Is the Death of Neil Armstrong also the Death of Conspiracy Theories claiming the Moon Landings were a Hoax?

I was sorry to hear of the death of Neil Armstrong. I know he was 82; and some would say that’s a good age and innings in life; yet for me anyone’s death while eventually inevitable is a loss for those of us still living. Neil Armstrong is no exception. The Apollo program became so much a part of our generation and my life as a  teenager growing up in New Zealand. I was 16 in 1969. Although I admit that at that time my main interests centered around the release of Led Zepplin’s first recorded album-Led Zepplin 1, the untimely death (isn’t all death untimely?) of Brian Jones the founder of the Rolling Stones, in his swimming pool, the Woodstock music festival, and the release of my all time favorite Beatle’s Album Abbey Road. However, on July 16th (my birthday) I was distracted briefly to hear on the news that Apollo 11 had been launched and would take around 4 days to arrive at the moon and attempt the first moon landing. Remember, this was the age before Lost in Space, Star Trek and Star Wars and such an event was seen as perhaps the greatest human achievement since the Wright Brothers took Da Vinci’s design and constructed and flew an airplane.

The Apollo program ran from when I was 8 years old in 1961 to when I turned 19 in 1972. It became part of my education in primary and secondary school too; especially in an age where televisions were a luxury for even the middle class. Sequestered in a school library, newsagent or a bookshop, I carefully poured over and scrutinized the colorful glossy pictures from various Apollo Missions which were published in periodicals like Life and Time and found myself momentarily distracted from the narcissism of adolescence to ponder greater possibilities about life, its complexities and inherent meaning. Some of the most memorable were of the earth rises as seen from the Apollo 8 and 11 voyages-our tiny blue planet awash in a sea of black, lifeless space.

The exploration of earth has been fraught with conflict and disagreement about intentionality, motive and end result. Space exploration is no exception and is part of this historical discourse. It grew out of a dangerous political race between the United States of America and the former USSR. Each country in its attempt to gain superiority over the other in terms of space exploration and military armaments brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Fortunately today we benefit from space exploration and its discoveries. Having moved beyond the age of conflict and Dente, the United States and the Russian Federation now share their space exploration work through the International Space Station. And as I write, the Mars rover Curiosity is testing out maneuvers to help unravel that planet’s history within the mysterious complexities of our own.

Yet there are those who doubt and conspire that human’s have never left earth let alone stepped foot on the moon (heaven knows what conspiracists make of ordinary everyday airplane flights-and they can even see these!). For some people the idea that humans have left the earth and walked on the moon is a mere fantasy, a myth and part of a wider more insidious form of conspiracy to manipulate the people’s understanding of the course of human history. Also, it has become a very lucrative industry for the hoax purveyors who trawl the internet and prey on the gullibility and sensibilities of the uneducated, the lost, the lonely and the plain bored. Conspiracists eschew the rational along with the over-whelming scientific evidence which supports the Apollo missions and their subsequent moon landings.

However, conspiracy theories hold a certain kind of appeal for certain kinds of people. They provide a conclusion (though often not a very convincing one) to many of the conundrums which we ordinary people face when confronted with the new, or the inexplicable. Our primitive imaginings raise questions and then have us thinking in concluding statements, and in an undisciplined fashion we work backwards to fit the pieces of a puzzle together. How could science achieve this or that? Why are the rich and powerful seemingly in control? Why are people of a particular race or culture more adept at social-economic management? Why are governments so secret about the weapons programs? Why did so and so die at that time and in those particular circumstances? And the ever burgeoning espionage industry doesn’t help matters either-we all are under some sort of surveillance today-whether we like it or not. However, whether or not the CIA, FBI, MI6 or any other intelligence gathering or counter espionage service is interested in Facebook pics of me bungee jumping, or texting my sister about her MRI results remains to be seen.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Charlie Duke, the lunar module pilot from the 1972 Apollo 16 mission. He was attending a conference as one of a panel of keynote speakers at the institution where I teach. I was excited about this event and encouraged my students to attend and meet him, moreover I encouraged them to address the conspiracy theory question directly to Charlie, and clear the matter up once and for all. Most declined saying they knew the moon landings were a hoax and didn’t need to ask anyone about their authenticity. These were undergraduate students studying for degrees in engineering, business and IT. So in their absence I asked Charlie the question. “Charlie, how do you respond to the conspiracy theorists that the moon landings were a hoax?” “Well” he said, with a grin, “I’ve heard them all before-I can understand faking it once, but why would we do it 6 times?” “Anyway it was real, I was there”. I was there too in a fashion-watching those grainy black & white pictures beamed live from the Sea of Tranquility via NASA on a friend’s TV in Christchurch New Zealand.

