As America fights an international war on terror, peace studies programs are thriving at colleges and universities at home.

Proponents of the programs say they promote serious academic inquiry into conflict resolution. But critics call them little more than thinly-veiled vehicles designed to promote a specific political ideology.

Hal Culbertson, associate director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said students in the university's program have an array of orientations to politics.

"Our class is really a mixture -- there are some activists and there are some scholars," Culbertson said. "Usually about half or more will go on to careers with non-governmental organizations working on peace-building initiatives."

Garrett Bucks, who graduated with a degree in peace and global studies from Earlham College in Indiana last May, said the opportunity to participate in peace studies was a major factor in deciding which college to attend. Bucks said he thought peace studies encouraged students to think for themselves about global issues and their own values.

"If anything, one is really led to question those core values through peace and global studies," Bucks said.

But Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said the peace studies programs are more ideological than educational.

"Peace studies has a narrow focus -- it has certain premises and it looks for certain outcomes," Spalding said. "One would seriously have to wonder whether these programs are really a form of advocacy that is masquerading in the guide of academic studies."

Concerns over peace studies as a legitimate academic discipline come from within academia as well.

Edwin M. Epstein, chair of Berkeley's Peace and Conflict Studies Department, said the university's program has increasingly been accepted by the academic community as a serious area of study since it was founded 25 years ago. He noted interest in the program has been bolstered by intellectual interest in the Sept. 11 attacks, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I think you have to look historically and you have to look contemporaneously -- there was a time when this program was out of the mainstream," Epstein said. "It was seen as soft and squishy and, you know, 'What are these people doing?'"

Manchester College, in North Manchester, Ind., founded the country's first peace studies program in 1948. Today, there are roughly 250 active peace studies programs in American colleges.

These days, Epstein said, "I think the issue has become more legitimate in the sense that people are now asking the question, 'What's going on in the world?'"

Culbertson said that although many Notre Dame students may have had the impression that peace studies was an academically trivial discipline, the climate of the nation after Sept. 11, 2001, induced an influx of students majoring in the subject and taking those classes as electives. Culbertson said a class on international issues including terrorism that had an enrollment limit of 100 had over 500 applications for admission.

Epstein said enrollment in peace studies at the University of California-Berkeley increased by 25 percent last year, with 75 students currently pursuing the major. The University of Kansas launched a peace studies program last February, and groups like the Student Peace Action Network encourage college activist groups to bring peace studies programs and speakers to their campuses.

Social critic Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute, a domestic and international policy think tank, said the programs are based on the flawed assumptions that conflicts conform to objective rules that can be analyzed and differences that can be talked out.

"There's a flaw that rational discourse always gives you an understanding of world affairs, but it doesn't because people don't always act rationally," he said.

London said that although he thinks the study and analysis of conflicts can be useful, peace studies programs are actually anti-U.S. propaganda.

"Peace studies becomes sort of absurd when you consider the current conditions of the world," he said. "Some of the issues surrounding the peace studies movement have nothing to do with peace, but more with antipathy to the United States. The new movement for 'peace' -- to the extent that there is one -- is based on the view that Sept. 11 was brought about by the United States and its policies."

Epstein acknowledged that many peace studies programs have a liberal bent, but said that politicking was not the purpose of the courses.

"It's not the function [of peace studies programs] to proselytize or advocate, but to examine and understand how people can resolve conflicts in society at all levels local and global," Epstein said.

Some think the idea of peace programs is so good they want a federal agency dedicated to it.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who hopes to win the Democratic nomination to run against President Bush in 2004, wants to take peace education to the next level by creating a Department of Peace in the president's executive cabinet.

Kucinich has introduced legislation to create the department and wants to establish a 'peace academy' modeled after military service academies that will provide a four-year concentration in peace education.