Introduction: Teaching about Violence
James M. Hester, HFG President
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Since 1969, when its grantmaking program was launched, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation has supported more than 500 research projects on violence, aggression, and dominance. The fields in which these studies have been made include the biological sciences, social sciences, and humanities, as well as law and criminology. The results have been published in hundreds of books, articles, and monographs. Most of these publications have been designed for the academic community and have contributed to the gradual enhancement of understanding of the causes and manifestations of violent behavior. Undoubtedly, many teachers have drawn upon this wealth of knowledge to enrich classroom instruction that bears upon violent behavior.

In relatively few instances, however, are college courses offered that focus specifically on violence. There are several reasons for this. A structural problem is that the study of violence cannot be presented within the confines of a single discipline. Courses that draw upon information from a variety of disciplines are difficult to organize within the structure of most colleges. Individual professors have difficulty designing a course whose content exceeds the limits of their own specializations. It is exceedingly demanding to read broadly enough to be able to have access to all the most recent relevant material from a wide variety of disciplines.

Another reason courses on violence are not offered is that even in our extremely violent society it has not been customary to accept the study of violence as a part of the standard curriculum. Aspects of violence have long been taught in courses on psychology, sociology, and criminology, but it would be unusual in most colleges and universities to present a course on the substantial role of violence in the history of Western civilization or of the United States.

It is natural to highlight the positive aspects of our history, culture, and society, as many curricula do, but it is folly in the preparation of young people for responsible citizenship to ignore an aspect of our society as central and persistent as violence. Voters obviously need informed understanding of the nature and causes of violence and the possibilities for its reduction in order to support intelligent public policies.

In light of these and other considerations, members of our board of directors suggested several years ago that the foundation explore the possibility of stimulating teaching about violence that draws upon the results of the research we have sponsored and other studies.

First, we looked for comprehensive courses already in place, and one of our grantees called such a course to our attention, a team-taught course at a major American university. That course proved to have serious shortcomings. Perhaps under the apprehension that students would be more engaged with personal stories than the dry findings of science and social science, the course we examined focused too closely on the testimony of victims, leaving students with the idea that violence is done by bad people to good people, neglecting to analyze what might motivate very ordinary people, not monsters, to commit terrible acts. The course treated war, for example, exclusively through several sessions on the Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Yet through those readings a student would never be introduced to the moral complexities of modern war or learn that in that period difficult decisions had to be made by governments and by individuals about using violence to confront violence. The course included some inspirational but not realistic advice about the control of violence through the transformation of the world into a place of perfect social and economic equality but minimized the extent to which even well-intentioned attempts at social engineering can go wrong. Clearly, there was a need for further thinking about the design of a "Violence 101."

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