For me the death of Neil Armstrong isn’t about whether or not men landed on the moon. They did. It would be a mere cliché to describe Armstrong simply as a space explorer. He was a son to a mother and father, a boy to himself and his friends, a young man, an adult, a father and husband, each role lived with equal ambition and fierce determination. He was a man who held a rational view of the world, contrary to the views held by conspiracists. He was a highly skilled pilot, astronaut and aeronautics engineer. He was the first human being to step foot on another celestial body other than earth. I am still in awe of his achievement and the achievements of science, and all those who enabled him to step onto the moon and utter his immortal phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But such  well founded opinions won’t be enough to sway the conspiracists who live and play in the schizophrenic reality of a Dumbledorian  fantasy land. But I challenge them to say thank you Neil Armstrong for walking on the moon and handing over your life and  legacy to inspire future generation to achieve what today we may think is unachievable.

The Strange Case of Sex, Wikileaks, Julian Assange and an unfolding International Diplomatic Crisis.

Truth, according to Mark Twain is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. I think he’s right when it comes to the growing sordid spectacle enveloping the once internet hero, now turned international  fugitive Julian Assange. But, I think it’s the fiction which has the world transfixed-especially the mobs who gather outside the Ecuadorian embassy in London, screaming “Free Julian” along with other epithets about a British lead conspiracy to lock the man up without a fair trial. Reminiscent of the crowds gathered around Madame Thérèse Defarge the fictional character in the book A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, the supporters of Assange protest his innocence under the broad umbrella of free speech, suggesting a world wide conspiracy by those in power to dupe us all about the real state of world affairs, because Julian revealed all through Wikileaks Yet, they seem to be overlooking some very important salient points in the matter. Firstly, the real world of politics and diplomacy is a world fraught with tensions, mistrust, dangerous liaisons, and often acute misunderstandings of the intentions of ‘the other’. That’s why we have agencies and organizations like MI5, MI6, CIA, and KGB and so on. No-one trusts anyone. Why? Well its called human nature-but its human nature institutionalized, through a myriad of processes over millennia, and requires more than few lines on a blog to unravel. But as a starting point try a history of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, or study a history of the Classical World or a history of the Popes, the Reformation, even the many examples from the variety of Civil Wars; or better still read the complete works of William Shakespeare!-all will give a glimpse into the complexity of the human character and help understand why diplomacy survives on hushed conversations, backroom deals and many other kinds of dealings, which for those with a weak moral appetite would find very distasteful. Yet, it is why many of us are able to enjoy our hard won freedom, even though it’s a kind of bandied about ideal style of democracy, with limitations. For anyone to claim such dealings are corrupt, as the mother of Julian Assange did on a recent BBC World News interview, via Australia, is profoundly naïve. Equally naïve, are the protests outside the Ecuadorian embassy.  I have never supported Wikileaks. I thought the act of releasing stolen, private documents belonging to those charged with being the keepers of their nations’ business and secrets, the men and women who engage in the high stakes political and diplomatic dramas of the day was a dangerous and naïve act. Many lives from the political and diplomatic services, along with armed forces personnel were put at risk, along with the professional lives of many civil servants. But, this is only my opinion and many readers will disagree with me.

Having released the cables, Wikileaks attempted to use them as leverage against governments to be more open and transparent (how naïve is that!) by saying they had more and would release them at their will and pleasure. Mistake number one. Never take on a power greater than yourself (read your Machiavelli). Enter Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, hero to many who were promoting a kind of proletariat glasnost, without really understanding what the stakes were and what was up for grabs-the integrity of the Diplomatic Corps and wider circles of global politics and diplomatic relationships. Many countries, including the Australia, the United States, Great Britain along with Saudi Arabia (the latter in particular, as it confirmed what we already thought about its double standards and good times-party driven elite) were horrified at their private political and diplomatic dealings becoming breakfast reading for the literati and motivation fodder for the various protest groups around the world. Not since Watergate’s hunt for deep throat has an all out investigation been launched to find the source of these leaks. It had to be an inside job-and rightly so; one poor devil, a US serviceman, Bradley Manning admitted being the source for many of the leaks. What motivated such an act of betrayal? Who knows? There’ll continue to be speculation as the case goes to trial, but claiming diminished responsibility for being a serviceman and Gay seems lame to me, and an insult to the thousands of loyal Gay service men and women throughout the US and in other countries.

