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Adam Curle: 1916-2006

Adam Curle, founding Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, was born on 4 July 1916, into a family of thinkers. His mother, who had lost three brothers in World War I, instilled in him a loathing for all war. Nonetheless, he was a soldier in World War II, rising to the rank of Major, and after the war was over he worked, at the Tavistock Institute, for the rehabilitation of British Servicemen.

No doubt this experience, and his early study and university teaching as a psychologist, helped this profoundly non-judgemental and gentle man to build relationships of trust with those army generals, whether state or rebel, whom he encountered in his later work as a mediator in violent conflict. He saw and felt that they were, underneath the hard talking and boastfulness, quite ordinary and vulnerable human beings.

The costs of conflict

Later on, Adam became involved in development work, as an advisor to governments. His second wife Anne was, when they met in 1958, working in community health development in Dhaka. From that time on she was very much involved in all he did, whether at a distance, from home, or travelling with him. Adam became involved in the development of education and lived for some time in Ghana, which was where he and Anne joined the Society of Friends - the Quakers.

Then, in 1961, Adam was appointed as director of the Harvard Centre for Studies in Education and Development. His work and experience in this field had made him profoundly aware of the impact of violent conflict on development and the role that poverty and the nature of education (or the lack of it) played in the fuelling and conduct of conflict.

From 1967 to 1970 he acted as an off-the-record mediator in the Nigeria-Biafra war and in 1971 in the Indo-Pakistan war. Later mediation work took him to Zimbabwe, South Africa, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. This work sometimes involved him in considerable personal danger and, in the case of South Africa, resulted in many days of imprisonment and interrogation.

The risk did not deter him, but I remember that once, when he returned from Sri Lanka, he was so deeply distressed by the slaughter he had witnessed and the murder of people he was close to, that he was forced to take time out in order to recover emotionally. His deep compassion is what drove his work and also what made it so costly.

Addressing power

Adam was a brilliant academic. His work in establishing peace studies was vital, not only in Bradford but globally, and former students have taken inspiration as well as knowledge from him, and from his successors in the now large and famous University School. His publications list is phenomenal and his style of writing, like him, was highly idiosyncratic, eloquent and engaging; also at times trenchant and often witty. What he conveyed was a mix of analysis, insight, passion and subtlety, all backed by a wealth of experience and anecdote.

His Quaker-Buddhist approach made him seek the humanity and potential for good in every person and situation. But he was also brutally honest about the dark side of human nature and the cruelty brought about by the passions of greed and pride, fear and envy, fuelled by ignorance. His particular mix of theory and practice, analysis and philosophy, made him unique.

One aspect of his thinking that needs to become even more influential is his acknowledgement that conflicts cannot be resolved until oppressive power asymmetry has been addressed. And in his eighties he shifted his own efforts from high-level mediation to support for nonviolent, grassroots resistance to war and support for human rights, especially in Osijek, Croatia, at the height of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The Centre for Peace, Nonviolence and Human Rights, which was founded there with his support, continues its work to this day.

Adam, a dear, delightful and funny friend to me and may others, died, at the age of ninety, on 28 September 2006.

Topics: Radical Lives