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The necessity of peace, love and understanding: UWC's mission isn’t a message of hope: it is a statement of necessity

Chris Edwards, Former Head of College, UWCSEA
4 June 2019

Chris Edwards: "UWC mission isn’t a message of hope: it is a statement of necessity."

When taking my mother out for lunch back in the UK, I often make a point of asking her how many items on the pub blackboard menu (we don’t do fine dining) would have appeared on a menu when she was a girl. The answer is usually zero. Even a humble pasta dish would have been an exotic mystery to a post-war child. How the blackboard has changed since then. Many dishes are now prefaced by a hyphenated history: the fish is pan-seared; the scallops hand-dived; the mushrooms forest-foraged. Sometimes it sounds as if you’re ordering jewellery (a duo of medallions), a sofa (foam-treated) or a demolition squad (deconstructed gateaux). But fads and fashions soon burn themselves up, and so we can also be fairly sure that today’s elaborate compositions au jus will one day be perceived as passé and possibly rather silly. And we can also guarantee—it’s happening already—that some of the old dishes will reappear in retro restaurants.

The UWC mission is, to my mind, a classic dish. It needs no extra sauces and spices. It may need heating up and stirring from time to time but little beyond that. There is something pure and, you might say, beguilingly naïve about it. I always equate the problem of the UWC mission with the title of a 1970’s song by English songwriter Nick Lowe: "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding". The song implores us not to forget those things which matter most, even if they often lack the faux-sophistication and appeal of shiny distractions. And it’s a plea for us not to get lost in the pandemonium of complexity when simplicity is sitting in front of you staring silently back. But, a newly written menu representative of forces at work in education today might give pause for thought. While we would of course see thrilling new challenges and opportunities being born in this Fourth Industrial Revolution (where schools must acknowledge the meshing of biological, digital and physical worlds), we also see new, less welcome dynamics.

We must acknowledge and address the mental health epidemic of children and adults alike in an increasingly connected and pressured world. Our young people are continuously exposed to wonderful possibilities, but also to the malice and manipulation of others. Many adults too cannot escape the cauldron. When I started in teaching, long before the invention of email and social media, there was no formal contact with work colleagues, parents or children from 5pm until 9am the next morning. Unless the school was burning down you’d be unlikely to hear anything about work for 16 hours out of any 24. The equivalent was true for just about everyone I knew. Nobody went to bed with the night’s latest email rattling in their heads, nor did they reach for their phone in instinctive panic the second they woke. The world was, as I recall, still turning.

An easy way out of the morass, and a route favoured by many now, is to turn to populism and absolutism. Too often what we hear today is: If I don’t get what I want, or even if you just disagree with me, I will expose you on social media and call you out for the Fascist (or worse) that you are. UWC’s default position should be never to engage on such terms. We should assume good intent, but with the courage to engage fearlessly if truth is under threat. And we must recognise that truths can be nuanced and conditional.

One of those challenging truths for UWC is that if a UWC education is to be truly transformative and inclusive, we need more divergent thought among student and teacher bodies alike. There is, perhaps, less “transformation” in many UWC educational experiences than there is extension and enhancement of what is already there. The makeover is often wonderful, but you can usually spot the original underneath. Like attracts like. Like begets like. Like nurtures like. And perhaps, with this intensification of sameness, there is a looming danger that increasingly we will hear not the liberating call of the mission statement, but the stifling arrogance of dogma. And surely, “UWC dogma” ought to be an oxymoron. Dogma is delivered from a pedestal: the UWC mission should have us looking people in the eye.

So, after all that, here I am looking at the menu in my restaurant. Do I recognise anything? Am I hopeful?

Absolutely I am. UWC’s signature dish—its mission—remains at the top of the blackboard, written in the largest hand. People still want it. In fact they want it more than ever. I guess there’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. From Mostar to Moshi, Mahindra to Maastricht, the message from UWC should be clear and brave. Yes, things will go wrong every day and provide naysayers with endless ammunition: yes, we must look after ourselves if we are to impact the lives of others: and yes, that means a host of new strategies to deal with the rabid intensity of modern connected life (and one of those strategies is, of course, to reject it). But there are great and wonderful truths to be told. We should all be deeply proud of UWC, the mission, and of the UWCSEA community. Time and time again, UWCSEA has shown what being a great UWC can look like: our remarkable students excel and inspire; my colleagues offer their passion and expertise with selfless dedication; our parents support and engage with verve and energy; and from all around the world people and organisations come to see what and why and how we do it. What stories we have for such people.

To have worked for five happy years at one of the world’s great international schools has been an honour. To have lived five happy years at one of the world’s great UWCs transcends even that. It has been a vital, electrifying experience, sprinkled with instances of exuberance and enchantment. Thank you to everyone who made it so.

When all is said and done we should present Kurt Hahn’s extraordinary faith in the young as the unadorned truth that it is. It isn’t a message of hope: it is a statement of necessity.