Mr. Assange claimed that he had done nothing illegal in setting up his Website and releasing the Wikileak cables as they have come to be known. And he is right. However, from an ethical point of view as far as I’m concerned- he is wrong. He acted out of his own mis-guided, politically driven self-interest (not the public good-most of us were quite content to leave the politicians and diplomats to get on with their jobs). However, shortly after we settled down to watch how the Wikileaks affair would play out an unexpected call from the past came for Mr. Assange – a kind of wikikarma happened! In a twist of irony his claim to protection under the law came back to haunt him as he found himself at the center of sexual assault allegations in Sweden. It now seems that two of his trysts and himself have had very different recall of events which took place mid August 2010 while Mr. Assange was on a private visit to Sweden to speak at a gathering of the Social Democrats Brotherhood Movement.  Mr. Assange and his host (whom he had not met before) had sex in her apartment. The basis of the legal argument in Sweden is the consensual nature of that encounter. Moreover, at the same convention he met another woman and they too had sex, and matters of a consensual nature surround that liaison too.  There doesn’t seem to be any causal link between the sexual encounters in Sweden, and the leaking of confidential cables and documents by Wikileaks as far as I can see-yet the voices of the protestors and supporters of Mr. Assange claim there is a link and that link is a conspiracy by the United Kingdom, Sweden and the  United States of America to use the  practice of rendition and whisk the Wikileaks founder to the US or perhaps Guantanamo Bay, hold a Military trial and execute him. It’s almost too good for a John Grisham Plot isn’t (perhaps it’ll become one?) Once the sexual assault allegations were made in Sweden, the authorities attempted to get Mr. Assange to return-he wouldn’t. Perhaps with good cause, as in his mind he felt there was a conspiracy against him too, he was completing his own kind of psychological Sudoku as events unravelled. Mistake number two. Don’t muddy the waters and claim a conspiracy when the heat’s on. Conspiracies are generally overrated. Most of them are so logically driven and full of possibilities they would only fit into a work of fiction. Some of the more obscene ones are that the US was responsible for 9/11; there was a plot to kill JFK (thank you Oliver Stone for your distortions on this tragic event); that aliens are here on earth and attempting to govern us (oh oh-so that’s what Mitt Romney’s all about?)

On the 20th August 2010, the Swedish Public Prosecutor issued a warrant for Mr. Assange’s arrest, but within 24 hours it was withdrawn-there were some disagreements in the office of the Swedish Public Prosecutor, such is the nature of that role and office. Mr. Assange was questioned by police in Stockholm and denied the charges. He later left the country, and disappeared for a short time, but after Interpol issued an arrest warrant, because the Swedish Public Prosecutor’s office reopened the case, Mr. Assange gave himself up to Police in London. There followed a number of bail and extradition hearings all the way to the  United Kingdom’s Supreme Court-all of which were not in favor of Mr. Assange. He had exhausted legal avenues and was order to be extradited to Sweden to face the sexual misconduct allegations against him. Perhaps the matter could have been cleared up at this point? After all Sweden, like the United Kingdom has an independent judiciary. Not so according to Mr. Assange’s now worldwide group of supporters including well known celebrities Michael Moore, Ken Loach, Jemima Khan and Bianca Jagger. They claim a person is innocent until proven guilty and everyone has a right to the truth. I try to avoid my big wide yawn at this point because whose truth are we are talking about here? It seems the truth of jurisprudence isn’t enough anymore. Furthermore, one cannot stay in a suspended state of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ for eternity, as Jemima Khan would like to see. There has to be resolution for all parties- Mr. Assange, the women who made the allegations, and the Swedish legal system. At least I thought so, until the extraordinary announcement that Mr. Assange would seek political asylum in Ecuador claiming political persecution. Ecuador!? I’ve been to Ecuador. I traveled extensively throughout the country in 2001, and stayed in Cuenca for a month. It’s a beautiful, poor developing country in the Americas. It’s had its own troubled past with regional powers, including the US. It’s hardly a bedrock of open government and democracy –the kind Wikileaks and its founder claim the West isn’t! It’s brutal in its response to opposition and repressive when it comes to free speech. So apart from a lack of an extradition treaty with Sweden, it’s only going to provide Mr. Assange with a vestige of freedom initially (assuming he gets out of the UK), but later he will have to pay a price for this move. This is mistake number three. You never get something for nothing anywhere-especailly in the world of international diplomacy and politics. In making its announcement to grant him asylum the Ecuadorian government said:
The government of Ecuador believes that these arguments lend support to the fears of Julian Assange, and it believes that he may become a victim of political persecution, as a result of his dedicated defense of freedom of expression and freedom of press as well as his repudiation of the abuses of power in certain countries, and that these facts suggest that Mr. Assange could at any moment find himself in a situation likely to endanger life, safety or personal integrity” So, the plot widens (there’s definitely a novel and movie here!).

