Do our students, when leaving us, seek meaning in their lives? This is one of four essential questions for me, in terms of ‘why we do school.’ It shares heritage with one of the other questions I pose, which is: when faced with a momentous decision in their lives, will our students choose the option that exudes moral direction? Ideologically, these intertwined questions form what we might term the primary task of international schools, but I know that, no matter the type or system of school, these are the things we wish for, as educators, from primary school through higher education. Without meaning, without moral direction, we cannot prepare citizens of one nation, let alone world citizens. The quest for meaning, then, binds us. It is a central design principle.
In Eastern philosophy, there is a beautiful question: what is the nature of this age? What is the nature of our age? I submit that it is the globalisation of superficiality. Being ‘friends,’ for example, can mean one thing in a bricks-and-mortar school, whilst meaning something entirely different in the largest country on planet earth, Facebook. Consider that Facebook has borders (virtual), it has a population (users), it has rules of conduct (terms and conditions of use), it exhibits a certain ethos. It should shock you, at least somewhat, that I would want to categorise Facebook as a nation. Yet, what is the nature of our age? On the one hand, we prefer (enjoy?) the mental construct of nations with borders, because we’ve always conceived of nations that way. I can guarantee we’ve all thought in this way as we looked at the list of participants present today — so and so is from Greece, from Jordan, from the UK, from Syria, and so forth. On the other hand, the nation of Facebook is indicative of the nature of our age: networks have become globalised, acting in a way that is parallel to that of traditional nations. Perhaps you’re from IP address 195.635.54.4. That IP address has a local context — it’s a computer on an internet connection, in a certain location; unless, of course, you’re employing a VPN (virtual private network), in which case you might be in Athens, but you’ve tricked the network into thinking you’re in Malaysia. We don’t know how to deal with the negative manifestations of this kind of globalisation, and one of those manifestations is what is causing so much emigration today. We have trouble dealing with it because it doesn’t correspond exactly to our mental construct of a nation. However, it certainly is a network, yet we continue to treat it in the same way we’ve always done. And success against it is far more challenging to realise, is it not? Let me emphasise it: the same constructs do not apply any more.
Yet there is so much hope, elusive as it may seem. Consider our shared purpose here: opportunities within a network; cities of learning. Athens as a possible City of Learning, one piece of which is orientated toward empowering refugees to become architects of their own learning, to borrow a beautiful phrase that is integral to ACS Athens. Though I haven’t seen it named explicitly in Cities of Learning literature, is not a City of Learning also a network, or a system? That notion is integral to how a City of Learning can best function and create profound impact. We hold the keys to the success of such a model, and success is not only in the realm of education; that is but one manifestation. A true City of Learning, working in harmony with all those within its network, can exude a creative educational power that is self-generating and self-perpetuating.
Such is our charge, as we gather for these two days: to identify how we, as a network, can function: how we enable an environment, a network, to self-perpetuate in terms of the power to create, such as the power to create a meaningful and portable educational system that provides equity, not just equality.
[Note: these words were shared at the opening of the Summit on Refugee Education, held at ACS Athens from 10-11 November 2016. ECIS will share more on the work undertaken in Athens over the next couple of months, with a public lecture at the RSA in March 2017, and a research output to be shared/promoted.]