How War Can Be Abolished: A Lesson Plan by David Swanson


The Abolition of War

Issue Description:

In a December, 2015, U.S. presidential debate, a moderator asked a candidate whether he could serve as Commander in Chief and defined that as being willing to kill innocent children by the thousands. In 1996 the U.S. Secretary of State said that having killed 500,000 innocent children was "worth it." Is there another way to think about war and peace? What greater evil or higher cause could justify such horrors? What do students think, and what do they imagine others think?

Essential Questions:

  • Does war make people safer or endanger them?
  • Who benefits from war?
  • What is collateral damage? Can it be justified?
  • What are the alternatives to war?
  • Given your thoughts on the above, can war ever be justified?

Expected Learnings:

This activity will encourage students to question war, examine their personal doubts about war, take time to think about what security means to them, and to begin to envision alternatives to war.

Description of Activity:

Security vs. War

Merriam Webster's dictionary defines the word security as freedom from danger; freedom from fear or anxiety.  They define war as a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations; a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism. 

The following activity could be done in a group or individually and then shared at the group level. 

1. Ask students to think about the word "security." Have them come up with a list of associations. What are some things that make them feel secure? What are feelings they associate with security? How does feeling secure in one's daily life lead to feeling secure in their community, in the world? What makes you feel secure in your daily life? In your community? In the world? Is the government's  and media's definition of security different from theirs?  What does security mean in their everyday lives? How does the media seem to define the word? The government? Is security always a physical issue? Or can it be a psychological issue? A philosophical issue?

2. Ask students to think about "war." Again have them come up with a list of associations. How does the idea of war make them feel? What does war mean to them? Have them name a specfic war that the US is (or has been) a part of, e.g., the war in Iraq. Ask them what this war was about. Do wars ever achieve their goals? Some say that we need war to get to peace? Does that ever work? Did this war make us more secure?

3. Have students compare their associations about "security" with their thoughts and feeling about "war"? Do these thoughts and feelings complement each other? Or do they contradict each other? 

4. Review the Essential Questions in light of this discussion. (This could be a homework assignment.) Look through the AWTT portraits and identify 3 or 4 people how have worked to end war. Understand why they thought how they did and what these people did about it. 

5. Finally, have students share ideas about alternatives to war. Take the examples of the wars they have named and thought about. What could have been done differently? If an alternative to war had been found, how would their lives be different? How would the lives of the people where the war was fought be different? How would children's lives where the war was fought be different? Have students ever felt like their rights were abused? How do they handle it? What are ways to deal with people (or institutions or governments) that are taking away our rights without going to war with them?

Resources to Support Activity:

  • Discover that these questions and related ideas are not unusual. Lots of people spend a lot of time thinking about alternatives to war and why and how war can be prevented. Start here. And, of course, take a look at David Swanson's books on war, such as War Is a Lie.
  • Find a Peace & Justice Center near you and invite someone in to talk about what is being done to advocate for peace and against war in your area.
  • If you want to go deeper with some of these questions with a resource designed for classrooms, consider learning more about John Hunter's World Peace Game

To learn more, check these links:

Learning To Think Differently About Difference: A Lesson Plan by Alice Rothchild


When we learn about people who are different from us or conflicts and wars in other parts of the world, we see these people, conflicts, and wars through the lens of our own societies with our own assumptions, preconceptions, and language. Often our media reinforces these assumptions through language and point of view and fails to challenge us to think “out of the box” which is the first step in imagining creative solutions and actions that can lead to greater understanding and resolutions of controversial issues.

Issue Description:

For example, discussions around Israel/Palestinian often trigger heated emotions that come from the legacy of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the treatment of the indigenous Palestinians, and the narrative that major powers and mainstream media use to describe this history. Often they pit people and religious groups against each other as if the situation is “hopeless.”

The language that is used in the US media often assumes that “Israelis only want peace,” various peoples and governments are “eternally anti-Semitic,” and "Palestinians are “terrorists."

Another way to frame this discord involves not only respecting Jewish trauma and the role of anti-Semitism in history, but also the legitimate trauma and loss of Palestinians who once shared this part of the world with Muslims, Christians and Jews fairly peaceably.