As it now stands Mr. Assange is a prisoner of his own dialectic in the confines of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. He is a fugitive from both the British and Swedish justice systems. What began as the releasing of illegally obtained private diplomatic and political documents in 2010 has now turned into an internationalized political and diplomatic drama involving six countries on five different continents. The Organization of American States has called a meeting of foreign ministers for August 24 to discuss the fall out from Ecuador’s decision to grant asylum to the WikiLeaks founder. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction-who could have written a more engaging real-life political and diplomatic thriller than the players in this drama-the possibilities for its conclusion are endless and are way beyond the parameters of the fictionalized events of any author’s pen.

Is the Law an Ass?

“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble… “the law is an ass—an idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.” [1]

It seems Mr. Bumble’s wish that the law may be opened up by experience is not too far off-or is it? The Australian High Court’s ratio decidendi that the inclusion of colorful logos, images, and brand designs on cigarette packaging is no longer allowed has been welcomed by many in the medical, educational and legal fraternity, and rightly so, because as the argument goes, the wrapping of the product is what seduces the user into the addiction in the first place. Moreover, it’s time those big tobacco companies, and their disgraceful profits gained on the backs of the suffering of millions who die horrible slow, painful cancerous deaths got their comeuppance. It has been going on for just too long.

The Australian High Court has ruled cigarette manufacturers must use olive-colored packaging for their products. The cigarette packets, as they are affectionately called by their users, will be wreathed in graphic images of sick and dying people, along with cancerous tumors on the throat and mouths, and bodies emaciated and eaten away as a result of lighting up a cigarette many times over. At last all those who have suffered, or lost a loved one through this repulsive addictive habit will have been vindicated, and may be able to find some solace in the court’s ruling.

The argument is premised on the idea that making the wrapping as unattractive as possible will discourage and deter those who are using tobacco as a crutch in their lives, and through fear of death and suffering prevent anyone else from ever starting. It’s the classic modification argument, behavioristic and deterministic in its very essence. But will it work? I’m not a great believer in any form of determinism. There’s the smaller matter of a greater  concept called free will, and leaving aside someone forcing an infant to smoke from a very young age (which is abuse), at some point a choice will be made to light up one of those “ vehicles for nicotine addiction”.

The question becomes whether one has the will or not to stop smoking upon learning about the risks involved. I did, after 16 years of smoking upwards of 40 cigarettes a day. It took 3 months, a few sessions of hypnotherapy, and an inward determination to kick a habit which, when I started I had not been educated in anyway about the consequences-oh yes the 60s and its decadence, and then all those Bogey and Bacall movies and the chain smoking-how cool was that! But it was more a case of a lack of education about smoking and its effects which seduced me-it was a socially cool thing to do-and then there was the rush and addiction which followed; but I was after some years able to quit. In the end I did it cold turkey, so to speak-I just willed it. I fought it like I wanted to win-and I substituted it for walking, then running, then learning to swim. I didn’t overeat or become a chocoholic, alcoholic, sexahoilc, or any other kind of holic; I just become fitter and happier. My friend still smokes. He buys packets which already have gruesome pictures of the diseased, dying and dead on them-but he simply takes them out of the packet, and places them into his new, gold  cigarette case, with its platinum skull and cross embossed on the lid. He grins, looks at me and says “Churchill smoke and drank, and lived into his nineties” So bring on the olive packets with their obsessive portraits of death and dying; but lets not stop there-what about all those sugar products? Obesity is on the rise; let’s have all our candy wrapped in black wrappers with graphic pictures of rolls of open liposuction, and veins swelled to bursting point with hardened yellow cholesterol. And lets not forget the cookies and snacks either-Lays, Pringles and the rest of them; out with their brightly colored, happy snacky packaging-lets go for a brown wrapper,  and vivid pictures of open heart surgery, and inserted stents buckling under the pressure of slow, viscous blood unable to pump through over gorged arteries. What about alcohol? I’d suggest a heavy green can and bottle for all types including beer, spirits and wines of every conceivable variety and vintage. The label should show a seriously cirrhosised liver, with a simple message saying “wishing you all the best” My point, although not very subtle here is that we cannot legislate to change personal behavior. People are fickled creatures, and will do as they please whether we like it or not. I think Mr. Bumble is right in this instance-the law is an ass-where will this folly end?

