Friday, September 26, 2008

Colman McCarthy: Inspiring Non-Violent Activism

Colman McCarthy’s I’d Rather Teach Peace opens with his description of the first course he ever taught. Mr. McCarthy explains how an invitation to speak at a children’s high school in Washington, DC in the spring of 1982 transformed his life, bringing challenges, but also opening the limitless possibilities to teaching peace. Upon deciding to enter the classroom, McCarthy had already accrued fourteen years as a syndicate columnist with the Washington Post. A Roman Catholic, McCarthy spent five years in a Trappist Monastery previous to his role as a journalist. This solid contemplative foundation is evident in the genuine, thought-provoking ideas Colman presents in his autobiography, I’d Rather Teach Peace.
To the politically moderate reader, a book as honest as Mr. McCarthy’s might be either shocking or disregarded as ideological banter or both. At its core, McCarthy’s book takes great strides in challenging the reader to think outside of a conformist and obedient society. These jabs are very intelligently constructed avoiding insult or condescension. In one succinct sentence of his preface, Colman states his objective in teaching, “Alternatives to violence exist and, if individuals and nations can organize themselves properly, nonviolent force is always stronger, more enduring, and assuredly more moral than violent force” (McCarthy xiii). Throughout his book, McCarthy expands on this idea, emphasizing the power of peace.
Taking place across a semester, McCarthy journals about his experiences in several different schools, ranging from Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, Maryland to Georgetown Law School. While a sizeable portion of the book follows from McCarthy’s thoughts and ideologies, the meat of the narrative is derived from McCarthy’s students and their reactions to his teachings. This is a particularly strong aspect of I’d Rather Teach Peace for the way in which it allows McCarthy to respond to doubters while also physically illustrating the potential for his theories on peace and its study. These responses enable McCarthy to fluidly analyze many aspects of non-violence theory, while incorporating his witty humor and vast experiential knowledge. This format, combined with McCarthy’s natural style, makes for an incredibly fascinating and engaging read.
Despite the strengths of McCarthy’s book, I have difficulty naming it as one of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read. Pondering this in disappointment, it seems that one of the books strengths, its accessibility, may also double as its greatest weakness. Mr. McCarthy speaks directly and honestly. These qualities give the book a unique flavor that make its read feel as though you are sitting next to the author as he shares the narrative aloud. The ideas presented are heavy, yet tangible and real. Mr. McCarthy steers clear of literary devices typical to the humanities, symbolism, metaphor, and other thematic elements. As a result, I have difficulty taking Mr. McCarthy’s book for anything more than surface value. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it remains a very powerful read. But regardless, this style seems to take away from the imaginative and interpretive qualities found in some of literature classics, from Shakespeare to Twain.
Nonetheless, Mr. McCarthy’s book most certainly leaves the reader wanting more. While it may not provoke second and third readings in search of deeper analyses, it remains a very discussable book. What McCarthy’s book lacks in interpretive substance, it more than makes up for with the inspiration it leaves the reader. After a strong initial impact, the book does not conclude without creating a legacy for itself within the reader.
It is difficult to objectively analyze this legacy because it is likely different for every reader. However, there are several points that seem to build the foundation for the book as an eternal guardian in the conscience of the reader. McCarthy presents many of these ideas in his chapter titled “Ideas to Practice, Not to Mull”, long before the Epilogue. One of McCarthy’s most poignant passages is his response to a student’s speculation about the use of non-violent strategies against Hitler.
"Sound bites don’t do it. I feel like a math teacher who chalks the blackboard with calculus equations and then a student – who has never taken a math course before and has been told all his life that 2+2=423 – rises to say that nothing on the board makes sense. But make it clear with a quickie answer. Right now."
McCarthy, 82 
This is impossible of course. Yet, this scenario seems to drive the objective of McCarthy’s book.
        He works throughout his memoir to nullify the notion that, “2+2=423,” and slowly prove to the reader that it, in fact, equals four. Not in a demeaning or patronizing way, but in the methodical way any teacher would help a student who didn’t understand a concept from class. The legacy of the book lies in McCarthy’s revelations and the tools he gives the reader for further questioning and understanding. So sure, McCarthy’s book isn’t Tolstoy, Gandhi, or Merton. But, it’s a start. And change must start somewhere.

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