Essential Questions:

  • What are your assumptions, preconceptions and concerns about this issue? What language do you use to describe Israelis and Palestinians?
  • What images and language do you see in the media that implies a sympathy for Jewish Israelis and ignores the realities for Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories or sees them as less human or deserving?
  • What feelings do these images and this language trigger in you? Can you examine where these attitudes are coming from and explore “out of the box” thinking? Does this make you feel uncomfortable? Why? Do your parents agree? Disagree?
  • What words do politicians use to describe Israel? Arabs in general? Palestinians in particular? Do they recognize the existence of Palestinians?

Expected Learnings:

  • 1. Students will learn about how to talk about difference in a non-threatening way with each other.

    2. Then they will identify their own preconceptions and some of the assumptions and omissions that occur in mainstream media when it comes to understanding Israel/Palestine, Muslims, Arabs, terrorism, “othering,” with a particular focus on language. 

Description of Activity:

Part 1: Exploring Individual Differences and Similarities. Have each student interview 3 students. They should explore the other students' backgrounds, using the following questions (they can add others if they like). Remember, the interviewer's role in this exercise is to listen and to try to understand! 

  • How did they (or their families, however far back) get to the US?
  • What are their favorite foods? Movies? Music?
  • What challenges have they, their siblings, or families experienced in the US?
  • What makes them uncomfortable?  
  • How are they different from the interviewer? (For example, ask, "How are you different from me?" and see what the other student says.)
  • How are they the same? 
  • How do these similarities or differences make the interviewer feel?  
  • Write essays discussing what has been learned and use these essays to lead a class discussion about difference, sameness, and tolerance. 

Part 2: The Politics of Difference in the Israel/Palestine Conflict. Using what they have learned from each other about difference, sameness and tolerance, have students review newspaper articles (or popular web-zines, TV news programs, Facebook reports, other social media) and record the language and visuals used to report events in Israel/Palestine.  For instance: When Jewish Israelis are injured or killed, do they have names, photos, photos of their families, stories about their lives, does the reporter say “killed,” “murdered,” assassinated”? Do they state if the person lived in Israel or the occupied territories? Do they use the word Judea and Samaria instead of occupied territories? What are the implications of these different names? Think about how each of these words carries meaning.  Are injured or killed Palestinians reported in the same manner with the same detail? If not, explore why not.

Part 3: Make Your Own News. Prepare your own news report that mirrors your findings and then prepare another news report that challenges the assumptions of framing, language, whose story matters, etc.  See how you have the power to frame the story differently. 

Resources to Support Activity:

Watch segments about the Israel/Palestine Conflict at Democracy Now!

Watch Alice Rothchild's documentary Voices Across the Divide (order a copy for the class at

To learn more, check these links:

Are Human Beings Naturally Violent or Naturally Peaceful?: A Lesson Plan by Paul K. Chappell


Are Human Beings Naturally Violent or Naturally Peaceful?

Issue Description:

If human beings are naturally violent, then we will continue to have wars. If human beings are naturally peaceful, then world peace has a chance. Let's explore the possibilities.

Essential Questions:

  • What is a counter-intuitive idea? How is the idea that human beings are naturally peaceful a counter-intuitive idea?

  • In world history what is every army’s greatest problem?

  • Is our flight response more powerful than our fight response?

  • How do armies learn to make soldiers fight and not retreat?

  • How strong is our instinct to protect our loved ones?

  • How do governments convince people to go to war?

  • What does war do to the human brain?

  • If we were naturally violent, what would be the state of our mental health in an unending war?

Expected Learnings:

This activity will encourage students to consider whether human beings are naturally violent or naturally peaceful and to review the evidence offered by military history. This will begin to instill critical thinking in terms of discussions from the media and politicians regarding war and peace.

Description of Activity:

Human Beings: Naturally Violent vs. Naturally Peaceful

The following activities could be done in a group or individually and then shared at the group level.

  1. To view the first twenty minutes of Paul K. Chappell’s talk: “Why Peace Is Possible and How We Can Achieve It.”      

  1. Discuss recent Hollywood films. Do they show human beings as naturally violent or naturally peaceful?

  2. Have students examine the advertising for the military services. What human qualities do these ads admire?

  3. Have students review recent Medal of Honor recipients. Why did they receive these medals?

  4. Invite a local Veterans for Peace group to make a presentation to your class or school.

Resources to Support Activity:

  1. Take a look at Paul K. Chappell’s first book, Will War Ever End?

  2. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, U.S. Army (ret.). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

  3. Study this quote from Herman Goering, a Nazi leader and military commander in World War II:

“Why, of course, the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked (emphasis added) and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger (emphasis added). It works the same way in any country.”