[1] CHARLES DICKENS, Oliver Twist, chapter 51, p. 489 (1970)

Money, Power and Education.

Catching up with the daily news and its portrayals of violence, revealed terrorist plots, drug wars, family wars and the blatant corruption within some sectors of the corporate world, in particular the banking sector, is akin to reading an updated publication of Sebastian Falk’s 2009 novel A Week in December.  Art really does imitate life-or is it the other way around? May be it’s all about self-fulfilling prophecies? Anyway, to use a Falkism, Goldbag have been at it again!  In April of 2010 the US Securities and Exchange Commission filed charges against the Investment Bank, Goldman Sachs, alleging that Bags full of Gold defrauded investors by misstating and omitting key facts about a financial product tied to subprime mortgages as the U.S. housing market was collapsing. Serious charges given what the sub-prime mortgage crisis did to average working Americans and by extension to a global population of workers who have simply become an extension of global capital in the form of tradable cultural capital, inter-dependent on a new order of financial deregulation and globalization.

This isn’t the first time Goldbag (and not the last?) have been caught out for their double standards and corrupt business dealings. In 2003 the United States Securities and Exchange Commission found that the Goldman Sachs Group had been complicit in corrupt business practices which had enabled the organization to benefit from its own research analyst’s inside information on currencies and securities trading, and investment banking. Goldman Sach’s consented to the findings of the SEC without admitting or denying the allegations. They also consented to a final judgment which cost the organization in excess of US 100 million dollars.

On August 9th 2012 the SEC announced that Goldbag would not be prosecuted for its unethical business practices which significantly contributed to the 2008 world-wide financial crisis. Surprised? Not really. Others have argued elsewhere about cronyism in the age of advanced capitalism. Hope for change? It looks bleak I’m afraid. Why? Well Goldman Sachs has a philanthropic wing-a foundation funded through the Goldman Sachs Group. The charitable wing was inaugurated in 1999 with a funding grant from the parent company of 200 million dollars (US). Since its inception the foundation has donated generously to the educational needs of young people in selected countries throughout the world. It argues that its ‘mission’ is to “promote excellence in education worldwide…and to enhance the academic performance and prospects for achievement at secondary level, and to develop the abilities of promising high potential youth worldwide, and to support high quality education for young people in business and entrepreneurship.”[1]

These goals are not dissimilar to any primary or secondary school’s mission statement and values insofar as they argue that the foundation’s aim is for the betterment of youth through educational programmes. But this would be as far as one could go in drawing any kind of comparative ideal and vision between the Goldman Sach’s Foundation and any school’s value system.

Fundamental to the Goldman Sachs group are its fourteen business principles worth quoting in full here:

