Written by Dr. Alex McGregor, Deputy Head of School
Dr. McGregor is Deputy Head of School at UWC ISAK Japan. He also teaches History.
Many in the UWC movement have long felt an ambivalence about the term ‘international school’. After all, it’s an imperfect term and one riddled with problematic associations. What makes a school international? Does it refer to the school’s student body? Does it refer to the faculty? Does it refer to the taught curriculum? Does it refer to the language or languages of instruction? Is internationalism a state of mind or is it a euphemism for a socio-economic globalised elite?
Recently I wonder whether some self-professed international schools have been locked into an ever-escalating game of tautological gymnastics. If a school in Norway teaches the IB to overwhelmingly Norwegian students, are they truly an international school? If a French lycee in Hong Kong offers the Bac Francais in French to students from 100 nations, are they truly an international school? Of course, the problematic answer to both is, ‘I suppose so’ whilst hesitantly shrugging. The problem lies in the shrug: if the definition of international school means everything, then it equally means nothing.
This is an important issue for us to muse upon because it strikes at the heart of our identity at UWC ISAK Japan. Schools understandably struggle with the question: is internationalism who we are or what we do? In the current zeitgeist, most international schools claim their international credibility through promoting intentional diversity. However, sometimes the thinking on diversity seems awfully two dimensional. Take a look at a website and you’ll see what I mean: statistics about the number of nationalities. Can we really measure diversity primarily through passports? It may intuitively feel useful, after all surely the more nationalities you have, the more ‘international’ you are.
Ultimately, passports remain a faulty mechanism for measuring diversity. Many students at international schools possess several passports, some for countries in which they have never lived. How many of the nationalities listed on the school website can be traced back to a select group of trans-border unicorns: Chinese-American mother, Brazilian-South African father, born in a volcano and scattered over Scandinavia. There is a danger inherent in this approach. Is there a magical number of passport-nationalities a school must have in order to remain ‘international’? Is it 12? What happens if your 12th international child leaves? Is your school relegated to an almost-tier of crypto-international schools? What would we call this tier: National Plus? Premium National? Will the arbitrary number-juggling result in the development of an appalling black market of passport harvesting with Principals lurking in sullied alleyways at midnight looking to do dodgy deals from suppliers: “Come on man, I just need one more passport. I can quit any time I like…”
So if we might agree that the term ‘international school’ is challenging, might we also agree that the word ‘international’ is problematic simply by itself? In 1983, the academic Benedict Anderson wrote an important book called Imagined Communities. Anderson argued that most nationalities are invented. We choose to believe, he argued, that we share profound connections with our fellow citizens because we are told that we do. However, we will never meet the majority of the people in our nation and so we will never actually know if this is true. Moreover, Anderson claimed that, say, a New Yorker might have more in common with a Berliner because of their shared urbanite values and lifestyle than with someone from rural Arkansas despite their shared geography and language. Anderson might argue that it is time to move beyond nationalism. If that is true, then it may also be time to move beyond internationalism. Perhaps it is time to enter a post-national phase wherein we recognise that our identities are formed within various communities: local, regional and trans-border. Our passport does not define us either by embracing or rejecting it. Does this mean that one cannot be proud of one’s country? Well, I’m a historian and I’ve long felt that historians have no borders. That said, I am British and whilst I feel a deep ambivalence towards the British empire and its legacy, I also feel a great affinity to the British sense of humour and its literary and scientific tradition. It’s fine to like where you’re from, but perhaps the point here is that there is more in you than your nationality and perhaps it is time for international schools to think beyond measuring success according to how well they have assembled different nationalities in the same place. For example, most international schools host an international day. The idea is to celebrate your background, but has the time come to organise such a day not by your national flag but by your region and local community? Or more accurately perhaps it is time for international day to become a day of sharing cultures.
At one international school, I remember the Head talking about curriculum and posing a reasonable question: in an international school, whose history do you teach? It’s a decent question but it’s premised on a logical fallacy. History has been taught as the history of nation states because the dominant paradigm since the 19th century has been that of the nation state. It has come to dominate our thinking and our language and that has been one of the nation state’s most powerful tools of self-presentation. If there is no language to use but that of a power elite, simply using that language will ensure the perpetuation of that power elite’s status.
What does this mean for us at UWC ISAK Japan? In short, it means we are operating within considerable complexity: we have the individual identities of our community members and our own distinctive mission that exists irrespective of who is in our community. Given the struggle to reconcile all those complementary and contradictory parts, it becomes pretty obvious why we might default to nationalities and ‘internationalities’: they provide simplicity. We can then say you are from here and I am from there. But we are together so we must be international. It is much harder to say our identities are in constant flux and formed in reaction to near infinite stimuli. But perhaps we can at least nudge ourselves in the right direction by thinking about the word international and electing to substitute it with the word culture where relevant. Perhaps this is our solution. At one UWC, instead of naming their annual dance show spectacular International Night, they chose Culturama. The change was powerful. They chose not to be separate peoples sharing the same space but a true panorama of cultures.