Facing and Learning From Our International School Contradictions
August 15, 2018
I learned about International Schools in the early 1980’s. A Principal whom worked with in the States mentioned he had just returned from two years of teaching in Jedda. He explained International Schools to me and I thought, “Are you kidding?” I tucked the information away in my ‘mental pocket’.
About ten years later, I was working with a successful juggling, magic and music ‘Medicine Show’. I had created this show with a partner and it became quite successful. Nonetheless, I was feeling ‘stale’ in my work and in fact, in my life and felt the need to be challenged and indeed, ‘confused’. I decided to travel… to India. I remembered that Principal and thought that it would a good idea to get short-term work at an International School to help pay for a trip or to simply get a tax write-off. I sent letters to every International School in India. I was invited to come to Kodaikanal International School in Tamil Nadu.
It was, by then, the mid to late ’80’s, a time before the Indian economy had opened to global trade. My arrival at the airport startled me, filled with both confusion and a complex smell of multiple ingredients. My bus trip from the airport left me far from my eventual destination of Colaba, the old Victorian section near the original Taj. It was around 2am. I walked towards my destination. The streets were filled with sleeping people. I walked filled with the alert caution I cultivated from growing up in New York City. In spite of anticipating potential ‘trouble’ I couldn’t ignore the fact that the vibe was actually quite tranquil and not in the least confrontational. My shoulders relaxed, my gait slowed and I realized I had just received the first lesson of my journey, never judge what you see, from what you’ve seen.
That has been one of the many gifts I’ve received from 35 years of visits to International Schools in over 65 countries. There have been others…stories of the world’s endless diversity, opportunities to work with intelligent and dedicated people, the chance to see how an education blessed with abundant resources, time, space and adventures effects students and their teachers. While working, I have always tried to carve out time to travel… a few days here and there, a dip into Lake Malawi, Christmas time in Ethiopia’s Lalibela, hiking the Steppes of Mongolia driving the mountain roads around the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Oman and simply being a flaneur in the streets of Paris, Rome, Sofia, Gothenburg, Lima, etc.
I’ve been lucky with what I’ve been able to see and learn. I purposely placed myself in circumstances previously unexplored by me and where I had to trust my instincts and the world I was temporarily immersed in. The results has been one gift after another; the experience and appreciation of the essential goodness and abundance of the planet; its physical beauty and its diverse inhabitants.
However, I can’t deny that part of working with the International School community is also a discomfort that comes from an awareness that the world that supports International Schools is often one supported by economic inequality and resource and human exploitation. Working in International Schools helps all of us understand that we, the privileged, walk ‘roads’ around the world occupied by a very small percentage of the Earth’s inhabitants. It can feel like a contradiction when we teach about the importance of supporting our planet’s social and ecological diversity while realizing that the system that supports our profession often consciously or inadvertently contributes to the very things we are trying to erase; inequality and unsustainable use of resources.
How do we resolve this? We probably never fully do. I probably haven’t, but being part of International School Community has convinced me that the education we share must now move towards one that is not oblivious to these contradictions. Nor, in my opinion, should we assuage our discomfort through charity or a sense of ‘noblesse oblige’; an attitude that leads to ‘top down’ benevolence. The true nature of our engagement with the world must begin with the idea that ‘We are all in it together’ Only when we understand that our fates and the fates of those who are much less economically privileged than us and who so often provide the food and services that privileges us, are the same.
In this ‘next era’ of International School education, we know that colonialism is not the system that should define our engagement with the world. We understand that ‘charity’ no longer is enough or even smart. Our engagement with the worlds of our ‘host’ countries, must be based on respecting the intelligence and often unacknowledged ways these countries have traditionally negotiated complex problems of social and ecological diversity and limited resources. In the International School Community, we must now see ourselves as partners with our host countries and not as overlords; partners in the struggle for a sustainable and more egalitarian world.
I have learned first hand that this understanding is not the one that has been dominant. One year, I was brought to a school in India to work with non-violence issues. Next to the school was a settlement of poor folk living in crowded and incredibly trying circumstances. I wondered how they get along with each other in these trying situations, so I suggested going into this community and finding out how they dealt with conflict. Previously, the only contact the school had with this community was a charity based, where the children of the community were invited in to do art, receive food and to play with the children in the International School. The leadership of the school nixed the kind of exploration I proposed.
A shift in this perspective to one of mutual learning will point us to creating a shared practice with those who are our neighbors and colleagues; a shift that will allow us to learn from those who have lived in our ‘adopted’ countries much longer than we have. Their practices, often part of our host countries historical agricultural techniques, their water use policies, waste disposal and construction methods, are things we can learn from. Living within limits are often part of many people’s cultural heritage, philosophy and behavior. To learn from and participate with others in taking care of all of our environment and population leads to an investigation of how the industrialized world sometimes promotes practices with the opposite effect. Understanding and learning about locally based wisdom can be a big step in moving our relationship with our host countries to one of equality and sharing and an understanding that inequality, exploitation and the imposed destruction of the ‘locally grown’ aren’t smart for anybody. The result of not taking advantage of learning about local wisdom can result in everyone being vulnerable to its effect.
This kind of education, one that understands that everyone teaches and everyone learns, can help to resolve the discomfort we feel living and working in worlds seemingly isolated from the problems of the multitude of people who live outside our gates. International Schools can be part of a vanguard movement in International Education that learns as well as it teaches, shares as well as takes and helps the planet moves forward to an acknowledgment of the fragility of our Earth and how our ‘boat’ is ultimately shared by all…a good way to educate for the future, I think.
This article was submitted to us by guest author, Marc Levitt. Marc Levitt is a filmmaker (Stories in Stone, Woven in Time and the ‘in process, Triple Decker, A New England Love Story), author (Putting Everyday Life on the Page, Changing Curriculum Through Stories, A Holistic Approach to Culture Change), storyteller, radio host (www.ActionSpeaksRadio.com) and has been working in the International School Community as a Key Note speaker, workshop leader and storyteller for over 35 years. He is currently the ‘Scholar in Resident’ in a working class community’s school system in Rhode Island, USA. Marc can be reached at www.MarcLevitt.org or MarcJoelLevitt@gmail.com