Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg: Lessons International Schools can learn from Schools with a Religious Identity

As part of the Council for International Schools (CIS) accreditation process school are asked to “demonstrate a commitment to internationalism / interculturalism in education” and that this should be “reflected throughout the life of the institution.” In this article I will be presenting the case that schools of a religious tradition are best placed to fulfill this aspect of education given their deeply rooted sense of history, tradition and culture.

In her book “International Mindedness” Lesley Stagg concludes by paraphrasing Dan Young “Internationalism advocates the quality of ‘being’ international within the overall climate and character evident when you enter the school. It includes the one for all organizational principles that reflect a global community concern (known to its community to exist inside and outside its walls), as well as an overall positive attitude between diverse cultures (and countries). It is evidenced where students and faculty celebrate this quality as they come together for learning and teaching… when common global interests and collaboration are recognized as imperative.”

To my mind in order to successfully meet this goal it is essential that the school have at least one unifying feature. There must be something tangible that unites all in the midst of their diversity. CIS exhorts the guiding statements of a school as this focal point and these guiding statements must be embedded in the curriculum and in the culture of learning. This is not particularly controversial and is something commonly accepted in the domain of international schools. However, I would like to suggest that in reality many international schools across the world do not have this one unifying feature and that, in fact in many cases, their guiding statements are contrived, jargonistic and essentially meaningless. The exception to this fact being those schools, which have a deep-rooted sense of history, are enshrined in tradition and have a culture that is known and embraced by the wider community. I would argue that this is the case in schools underpinned by a religious tradition.

Moreover, in order to create an “overall positive attitude between diverse cultures (and countries)” it is necessary to celebrate what unites families from diverse cultures and countries and in many cases this is their religious experience. Children from a multitude of countries, different races, speaking different languages and having a range of cultural norms, inevitably populate an International School. Finding something to unite such a diverse community is a challenge CIS recognizes, but within a school embracing a religious tradition there is no challenge because, despite the obvious diversity, children and their families are united by their religious beliefs. This is more obviously the case when they all hark from the same religious tradition, but I contend that it can also be the case when children of different religions, or denominations within a particular religion, are educated together as their belief in God (or in some cases a Supreme Being) transcends any of their apparent differences. Many dismiss too often religion as a cause of conflict but I would argue the contrary and suggest that in reality religion unites people due to the fact that they have a common sense of purpose and of human dignity. Nothing is more unifying than a common set of believes. This permeates deeper than any contrived ideology or passing trend.

A school with a religious identity often brings people together from a wide range of religious traditions. Many parents choose such a school because of its clear sense of identity and purpose even when they may not be part of the particular religious community. In a school with a religious identity prayer and worship is part of daily life, community is reinforced by a commonality of shared experience and religious dialogue is the norm. This is an important consideration for many parents concerned by the growing trends of aggressive secularism and moral relativism. An environment where God is in the midst of the community is attractive to believers from a range of religious backgrounds as, even if the nature of God may differ from one tradition to another, it is preferable to an environment where the very existence of God is denied.

Central to religious identity is a call to community, to brotherhood/sisterhood, to social justice, to a respect for human dignity, to peace and reconciliation and to celebrating unity in diversity. These are the features of international mindedness that CIS wants schools to embrace. Whilst many schools barely touch the tip of the iceberg with respect to international mindedness, schools with a religious identity and faith commitment are deeply rooted in their sense of mission, of their ethos, of their values. International Schools of a non-religious nature could learn a lot by looking at schools of a religious nature. They would observe that in the vast majority of cases (some schools with a religious identity are clearly better than others) that the guiding statements of the school are embedded throughout the institution. In the best schools the mission and ethos of the school is deeply embedded in the curriculum. Such schools do not have a narrow view of curriculum as merely the teaching of a syllabus or academic program but moreover that it is inclusive of all aspects of a child’s learning experience and development as a human person. Subsequently children will learn explicitly about issues of prejudice and discrimination, different belief systems (other than that of the denomination of the institution), ethical systems, cultural norms, the dignity of the human person, social enterprise and the alike. Furthermore, schools with a religious tradition have always valued prayer and meditation as an essential part of human development. Recognizing this the secular world now promotes “mindfulness” as a non-religious alternative to meditation. Separating meditation from faith, where Buddhist, Christian or another, is somewhat morally bankrupt and a very dubious business in itself.

Many international schools have adopted mission statements but sometimes these are a uniformity of bland clichés with know deep sense of an underlying philosophy. Perhaps even more worrying is the trend for schools to adopt the language of “No child left behind” and focus on college and work place preparedness as the raison d’etre of education rather than focusing on the development of the whole child with the human dignity of a child of God. It is immoral to see a child as no more than economic fodder for the future workplace. Schools should reject any policy or system that diminishes the dignity of the human person and refutes the idea that anyone can be reduces to the status of an economic unit or passive dependent.

Recognizing the distinct nature that schools underpinned by a religious tradition have, and by learning from their best practice, International Schools across the world can learn to emulate the “one for all” educational principals that underpin faith schools. The shared “worldview” that unites people of faiths underpins the values and mission of such schools and enables them to be truly international.

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