by Salma Barma, Matthew Hull & Zixin Jiang
An international education today means long flights, private schools and the International Baccalaureate (IB). It is seen as a standard of elite education and a key to prestigious universities. Pessimists among us would argue that it has become characteristic of a social class preoccupied with self-advancement and equipped with the resources to do so.
But just last week, George Walker, the former director-general of the IB, gave a lecture at Oriel that offered us fascinating insight into the origin of international education and its corresponding potential for the future.
After the Great War, thinkers and politicians of the day scrambled to prevent a recurrence of the destruction they witnessed. The result was the philosophy of internationalism, which not only led to the creation of political institutions such as the League of Nations, but also aimed to inspire a new generation of globally-minded individuals who could live together in harmony.
“True compassion could only be developed in overcoming difficult circumstances together”
Schools lay at the heart of this. In 1924, the International School of Geneva (Ecolint) was established to teach the children of the League of Nations’ secretariat. It was the incarnation of a radical pedagogical theory that dictated that everything be taught from a global perspective. Marie-Thérèse Maurette, who led the school from 1925 to 1950, emphasized the need for schools to play an active role in encouraging this perspective; simply ‘rubbing shoulders’ was not enough. She thought a global perspective should influence the way schools taught history, geography, and languages; for example, she stressed the need to learn in both French and English.
In 1962, Kurt Hahn’s Atlantic College—now known as the first of the United World Colleges—took up the international agenda. The school brought together young people from different nations with the aim of fostering a spirit of mutual understanding to counteract Cold War antagonism. Hahn believed that true compassion could only be developed in overcoming difficult circumstances together. To this end, Atlantic College has given its students the responsibility of running a lifeguard service in the Bristol Channel. The school is credited today with 97 lives saved.
These early international schools realised they needed an international qualification that would allow their students to go to university in their home countries. The IB was born in 1968 as a result of this need. The IB Learner Profile—a list of ten characteristics such as ‘open-minded’ and ‘reflective’—the core voluntary service requirements, and Theory of Knowledge component all speak to the ethos of the early international schools.
But it seems as if the written principles are only paid lip service in many IB schools today.
Can international education recover its former ideals? George Walker thinks so, but argues that the project would require the renewed support of UNESCO. Monitoring from UNESCO would ensure the quality of international schools, especially as a growing number of companies abuse the prestige of being called an ‘international school’ to make money in India and China. International support would also hopefully reduce the cost of offering the IB in poorly funded schools and regions, hence making the IB more accessible. This in turn is fundamental to realising the original vision of an international curriculum that can be shared by all.
Yet ultimately, we think this vision also cannot be realised without the cooperation of individual schools. Participating schools need to commit themselves to the underlying ethos of the qualification. They should think seriously about the meaning and history behind the written principles of the IB, and make a conscious effort to impart these ideals to students.
They must understand these mottoes to be not just formal commitments, but a substantive way of doing things differently, permeating to the way things are taught and the activities that are organised. Only then can international schools truly be an instrument to build a global generation.