New University of Kentucky peace studies program takes in-depth look at nonviolence

"Peace studies" may summon images of a neutrality that negotiates with perpetrators of outrage.

But Clayton Thyne, the political science professor at the University of Kentucky who is teaching one of the school's two new Peace Studies courses, said that the academic discipline has a far more layered approach than that.

"Most peace studies programs are these ultraliberal, gut-America-first programs," Thyne said. "We're going to investigate this scientifically. We're not going to assume that cutting military spending is the best thing. ... The way we look at it is different than most peace studies programs."

Students getting an introduction to peace studies can expect this: "I start from the brain, conflict in the mind," Thyne said, then draws in influences from sociology, political science and international relations.

This week, for example, the introductory class taught by Thyne is discussing biases and ethnic groups. That will include a discussion of issues between Israel and the Palestinians.

"You don't just say Israelis and Palestinians hate each other," Thyne said. "You dig deeper. After reading about biases, we ask, OK, what does this mean to us? They talk about biases that well-intentioned people have. You have to examine the foundations."

Peace studies as an academic field got its start in the 1950s and '60s, according to the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies at Notre Dame. The institute estimates that about 400 colleges and universities around the world offer some form of peace studies program.

Peace studies has its own books and journals, scholars and pedagogy that include teaching, internship and international study.

In Kentucky, peace studies programs are offered at Berea College, Bellarmine University, the University of Louisville and Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Subjects studied in the world's peace studies programs include genocide, nuclear arms, civil war, religious and ethnic violence, social change, inequality and human rights.

The UK program, started with the help of central Kentucky peace activist Kerby Neill, is now a certificate program — an area of specialization that helps students broaden their expertise in various academic disciplines, but not yet an area of individual specialization.

Neill, a retired pediatrician who teaches a "voices of nonviolence" course at Berea College, said that he first approached UK's honors program in 2006 with an idea for a peace studies course. Later, several UK faculty members helped move the idea forward.

"It's so much of an interdisciplinary progress. We draw on so much," Neill said. "We have issues of conflict resolution, sustainability, war, justice, peaceful communication and resources and how they're distributed, all of these things are peace issues, and they cut across so many disciplines."

Neill said that peace studies courses are not an easy "A."

"Peace is a lot of work, when you look at work that produces nonviolence," Neill said — "meaningful peace movements" such as those headed by Gandhi in India and Lech Walesa in Poland.

Peace Studies is now a certificate program but could evolve into a minor or even major field of study, Thyne said.

Peace Studies students "all want to be better people so I start with that assumption," Thyne said.

Because the peace studies courses at UK are in their infancy, and such classes are not offered by other Southeastern Conference schools, Thyne said he's paying more attention to content and getting the word out.

"I'm not concerned about the numbers," he said. "I'm more concerned about the depth."