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Changing Rifles into Notebooks: Peace Education in Costa Rica

10 September 2012 No Comment

University for Peace students

Mary Liepold
Editor in Chief


Article 78 of Costa Rica’s 1871 constitution, which made schooling both free and mandatory, may be seen as the first step in this nation’s progress toward peace education. Tomás Guardia Gutierrez, the president who enacted that constitution, came to power as a war hero, but his several terms in office saw the opening of many schools and colleges. He founded the National Bank and the National Archives, and in 1877 he abolished the death penalty.

The story continues with the 1946 epic poem Rasur, “a dreamlike reality” in the words of its author, Roberto Brenes Mesén. Here it is in synopsis:

One day in the village of Quizur, among the mountains of Costa Rica, a mysterious teacher arrives and silently calls all the children deep into a mountain. There he begins to teach them about the wisdom and compassion in their hearts. The worried parents can hear the children singing his name inside the mountain, “Rasur, Rasur, Rasur,” but they have no way to enter. At the end of the day, the children come out and joyfully share what they have learned. They go back into the mountain the next day and every day for a week.

Each evening they pass on what they have learned from Rasur, and the village begins to change. Now people are walking arm in arm. They sit beneath the trees and take time to talk with each other. The women create beautiful embroidery, the musician composes heavenly music, and the local artist paints the mountain they now call Mt. Rasur.

At the end of the week, Rasur tells the children that he must go. “If you miss me,” he tells them, “just bend your ear down to your heart and you will know I am there.”

After Rasur leaves, the whole village gathers to talk about what has happened. They realize they must embody his teachings, and that if they do, perhaps all of Costa Rica may become a culture of peace.

The 1871 constitution remained in effect until 1949, when three-term president Jose Figueras Ferrer enacted a new one. Inspired by H.G. WellsOutline of History and perhaps by the tale of Rasur, he abolished the country’s armed forces and redirected military spending to health care and education, “changing rifles into notebooks,” in the words of the constitution itself.

Robert Muller (1923 – 2010), UN Assistant Secretary General for 40 years, embraced peace education as the way to a global culture of peace. He saw disarmed, socially progressive Costa Rica as the ideal site for a United Nations-mandated University for Peace. Then-President Rodrigo Carazo Odio (1926 – 2009) supported the idea, and other powerful allies came on board. Cruz Roja Bennett, a wealthy cattle rancher, took stock of his life near its end and regretted having converted vast tracts of rain forest into cow pasture. In 1976 he donated 303 hectares of the last virgin forest in the central valley to the United Nations. That parcel included Mount Rasur. V Ryoichi Sasakawa, a former Japanese arms manufacturer who General MacArthur had imprisoned as a war criminal, visited Muller at the UN and wrote a check for a million dollars to build the university. When it opened at the foot of Mount Rasur in 1980, Muller became its first chancellor.

Peace sign on Mt Rasur, Costa Rica

The University for Peace, now called UPEACE for short, offers 12 Master’s degrees and has students from 52 countries. It has branches in Africa and Asia, cooperative agreements with Leyden University in the Hague, U Cal Berkeley, and many other institutions, and an online Master’s degree program. Peace X Peace Board member and former staffer Alicia Simoni earned a Master’s at UPEACE. It’s a graduate institution, though, and Gandhi said “If we want peace we have to begin with the children.”

Or, in the case of Costa Rica, go back to the children. Because their country made education a priority in 1871 and again in 1949, Ticos were already enjoying a 96% literacy rate and a higher standard of living than other countries in the region. Legislation passed in 1997 had given peace a secure place in the curriculum. Instruction in the public schools was mainly by rote, however. Like the UN’s Robert Muller, American educator Rita Marie Johnson, creator of the synergistic BePeace program (tagline: “The Profound Made Practical”), saw an unparalleled opportunity.

And so, like her mentor Robert Muller, she moved to Costa Rica and began to rally supporters. In 1997 she set up the nonprofit Rasur Foundation and its primary project The Academy for Peace, dedicated to training teachers who can embed BePeace in the nation’s schools and deepen its peace culture in other ways. The master teachers it trains are called Rasurs. When 600 teachers had been trained and pilot programs established in 18 schools, annual evaluations showed that bullying, intolerance, conflicts, and violence had diminished. Misconduct reports decreased as well.

In November 2006, Johnson completed a speaking tour of Japan on Costa Rica as a model of peace. In that same year, she presented a Ministry for Peace initiative to the Costa Rican government. It was enacted in 2009, making Costa Rica one of only three countries in the world to elevate peace to the cabinet level. The others are Nepal and the Solomon Islands.

In 2010, the global financial downturn brought the Academy’s program to a halt. Johnson’s work continued in various forms and locales. On August 30 of this year Costa Rica’s Ministry of Education launched a new peace program, Convivir, or Living Together. It’s part of a cooperative educational agreement among 13 countries in Latin America―perhaps a chance to spread the peace virus regionwide. Rita Marie will return to Costa Rica in October to launch the Academy anew with sustainable support. (You can learn more about her and BePeace in tomorrow’s Voices interview.)

Costa Ricans are proud to live in a country with more teachers than police. Their nation faces challenges, like every nation on earth, and its citizens have various opinions on how to address them. Many agree with Rita Marie that the answer is more peace education, not more police; notebooks, not rifles.


Also in the September PeaceTimes:

Rita Marie Johnson: Sustainable Education for Peace

Costa Rica: A Good Place to Be a Woman

or read the pdf version of PeaceTimes.

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email
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