Academics and students in the world's oldest universities have long been motivated by an interest in peace. American student interest in what we today think of as peace studies first appeared in the form of campus clubs at United States colleges in the years immediately following the American Civil War. Similar movements appeared in Sweden in the last years of the 19th century, as elsewhere soon after. These were student-originated discussion groups, not formal courses included in college curricula.
The First World War was a turning point in Western attitudes to war. At the 1919 Peace of Paris—where the leaders of France, Britain, and the United States, led by Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson respectively, met to decide the future of Europe—Wilson proposed his famous Fourteen Points for peacemaking. These included breaking up European empires into nation states and the establishment of the League of Nations. These moves, intended to ensure a peaceful future, were the background to a number of developments in the emergence of Peace and Conflict Studies as an academic discipline (but they also, as Keynes presciently pointed out, laid the seeds for future conflict). The founding of the first chair in International Relations at Aberystwyth University, Wales, whose remit was partly to further the cause of peace, occurred in 1919.
After World War II, the founding of the UN system provided a further stimulus for more rigorous approaches to peace and conflict studies to emerge. Many university courses in schools of higher learning around the world began to develop which touched upon questions of peace, often in relation to war, during this period. The first undergraduate academic program in peace studies in the United States was developed in 1948 by Gladdys Muir, at Manchester University a liberal arts college located in North Manchester, Indiana. It was not until the late 1960s in the United States that student concerns about the Vietnam War forced ever more universities to offer courses about peace, whether in a designated peace studies course or as a course within a traditional major. Work by academics such as Johan Galtung and John Burton, and debates in fora such as the Journal of Peace Research in the 1960s reflected the growing interest and academic stature of the field. Growth in the number of peace studies programs around the world was to accelerate during the 1980s, as students became more concerned about the prospects of nuclear war. As the Cold War ended, peace and conflict studies courses shifted their focus from international conflict and towards complex issues related to political violence, human security, democratisation, human rights, social justice, welfare, development, and producing sustainable forms of peace. A proliferation of international organisations, agencies and international NGOs, from the UN, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, European Union, and World Bank to International Crisis Group, International Alert, and others, began to draw on such research.
Agendas relating to positive peace in European academic contexts were already widely debated in the 1960s. By the mid-1990s peace studies curricula in the United States had shifted "...from research and teaching about negative peace, the cessation of violence, to positive peace, the conditions that eliminate the causes of violence." As a result, the topics had broadened enormously. By 1994, a review of course offerings in peace studies included topics such as: "north-south relations"; "development, debt, and global poverty"; "the environment, population growth, and resource scarcity"; and "feminist perspectives on peace, militarism, and political violence."
There is now a general consensus on the importance of peace and conflict studies among scholars from a range of disciplines in and around the social sciences, as well as from many influential policymakers around the world. Peace and conflict studies today is widely researched and taught in a large and growing number of institutions and locations. The number of universities offering peace and conflict studies courses is hard to estimate, mostly because courses may be taught out of different departments and have very different names. The International Peace Research Association website gives one of the most authoritative listings available. A 2008 report in the International Herald Tribune mentions over 400 programs of teaching and research in peace and conflict studies, noting in particular those at the United World Colleges, Peace Research Institute Oslo, Universitat Jaume I in Castellón de la Plana/Spain, the Malmö University of Sweden, the American University, University of Bradford, the UN mandated Peace University UPEACE in Ciudad Colón/Costa Rica, George Mason University, Lund, Michigan, Notre Dame, Queensland, Uppsala, Innsbruck/Austria, Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Rotary Foundation and the UN University supports several international academic teaching and research programs.
A 1995 survey found 136 United States colleges with peace studies programs: "Forty-six percent of these are in church related schools, another 32% are in large public universities, 21% are in non-church related private colleges, and 1% are in community colleges. Fifty-five percent of the church related schools that have peace studies programs are Roman Catholic. Other denominations with more than one college or university with a peace studies program are the Quakers, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and United Church of Christ. One hundred fifteen of these programs are at the undergraduate level and 21 at the graduate level. Fifteen of these colleges and universities had both undergraduate and graduate programs."
Other notable programs can be found at the University of Manitoba, Lancaster University, Hiroshima University, University of Innsbruck, Universitat Jaume I, University of Sydney, University of Queensland, King's College (London), Sault College, London Metropolitan, Sabanci, Marburg, Sciences Po, Université Paris Dauphine University of Amsterdam, Otago, St Andrews, and York. Perhaps most importantly, such programs and research agendas have now become common in institutions located in conflict, post-conflict, and developing countries and regions such as (e.g., National Peace Council), Centre for Human Rights, University of Sarajevo, Chulalongkorn University, National University of East Timor, University of Kabul, Makerere University, Mbarara University, and Tel Aviv University.