The Academic Study of Peace
Peace Studies at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW: the Early Years.
It was in the late 1970s that it struck me as surprising that the subject of peace was not examined as such in secular academic institutions. This was a time when the superpowers were engaged in intensifying brinkmanship in the name of ‘peace’, and preparing to destroy one another and world civilisation as well.
I checked to find out what was going on within the British Commonwealth of Nations and came across just a few universities and institutes that were teaching on peace as such. They were Bradford and Lancaster in the UK, Waterloo in Canada, and the Gandhian Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Allahabad.
South of theTropic of Cancer there were none. Of course, there were many centres for strategic studies, war studies and so on, but the word peace was deemed to be too nebulous, indeed too threatening. As for the peace spoken of in religion (Christianity in particular) that was pie in the sky to secular academics.
So what could be done? My own academic experience and expertise was in Geography (Geomorphology and Issues of Development in South and Southeast Asia) which I was appointed to teach on at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales. To me, the first field was ‘body,’ where careful scientific analysis was required, and the second was ‘soul’ where the human factor in all it’s magnificence and it’s shortcomings blended. This combination required feet on the ground and head in the sky , a formidable aspiration. While one tried to think globally, one had to act locally. Challenges galore!
I decided to give the matter some publicity. The word was passed on to fellow academics that the UNE had to do something constructive about peace. Not a matter of protest and the waving of banners, but serious research and teaching on the subject. Not only for the very few at postgraduate level, but for the undergrad as well.
The first task was to find out who could and who was willing to get involved in a programme of Peace Studies.The next was to decide on the content of such a programme. The third was to avoid asking for money in an environment where there was acute competition for limited resources. The final hurdles were to get the go-ahead from the top decision-makers of the University who were committed to ensuring high standards of teaching and to preserving existing academic structures (Faculties, Departments and insistence on students satisfying prerequisites in order to follow particular courses), and to obtain the approval of the Academic Advisory Committee which whetted applications to introduce new courses, and of the Academic Board on which sat the Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor.
While many applauded the idea of Peace Studies few could make a commitment to it. So the idea ended up in the lap of a Geographer. Not a bad place to start such a programme because the Geographer is someone who is supposed to examine both the part and the whole: specialist and generalist. For Geography is an interdiscipline: ‘ fish, flesh and fowl, where there is room for most enquiry. But here too arose the question of who could and would make a commitment to a course with the word ‘peace’ in it.
Finally that became the lot of a Geomorphologist-cum- Development Studies academic who undertook to provide a course entitled ‘Geography of Peace and Conflict’ in addition to his existing work-load. However, the Academic Advisory Committee and the Academic Board gave the proposal the thumbs down. Was that the end? Not quite. Within the Faculty of Arts, a Special Reading Course could be made available to fourth year students (postgrads) reading for an Honours degree, which any staff member could offer without formal approval from the Academic Board.
On careful examination here was found an abundance of academically sound material from Geographers for such a course. The course turned out to be a resounding success, with plenty of reading, writing and animated discussion. The Geography of Peace and Conflict was well and truly launched within the Department of Geography.
In the meanwhile, contact was made with fellow travellers in Education, Philosophy, and Economics ( Max Lawson, Toh Swee Hin, Erle Robinson and Geoff Harris) whose existing offerings could be pooled to constitute the core of a programme on Peace, which with other relevant courses available within Arts, Education and Economics could lead to a Bachelor’s major or double major in Peace Studies. As for these other subjects that students could read to build up their major, they could be taken from existing courses in Politics, Sociology, History, Economics and Classics, inter alia, with the approval of those giving them (and their waiving of the usual insistence on departmental prerequisites). As for a home, Peace Studies was given one within the welcoming Faculty of Arts.
The next stage was to have students in the Faculty of Science given permission to read in Peace Studies . After initial reticence and refusal, when the Falklands War broke out that Faculty allowed interested students to undertake some of the core Peace Studies subjects.
The next step was to offer Peace Studies leading to a Master Of Letters degree for any interested graduate. This was by means of a set of core courses and a written thesis on a topic approved by the course coordinator.
At that point in time the Geographer decided to pass the baton on to his colleague Dr. Geoff Harris of the Faculty of Economics in whom he recognised great capability, public relations skills and delightful disdain for red tape. The Geographer then went part-time until he retired, after which he continued with his input into the MLitt programme, as an occasional lecturer to whom Peace Studies mattered.
The MLitt programme attracted people from diverse backgrounds: teaching, nursing, the armed forces, members of the clergy, university lecturers, medical doctors, policemen, detectives, engineers, eco-feminists, a builder’s labourer’s assistant, Oxfam, development agencies, overseas students, socialists, retirees, pacifists, et alia. And when these met at compulsory residential schools they soon put aside any initial reservations they had of one another and got on in amicable cooperation and fellowship. Some already had doctoral degrees, while some others went on to read and research for PhDs in Peace Studies after completing the MLitt.
Then due to changes in policy the Faculty of Arts decided to relinquish its interest in Peace Studies, which was then welcomed by the School of Education where it now thrives.
P.S. All the founder members of the UNE’s Peace Studies programme had by then moved to other scholarly venues or into retirement as did a certain Geographer.