Written by Alexander McGregor
Dr. McGregor is Deputy Head of School at UWC ISAK Japan. He also teaches History.
What does it mean to be a part of the UWC movement? One answer that I hear frequently to this question is that being part of the UWC movement means promoting the values of democracy. I couldn’t agree more — depending on how we define a democracy. In various communities today, too often the word democracy is hijacked by those who want to dress their own selfish interests in the language of selflessness. Too often the term democracy is abused, becoming a cypher that means everything and nothing: it becomes an all-purpose tool with which to beatify one’s own intentions whilst demonising others. After all, surely everyone is in favour of democracy? Surely, no one would stand in the way of increased democracy? And if you want me to do something that I prefer not to, well then, you are trampling over my democratic rights. No one wants to be accused of that and so the appropriation of the term continues. But in the 21st century, where our news is curated for us by social media algorithms and where facts can be dismissed if they challenge our established paradigms, the idea of democracy is not wholly safe. Indeed, too often the term democracy is used where laissez faire, free market libertarianism is the real attitude on display.
Certainly the UWC movement must be a broad church, a coalition of imperfect partners with a sense of shared values but without an absolutist or inflexible idea about how to live those values. However, we cannot be a community that thinks each individual should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the impact on the community. We cannot be a community motivated solely by our own wants. And whilst we applaud all forms of academic success, and indeed celebrate it, we cannot measure the health of our community, and our commitment to the UWC movement, solely by the scores we receive or our university matriculations.
A belief in democracy cannot mean atomising ourselves into an infinite number of separate pieces. In a democracy, one possess inalienable rights such as equality under the law and freedom from persecution. But one also has responsibilities: one does not have the freedom to incite hatred or violence; one does not have the freedom to deny another their rights. In short, democracies should be measured by the degree to which they provide representation, transparency and accountability to those in power, but the central organising principle of a democracy is always compromise.
So let’s return to our question, what does it mean to be part of the UWC movement? In part, it means building a community in which we compromise: you lean a little towards me and I will lean a little towards you. We shall tolerate our disagreements, we shall celebrate our diversity and we will build a community in which there are rights and responsibilities for all members. This is no simple task. It requires continuous calibration from us all. It is also not our end goal. There is no point in us building a perfect commune on the top of a hill solely for ourselves to enjoy. Rather, having built our own community we then need to develop a culture that advocates an ethical bias towards activism. And what exactly does that mean? Well, let’s put it simply: to be part of the UWC movement means to engage. We want everyone in our community to engage with ideas beyond their own thinking, to engage with the concerns of our host nation and to engage with the problems facing the wider world today.
This is why Leadership is the central pillar of our learning programme here at UWC ISAK Japan. It’s why we offer History and Global Politics: these subjects enable students to understand how societies were constructed and they provide students with the tools to critically evaluate society. It’s why our science and language programmes teach our students how to understand the physical world and how to communicate with others. It’s why we have service projects. Its why we have Outdoor Education. But sometimes when our students are working so hard towards specific goals, no matter how meaningful, it is possible to forget to engage in conversation, dialogue, discussion and debate about the world in which we live. This is why we must provide spaces for conversations about global issues so that we can better listen to the experiences and opinions of each other and share our informed ideas.
In our community assembly on Monday we did just that. Our students divided into grade level groups. Each group heard three presentations on three radically different topics. Ayana from Japan spoke about political questions facing contemporary Japan, Denzel from Zimbabwe described the fall of Robert Mugabe, and Sara from Italy discussed the continuing refugee crisis. It was wonderful to see three students from three continents share their passions for understanding and changing the world. Equally impressive were the question and answer sessions that followed, in which students engaged with each other’s views. However, it would be dangerous to pat ourselves on the back. This is just the start of a conversation that we need to enrich. We’re committed to this. Indeed, visit our library in the KAC and you’ll see a special display of books and sources on each of the three topics raised in the community assembly.
One assembly won’t change the world but it can send a powerful signal to our community that these are the things we value: that engagement is what it means to be part of in the UWC movement.