the self together become more tightly woven through the unfolding of the subject's history, the self has a stake in resisting encounters that have the capacity to unravel those threads and thus deny the self historical coherence.  Thus, we find that humans develop practices and habits that are designed primarily to avoid risky communication and thus the possibility of self-unraveling.  These practices range from the exchange of gossip to the building of nuclear weapons. 

The creation and reproduction of cultural difference and antagonism through, for example, the establishment of nation-states, political parties, religious denominations, and other forms of human association are symptoms of this human desire to establish self-hood in contexts that reaffirm the self and hold that which is radically different at bay.  Political theorist Chantal Mouffe has argued that all forms of human community are based on this necessary exclusion of a "constitutive outside" that both threatens and makes possible a specific social identity.  As she puts it, "to construct a 'we,' it must be distinguished from the 'they' and that means establishing a frontier, defining an 'enemy'" (78).  The human impulse to establish the self in opposition to the enemy is thus a strategy of self-sustenance that resists the practice of communication.

            3. The human subject is fundamentally dependent on communication with others.  Without communication the self could not exist, if what I have suggested so far is true.  All the threads of the quilted selves stitched by humans are gifts of communication from our parents, our teachers, our preachers, our friends, our political leaders, our poets, our philosophers, our novelists, our entertainers, and so many others.  The selves that inhabit us, constituted though they are by choices we have made, are gifts given by others, even our enemies.  Beginning with the divine words which spoke humans into existence and continuing with all of the words uttered to and by us, we have been made in communication.  We are thus completely dependent on that which precisely poses the greatest danger to ourselves.

            From this standpoint, the teachings of Jesus about enemy love take on profound relevance.  Jesus called his disciples to risk the self in acts of love for the enemy.  Christian disciples are called not only to love those with whom we identify but also to extend our compassion to those who threaten us both physically and psychically.  Instead of using power to avoid communication with those who challenge our identities, Christian disciples engage in acts of vulnerable and nonresistant communication.  In the final instance, according to Jesus, only by letting go of our tight grip on the self in this way will we actually save it.


Nonresistant Instruction and Rhetorical Engagement

            The question of what it might mean to be a nonresistant communicator in the classroom and how this might differ from other pedagogical approaches has been taken up by numerous thinkers. In a 1990 essay in Conrad Grebel Review, Jeff Gundy surveyed three contemporary movements in educational practice and offered a critical analysis of the contribution each of these might make to Mennonite higher education.  Gundy rejected as too nationalistic and imperialistic most of what he saw in the mainstream proposals of writers like Allen Bloom and E.D. Hirsch for bolstering Western cultural identity and American power by an exclusivist return to the Great Books.  He appropriated sympathetically the transformationist views of education offered by liberationists like Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux while noting that their critique of power relations in both the academy and society needed to be qualified by a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between knowledge and power which would enable professors to exercise power constructively, not destructively.  Finally, Gundy summarized some of the alternative proposals emerging among peace church educators such as Parker Palmer and Mary Rose O'Reilly for creating a peaceable classroom.  Gundy sympathized with the ideals of these peace church educators for the classroom as a community of learning in which students are co-creators of their own education and in which instructors disarm themselves discursively, although he reserved space for the exercise of leadership in the classroom by educators.  Gundy summarized his own views with the following eloquent and challenging proposal: "To commit ourselves to a Mennonite peace pedagogy, I think, requires humility and the recognition that resistance even to our own ideas is one of the traits that we need to foster" (49).  I wish to extend Gundy's proposition through a discussion of how the practice and study of rhetoric combined with nonresistant instruction can liberate our students both to be persuaded by and to resist our ideas ethically and effectively. 

Most college students these days come to our classroom constituted primarily as American consumers who are buying the knowledge required to earn a professional wage.  Educators tend to respond to this phenomenon in one of two ways.  One response is to turn knowledge into exactly the kind of commodity that students are assumed to desire by reconstituting knowledge as easily accessible propositions or simply learned skills.  Such an approach minimizes the ambiguities of human intelligence, focuses on the acquisition of cultural and technical capital, and avoids challenging the basic identity of students as consumers.  A second response is to impose on students the moral burden of their own lack of nuance and complexity in comprehending the world by demanding that students give attention to a whole host of classical and contemporary issues which seem to students irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst.  This latter approach forces students to assume responsibility for intellectual and political issues, demands an attention span that exceeds preference and desire, and assumes that professors know better than students what it is important to know.