To learn more, check these links:

Free Schools for Free People: A Lesson Plan by William Ayers


How can we make free schools for free people?

Issue Description:

Schools are mirror and window into society—that is, schools always reflect and reveal their host communities: schools in a theocracy teach reverence; schools in an ancient agrarian community teach cultivation and animal husbandry; schools in an authoritarian society teach submissiveness and compliance. Schools in medieval Saudi Arabia, fascist Germany, and apartheid South Africa all produced brilliant scholars and scientists, some accomplished artists, and successful industrialists, but they also, quite predictably, taught a steady curriculum of obedience and conformity. Let’s reflect on the qualities, dispositions-of-mind, values, and preferences that characterize schools for free people in a free society.

Essential Questions:

  • How do we see our schools right here, right now?
  • How do we make general sense of (justify?) the educational system today?
  • How are we conscientiously and systematically teaching free people to participate fully in a free society?
  • How could we do a better job of encouraging young people to interrogate the world more fully, to ask deeper questions and to pursue those questions to their furthest limits?
  • How can we intentionally and openly help children and youth develop minds of their own and simultaneously offer them opportunities to be responsible and participating members of their communities?
  • What can our schools become what they are not yet? How might we get there?
  • How can we live purposefully in the schools as they are while we stretch toward something new and dramatically better—schools that are more joyful and more just, more hopeful and more loving?
  • How can we build within ourselves the capacity and the courage, the thoughtfulness and compassion to dive into the wreckage on a mission of repair?

Expected Learnings:

  • Beginning understanding of what drives the structure and function of our schools.
  • Beginning understanding of the multiple purposes of education.
  • Initial understanding of necessary components of a school and necessary components of a freedom school.

Description of Activity:

We will design and build a school explicitly for the development of free people. Let’s start, though, at the dawn of what we think of as the modern school, and with Charles Dickens’ memorable introduction to the aptly named Mr. Gradgrind, the owner of an English school in an industrial city, and Mr. M’Choakumchild, his hired schoolmaster. Here Gradgrind lectures M’Choakumchild on his philosophical orientation and a few of the finer points of curriculum and instruction:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!

“The speaker, and the schoolmaster…swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

To deepen and illustrate his argument Gradgrind interrogates “girl number twenty,” and, discovering that her father is a horseman, asks her to define a horse. When she stumbles Gradgrind pounces: “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse…Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals!” He turns to a boy who obediently stands and recites: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive…” And on and on, at the end of which Gradgrind nods approvingly and notes, “Now girl number twenty, you know what a horse is.”

In the opening chapters of Hard Times—one appropriately called “The Murder of Innocents”—Dickens evokes the broad outlines of autocratic classrooms everywhere. He offers a kind of meditation on the power of these men of facts-without-feeling to crush or twist our natural human dispositions and sympathies, and he turns at last to M’choakumchild himself with an indictment: “When … thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within—or sometimes only maim him and distort him!”

Dickens’ fraught description of a tyrannical classroom in England under the rule of Queen Victoria is oddly familiar—we might imagine that education and schooling in a contemporary democracy would look remarkably different from a British classroom 160 years ago. Monarchies, after all, demand unquestioning allegiance first and foremost, whereas democracies, at least theoretically, are built on the active engagement and participation of free and enlightened people. We can easily imagine the society that those “imperial gallons of facts” are meant to sustain and reproduce; what’s harder to reconcile is an inescapable feeling that Dickens’ despotic classroom with its imperious reasoning and its brute logic is a bit too close for comfort.

So let’s design our own community school in line with a basic principle central to freedom and democracy:

Every human being is of incalculable value. We are each the one of one, and, paradoxically, we are each a small part of a vast and common humanity.

Let’s design our school from the ground up—physical space, cultural values, social as well as intellectual purposes. Let’s fill out what it means to expect young people to become central actors in their own lives and in the larger world, what it would look like if we foregrounded the arts of liberty: imagination, curiosity, initiative, courage. And since our school will be for all, lets be conscious of the wildly diverse cultures and conditions youth will bring with them through the schoolhouse doors.

Working in groups of 3 or 4 make a physical rendering of a freedom-school; be prepared to present your design and a rationale for how this contributes to the creation of free people with minds of their own, and a free and more robust society.

Resources to Support Activity:

  • Copies of the opening of Hard Times.
  • Art and building materials.
  • Google John Dewey’s NY Times editorial from 1934: Utopian Schools

To learn more, check these links:

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