Educators as nonviolent activists: navigating principled and strategic nonviolent action

Poster of Lecturers strike 24 March

malet place 3” by Sean Wallis is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Educators in higher education institutions (HEIs), both in their teaching and activism, have unique opportunities to engage in conversations about responding to injustice – within their profession and in broader social, geopolitical, and humanitarian contexts. And, when the goal is justice, as opposed to passive acceptance of the status quo, there must be a conversation about what methods should be employed and how they might work. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. famously outlined three possible responses to injustice: acquiescence (passive resignation to fate); violence (potentially bringing temporary results but often creating more problems); and nonviolent resistance (resisting injustice without imitating its violence and aiming for sustained change). In this piece, based on my MPhil research, I will attempt to articulate what a nonviolent response to perceived injustice could include, and how its intersection with education could create interesting opportunities.

In the beginning, it is important to distinguish between nonviolence as a moral philosophy and way of life and nonviolent action as a form of struggle and opposition to injustice. While nonviolence as a religious and moral precept existed since times immemorial, its articulation and documentation as a ‘force’ and way of struggle can be attributed to Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, influenced by religious precepts of ahimsa and drawing from the works of Thoreau and Tolstoy, synthesised a nonviolent action movement (satyagraha) as a form of resisting colonial oppression and gaining swaraj (self-rule).

Gandhian nonviolent action could be seen as a three-stage process: discussions and negotiations; voluntary self-suffering; and finally, non-cooperation and civil disobedience. The goal of these stages, particularly the ones involving self-suffering and withdrawal of cooperation, is not to coerce the opponent but to focus their attention on the seriousness of the issues and invite them to reconsider their stance (and have a ‘change of heart’). Gandhi attached great importance to the unity of means and ends and believed that the methods used to achieve an objective were just as crucial as the objective itself.  An important aspect of Gandhian nonviolent action is the presence of a Constructive Programme complimenting non-cooperation and civil disobedience. This involves building parallel institutions and structures that embody the values and principles of the desired change, even as the nonviolent struggle against injustice continues.

Gene Sharp, building on Gandhi’s work, focuses on nonviolent action as the pragmatic manipulation of power dynamics through the withdrawal of consent and cooperation, and without physical violence. In contrast to Gandhi, Sharp advocates for nonviolent action for its strategic efficacy, without involving any moral underpinnings. Sharp suggests 198 methods of nonviolent action which can be broadly put into three categories: nonviolent protest and persuasion (such as formal statements, group representations, processions, and public assemblies); non-cooperation (through social, economic, and political means; e.g. strikes, suspension of social and sports activities); and nonviolent intervention (such as sit-ins and nonviolent occupation).

Sharp argues that nonviolent action is effective because it recognises and exploits the dependency of those in power on the consent and cooperation of their constituents, potentially posing an existential threat when this cooperation is withdrawn at a large scale and for a long time. According to Sharp, nonviolent action could bring about change in one of the four forms: i. Conversion (a Gandhian change of heart in the opponent) ii. Accommodation (opponent makes concessions without full conversion) iii. Coercion (nonviolent pressure forces the opponent to comply) iv. Disintegration (opponent’s power structure collapses).

Gandhi’s and Sharp’s approaches could represent the two ends of a spectrum of nonviolent action. At one end, Gandhi represents ‘Principled Nonviolence’, which is rooted in moral and ethical convictions about the inherent value of nonviolence. At the other end, Sharp’s approach represents ‘Strategic Nonviolence’, which focuses on the practical effectiveness of nonviolent methods in achieving political or social goals.  

In my MPhil research, I aimed to explore how educators in UK higher education understand their participation in industrial action as a form of nonviolent action and its potential pedagogical function. Using semi-structured interviews with six educators from a UK university (Russell Group) engaged in the University and College Union (UCU) industrial action, I sought to analyse educators’ perspectives on their nonviolent activism through the Gandhi-Sharp spectrum. Also, when educators at HEIs engage in nonviolent action against perceived injustice, I argue that a pedagogy of nonviolent action could arise, whether implicit or explicit. Henry Giroux’s concept of the teacher as a transformative intellectual, rather than a mere executor and evaluator of curriculum, underscores the critical role educators play in shaping this pedagogy.

Through a thematic analysis of the interviews, I concluded that the educators understood their withdrawal of labour as a nonviolent action that combines Sharp’s strategic approach of leveraging power dynamics and non-cooperation with Gandhian elements of personal values. However, it leaned more towards Sharp’s technique of nonviolent coercion rather than Gandhi’s ahimsa.

The scope for constructive action was evident in the teach-out programs and other activities complementing the strikes, which aligned with Gandhi’s Constructive Programme. Educators also recognised a weakly defined pedagogical function in their non-cooperation and acknowledged the potential for teaching nonviolent opposition to unjust structures. However, they noted the need for more explicit communication of motivations and methods.

When educators engage in nonviolent action, they create space for an alternative pedagogy to examine the deeper issues of neoliberal academia and its entanglement with commercial and political forces. Similarly, when students engage in nonviolent action, they open up spaces for peer learning, disrupting the ‘banking model’ of education in favour of a more dialogic and ‘problem-posing’ form where educators can learn from students’ lived experiences and aspirations. It becomes a critical space to question assumptions, challenge the invisible curriculum, and understand how nonviolent action aims to bring about change.

Nonviolent action also provides a space to acknowledge complicity in injustice and take steps towards dissociation. It is a space to imagine, articulate, and create the realities that should replace the status quo. Johan Galtung’s work on positive and negative peace suggests that the absence of direct violence is not enough; we must actively work towards social justice and equity. Addressing these underlying structures becomes a crucial component of building positive peace.

My attempt, in my MPhil research, was to initiate a conversation on how educators, as transformative intellectuals and nonviolent activists, could play a crucial role in developing a pedagogy of nonviolent action. By engaging with the Gandhi-Sharp spectrum, and constructive programmes, educators can initiate meaningful conversations about justice and change.


  • Abhishek Vyas

    I am a lawyer and educational researcher from Ahmedabad, India. I hold a BSc LLB (Hons) from Gujarat National Law University and an MPhil in Education from the University of Cambridge. Currently, I co-chair the Cambridge Peace Education Research Group and serve as the academic coordinator of the Bansa Community Library, Uttar Pradesh. As an ESRC Grand Union-DTP scholar at Brunel University London, my doctoral research focuses on contextual nonviolence education in India.

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