  • “Our clients’ interests always come first. Our experience shows that if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow.
  • Our assets are our people, capital and reputation. If any of these is ever diminished, the last is the most difficult to restore. We are dedicated to complying fully with the letter and spirit of the laws, rules and ethical principles that govern us. Our continued success depends upon unswerving adherence to this standard.
  • Our goal is to provide superior returns to our shareholders. Profitability is critical to achieving superior returns, building our capital, and attracting and keeping our best people. Significant employee stock ownership aligns the interests of our employees and our shareholders
  • We take great pride in the professional quality of our work. We have an uncompromising determination to achieve excellence in everything we undertake. Though we may be involved in a wide variety and heavy volume of activity, we would, if it came to a choice, rather be best than biggest.
  • We stress creativity and imagination in everything we do. While recognizing that the old way may still be the best way, we constantly strive to find a better solution to a client’s problems. We pride ourselves on having pioneered many of the practices and techniques that have become standard in the industry.
  • We make an unusual effort to identify and recruit the very best person for every job. Although our activities are measured in billions of dollars, we select our people one by one. In a service business, we know that without the best people, we cannot be the best firm.
  • We offer our people the opportunity to move ahead more rapidly than is possible at most other places. Advancement depends on merit and we have yet to find the limits to the responsibility our best people are able to assume. For us to be successful, our men and women must reflect the diversity of the communities and cultures in which we operate. That means we must attract, retain and motivate people from many backgrounds and perspectives. Being diverse is not optional; it is what we must be.
  • We stress teamwork in everything we do. While individual creativity is always encouraged, we have found that team effort often produces the best results. We have no room for those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the firm and its clients.
  • The dedication of our people to the firm and the intense effort they give their jobs are greater than one finds in most other organizations. We think that this is an important part of our success.
  • We consider our size an asset that we try hard to preserve. We want to be big enough to undertake the largest project that any of our clients could contemplate, yet small enough to maintain the loyalty, the intimacy and the esprit de corps that we all treasure and that contribute greatly to our success.
  • We constantly strive to anticipate the rapidly changing needs of our clients and to develop new services to meet those needs. We know that the world of finance will not stand still and that complacency can lead to extinction.
  • We regularly receive confidential information as part of our normal client relationships. To breach a confidence or to use confidential information improperly or carelessly would be unthinkable.
  • Our business is highly competitive, and we aggressively seek to expand our client relationships. However, we must always be fair competitors and must never denigrate other firms.
  • Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business. We expect our people to maintain high ethical standards in everything they do, both in their work for the firm and in their personal lives” [2]

When compared to the ethics inherent in the modernist educational system these 14 business principles share very little with a culturally interdependent worldview promoted through our general education in primary and secondary schools, and for that matter reputable Colleges and Universities, where the virtues of care and compassion together with ideals valuing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people are considered central to the advancement of humankind.

Values inherent within General Education Goldman Sachs Group Core Values based on 14 Business Principles
  • Character Formation of Youth
  • Inquisitive, Knowledgeable Caring Youth
  • Create a better , peaceful World
  • Intercultural understanding and respect
  • Compassionate Learners
  • Unity through diversity


  • Service through self interest
  • People are assets
  • Profit over people
  • Uncompromising corporate ethic
  • Unchanging and inflexible “the old way may be the better way”
  • Meritocracy and Group ‘think’ ethos
  • Individuality is spurned
  • Loyalty to corporate culture
  • Limited vision: Finance is the world
  • Conflicting ethics : aggressive integrity and honesty
  • Integrate corporate values into personal life


When the inherent assumptions and values of the banking sector, which seem to include corrupt, and questionable (some would argue illegal) business practices, aggressive competitiveness, corporate conformity and youth as cultural capital, are juxtaposed with the values and principles of a sound rational primary and secondary education, one begins to see how these ideals and values are able to be corrupted, compromised and undermined at the end of a young person’s formative years in the educational system.

In taking the moral high ground in their mission statement and set of business principles, Goldman Sachs may well claim that such actions of which they have been accused of several times in the past 15 years, are “unthinkable”; yet clearly in the exceedingly competitive world of corporate power and commercial finance, are permissible if you don’t get caught. The recent SEC findings confirm this viewpoint. While this may sound harsh and somewhat judgmental, one needs to consider that Goldman Sachs, along with the majority of the banking sector are corporate organizations which on the one hand deal in the high risk, high stakes financial trading, where values of vociferous competitiveness, absolute corporate power, unbridled wealth and success at what ever cost, outweighing any values of cooperation, compassion, justice and the equitable sharing of our material resources. Cleverly, Goldman Sachs corporate actions are masked by their philanthropic wing which is seen through the public gaze as promoting and even fostering values associated with excellence in education and a successful career at the end of a college and/or University education. I would assert that it is only in a system of schooling, and a world of work where our lives are able to be compartmentalized, that such pathways to success can be validated morally, socially and politically. There seems little hope for positive, ethical change in the long term.

Pussy Riot, Free Speech and the right to Protest.