Unfortunately, one characteristic classroom dynamic is sometimes common to both of these scenarios: the student is primarily the passive recipient of knowledge, whether of consumable techniques or of moral abstractions.  Students who are thus constituted are not typically well-equipped to constructively challenge or question the instructor's assumptions and conclusions.  When this is the case, the primary relational dynamic in the classroom is that of an expert providing expertise to non-experts.  The chances that students in such a classroom will ever resist an instructor with much effectiveness are quite small.  Furthermore, if, as I have argued, humans are profoundly vulnerable to communication practices because they are dependent on communication for selfhood, then the instructor with communication skills and disciplinary expertise has the capacity to wield enormous power over students, even to the extent of dramatically reshaping their selfhood.  To the extent that students find themselves unable to critique or resist the communicative power of the instructor, it is arguable that their learning process is at best undemocratic and at worst coercive. 

Such a learning process is analogous in some respects to the Accelerated Christian Education classroom of my high school years, although my high school classroom represents the extreme outcome of this approach.  The lack of social and rhetorical exchange in my high school classroom was symptomatic of both the proxemics of the classroom and the imperialism of the curriculum.  While most of our college classrooms are not spatially organized into isolated office units as was my high school classroom it still requires work for us to reconstitute our students as audience members with the capacity for speech more than as consumers with a need for information.  Furthermore, it is troubling that some of the imagined and experimental scenarios for distance learning via computers bear a close resemblance to my high school classroom.  While sitting in front of a computer screen to access hitherto unavailable information might be a fruitful supplement to the conventional classroom, especially in smaller college contexts with otherwise limited resources, and while one can imagine situations in which nontraditional students might be able to receive a significant part of their education electronically through services provided by a college, such educational opportunities should be seen only as supplements to the conventional public classroom which I believe must remain the primary context for democratic and nonviolent education.

Leaving aside the proxemics of electronically mediated education, though, we are still required to transform the passive consumers in our conventional classrooms into engaged audiences, if we wish them to resist us and to participate in their own self-formation.  The strategy for such a transformation, I believe, might be inspired by one of the oldest classroom contexts known to us from Western civilization: the sophistic classroom of the fifth century B.C.   In addition to being the well-known foil for much of Platonic philosophy, the sophists were the earliest known public speaking teachers in whose itinerant classes were trained the participants in the first democratic assemblies known to the West.  It is not surprising that the practice of democracy should be nourished by such controversial sophistic commonplaces as making the weaker argument stronger, accepting humanity as the measure of all truth, and suggesting that on every issue there are at least two arguments opposing one another (the dissoi logoi).  Such a sophistic education provided students with effective communicative skills in a political and social context of contingency, competition, and corruption.  As John Poulakos has written in response to some critics of sophistic pragmatism, "the sophists' motto was not the survival of the fittest but fitting as many as possible for survival" (14).  Moreover, the sophists' approach to education involved the exchange of arguments and the overturning of common sense more than a recitation of facts or the provision of information.

If our students are to be capable, not only of resisting us, but of making a living and of living a nonviolent life in a world of violence and competition, they require both training in communication and experience as an engaged audience.  While training that transforms consumers into audiences is rightfully understood to be the primary responsibility of teachers in the discipline of communication, I believe at least some of this transformation in consciousness is the responsibility of the whole institution of higher education.  In my view, the primary way that educators in general can move passive students toward becoming actively-engaged audience members is to see their own teaching as rhetorical work.  That is to say, the role of the educator is to make an argument to students at the very least for the importance and relevance of the subject matter of the class and in the best of circumstances for a specific approach to this subject matter which has ethical, political, and religious particularity.  Such an approach is not to be mistaken for the approach taken in my high school curriculum which was designed around a grand narrative that was assumed simply to speak a generalizable and uncontestable truth.  Instead, a rhetorical approach to education will frame a given body of knowledge according to a persuasive design that acknowledges its own commitments and thus invites critique.  By way of example, in my public speaking classes I argue for an approach to speaking that assumes with the sophists the centrality of such rhetorical features as organization, style, and delivery to the constitution of truth (or the facts).  I also acknowledge the Platonic view of rhetoric which sees such rhetorical features as supplemental to the truth.  But I argue for the sophistical view to my students and invite their response.  In so doing, I hope to help students see themselves less as consumers of my knowledge and more as audience members who are constantly making decisions about how to receive and interpret the words I am speaking as an instructor.