A recent BBC interview with the defiant members of Pussy Riot, showed masked members of the group with colourful balaclavas basking in the limelight-rather than a group of serious young political protestors trying to make a valid political and social statement-hardly  the Baader–Meinhoff phenomena!  The right to protest and free speech, some would argue, is an inalienable right. It is certainly a right bandied about by western politicians, until it comes to a sit in protest in their neighbourhood-then out come the pepper spray, taser guns, truncheons and over-excited security forces, ready to use their latest and stylized technologies against their own citizenry, as we’ve seen in the United States and Europe over the past 12 months. But I digress.  Most liberal minded, rational folk would argue for the right to protest and express a political point of view in the face of wide-spread political corruption and violence against dissenting voices. However, the method and approach adopted can make or break a cause. After the recent Russian Presidential elections there were wide-spread street protests; risky for all those who participated, because of the violent response from the security forces; nonetheless protests continued, and unorganised, disparate groups of protest movements emerged to challenge the Putin regime’s levels of tolerance for political dissent and difference. Mr. Dmitry Gudkov of the Just Russia Party blogged that people are no longer afraid to protest against the government. Numbers of protestors suggested otherwise. He claimed earlier that a lack of coordination of the disparate groups was undermining any opposition movement.  Enter Pussy Riot. And what an entry it was onto the high alter of Moscow’s main Cathedral! Clad in costumes from Revolutionary Road and Spiderman, and screaming profanities in a kind of heavy vibrato version of Linda Blair’s character from The Exorcist, they harangued against the Russian government, Russian Orthodox Church and any other institution representative of the establishment.  Apart from their own version of notoriety, and the support of a few fading, over exposed western musicians like the repressed and dysfunctional , fading  anti-Catholic obsessed  pop singer Madonna , and the anti-aging tantric yogi practioner Sting, what did they achieve? The release of long suffering Russian political prisoners?  A commitment from the Government for political reform? Inspiration for a grass roots youth political protest movement for change? Sympathy and support from the millions of Russian Orthodox faithful who find comfort and solace in their faith in the face of social hardship and political repression? Contrary to John Lough’s analysis in The Telegraph (Lough, 2012) that their protest showed weaknesses in a Russian political system which lacks checks and balances (we already knew this John!) the girls only managed to offend a deeply religious section of their fellow country-men and women who had managed to survive decades of political and religious repression under communism through their religious faith. The right to protest and free speech is not at the expense of the dignity, integrity and the rights of others. Their choice of venue was naive as it was offensive, and their message incoherent in the midst of genuine political protests at the allegations of corruption in the Russian Federation.

Lough, J. (2012, August 14). Pussy Riot’s stunning victory over Putin’s bureaucrats. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from The Telegraph:

Finding a balance in the Science-Religion debate in school curricula.

“I’m a post-modernist”, claimed the graduating high school student in his Theory of Knowledge paper, “and I believe that soon we will be able to teleport ourselves around the universe…and there is no God as science has proved this fact”.

It’s taken a scientist, a quantum physicist no less, not a philosopher, to provide the answer to Heidegger’s imponderable question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing. Stephen Hawking’s answer, outlined in his recent publication, The Grand Design, that spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing.

Hawking made news around 12 months ago with his claim that given the projected size of the universe –around 100 billion galaxies-aliens exist, and that we should avoid contacting them. He, didn’t of course offer any explanation as to why they haven’t yet arrived to our distant lonely blue outpost in the universe by their millions, to claim us as their intergalactic slaves, or perhaps to liberate us from our own delusional belief in a Divine Creator. According to Hawking, earth isn’t the only planet to have life or where life has developed. Not surprisingly, he has absolutely no evidence for such a fantastical claim, and asserts simply speculative conjectural theories, based on dubious, obscure theoretical physics, which upon closer examination amount to no-more than sophistry; despite claims that the gigantic Hadron collider recently found the God particle (they’re still sifting through the data to see if it’s still there!)

According to some graduating high school students, life does exist on other planets in distant galaxies, and aliens also exist, and have visited earth many times, abducting people, and performing scientific experiments on them. Such claims are upheld by a significant number of educators around the world as fact too, as evidenced in the several thousand ToK and philosophy essays I have assessed over the last decade. Yet the claim Jesus rose from the dead and later ascended into heaven is met with outrageous contempt as superstition and simply impossible, with the late Christopher Hitchen’s derisively claiming it as a “Christian fantasy” (Hitchens, 2007), while he, along with Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins adhere to a fantastical world view which claims that the ideals and principles of truth, beauty, justice and goodness, emerged from some primeval slime pool.