Lest I be misinterpreted here, let me be clear.  The educator who gives and receives rhetoric does not do so by compromising the rigor of his or her discipline.  Such an educator does not accept that students' viewpoints in general are just as legitimate as those who have received advanced training.  The educator's task, at the very least, is to provide access for students to a body of knowledge and an array of skills that constitute students as more educated than when they first entered the academy.  What I am suggesting is that teaching for peace obliges us to think carefully about the commitments and values that shape our teaching and to give students explicit access to those commitments and values.  One way to provide this access, I believe, is by way of persuasive speech that invites response.

Students who are invited to become audience members with the capacity to accept or reject the assumptions the instructor brings to the classroom are students who learn that words have the capacity to transform selfhood and remake society.  Beyond choosing the obvious alternative that persuasion provides to physical coercion and violence, such students are prepared to live peacefully with others in at least two important respects.

1. Students who have been transformed from consumers into audiences are students who have become involved in the shaping of their selves.  Such students seek the truth of the self in the ambiguity of real human relationships more than in the cheap formulas and resolutions provided in packaged media products such as movies and T.V. shows and pop music.  The skills associated with critical and empathetic listening enable students to be hospitable to strangers and to welcome cross-cultural experiences rather than to be fearful of social difference.  This is because students have come to treasure the other who resists them as the ground of the self more than as the enemy of selfhood.  The exchange of arguments in the context of dialogue and discussion becomes the occasion of self-renewal and transformation, instead of fear and defensiveness. For Christians, especially, such an understanding makes it possible to see the discursive community of the church with all of its conflicts and troubles as intrinsic to spiritual life and salvation.

2. Students who have qualified their historically given selves with critically chosen selves are students who can confront words of violence with words of peace.  The student who has been involved in making his/her own self through the communal arts of persuasion and argument is a student who knows that saving the self requires risking its loss.  For such a student, the opponent and the enemy are also the friend and the neighbor.  Even in the face of hatred and violence, such a student will have the capacity to return words and actions that reinforce rather than undermine the humanity of the other, even as they seek to persuade the other to think otherwise.  By way of contrast, the student who has been provided with an imperialistic and triumphalistic narrative of self and community can only see the enemy as a danger to a coherent and stable self story.  Because it breeds hostility rather than love for the enemy this latter pedagogical approach should be rejected in peace church education.

Let us foreground instead the miraculous possibilities available in the little Mennonite country school of my childhood -- a classroom full of clamoring and often contradictory voices and stories, yet containing particular commitments promoted through faithful persuasion. This classroom, by taking into itself both the terror of the world and the hope of the church, can truly prepare our students, in the words of the Bluffton College mission statement, "for life as well as vocation."



Works Cited


Gundy, Jeff. "Beyond Conformity and Rebellion: Opposition, Community, and Mennonite Education,"

Conrad Grebel Review (Winter 1980): 35-52.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Baltimore: Penguin, 1973.

Mouffe, Chantal. "Democratic Citizenship and Political Community," in Miami Theory Collective, eds.,

            Community at Loose Ends. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P., 1991.

Poulakos, John. Sophistical Rhetoric in Ancient Greece. Columbia: U. of South Carolina P., 1995.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Salecl, Renata. "See No Evil, Speak No Evil: Hate Speech and Human Rights," in Joan Copjec, ed.,

Radical Evil. New York: Verso, 1996.