I have just completed another assessment season of essays, on a variety of topics, including the nature of truth and the use of evidence in supporting ideas and beliefs. The dominant responses and themes to the set topics included claims like, religions have no evidence to substantiate their right to proclaim a faith, that science is correct and exact because it uses evidence, technology will provide for our future energy needs, including fixing solar panels around the perimeter of the moon to collect inter-galactic energy into laser guns and fire laser beams of energy to receiver stations on earth; life exists in abundance on other planets in other galaxies which we have to discover, because global warming will destroy the earth, (presumably before a laser beam of inter-galactic energy fired from the moon does), God doesn’t exist because science and the Discovery channel have proved it, there are no universal moral values and standards, because we perceive everything differently, and we cannot agree on anything because we are all different, and we have to follow our own subjective experiences, and that is where we will find truth.

These claims among others are made, without any serious understandings of their inherent assumptions. Moreover, they are made without any genuine investigation of the primary sources from which the original claims emerge and for the most part they are made on the basis of what has been taught through teacher opinion along with school based textbook learning. They are quasi-knowledge claims which are asserted with no evidence and are not critiqued in anyway. Yet, the reliability of the arguments and evidence of the grand narratives claiming certainty of belief in God, universal ethics, right and wrong, justice, goodness, truth and beauty are constantly ridiculed as being without foundation, and according to quite significant number of graduating students, the momentous achievements that are being made in science and technology today tell us so.

Terry Haywood, in his insightful, reflective and intelligent questioning of the potential and problems of religion and spirituality warns of the disservice we may do to our students by trivializing and ignoring their religious and spiritual traditions, along with their innate need to ascribe meaning to their lives (Haywood, 2011). I would assert that there’s plenty of evidence around now to indicate that the balance is weighted towards the rational and cognitive at the expense of the spiritual, emotional and intuitive side of their nature.

There are two of these gross distortions which I seek to address, namely the claim that Heidegger’s question has been answered through the theories postulated by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, and secondly, that the accrued achievements of science have contributed to a more balanced, rational understanding of our collective human history and this is evidenced through student learning.

The first distorted view I challenge begins with the idea that science and everything pertaining to it, whether it be in physics, biology, chemistry or any of their sub classes, makes a constant upward progress for the good of humankind, or as Mary Midgley so eloquently writes “we go from “gas to genius “and beyond into some super-human spiritual stratosphere” (Midgley, 1985). An informed layman’s view of the history of science tells us that this is simply not the case. Western general science, as we know claims its modernist beginnings with the birth of the Renaissance and the cultivated intellectual beauty of Copernicus. Yet, the story of Copernicus, a Roman Catholic cleric himself and his professional, political and personal relationship with Roman Catholicism and Christianity is somewhat misunderstood, and eschewed today in favor of an erroneous view, which argues that his ideas were rejected and quashed by the Catholic Church, and as a consequence he was branded a heretic. Many of the essays I have assessed commonly assert this view, along with the late Hitchen’s crude generalization that “religion poisons everything” (Hitchens, 2007).

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Professor Richard Pogge of Ohio State University in clarifying the religious objections to Copernicus, confirms the view that Pope Clement VII and several Cardinals showed an interest in the theories of Copernicus, and it was Protestantism in general, and Luther specifically, a contemporary of Copernicus, who were vehemently opposed to a heliocentric model of the universe (Pogge, 2005). Luther’s pejorative description of Copernicus as an astrologer, as well as his bitter account of him as “a fool who went against Holy Writ” (Pogge, 2005) illustrates the enmity he felt towards his peer. It is such historical details which are often misinterpreted, misrepresented, or conveniently overlooked in the re-telling of the achievements of science today. It is seldom mentioned that the views of Copernicus, were debated in both Catholic and Protestant universities throughout subsequent years, despite intense opposition, and attempts at suppression by the Catholic Church. It is also interesting to note that students are very quick to censure the Church’s condemnation of the heliocentric model, but conveniently fail to mention its imprimatur for The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems published in 1632.

For many senior students it seems a far easier choice to click on the mouse, Google Copernicus, and without any critical appraisal of the source they’ve hit upon demonize the whole of Christianity, and Roman Catholicism from the 1st century A.D. up to the present day, discount its greatest thinkers and reformers, and its most compassionate men and women, and cast it as the demon of all western civilization’s ills which has led us down a descending pathway into ignorance and superstition (Hitchens, 2007). And unfortunately, this is the case with the majority of scientism’s claims in its clamor to usurp the veil of Belief and be crowned heirs to the metaphysical reality of an apparently already obsolete and discredited religious orthodoxy.

It is generally acknowledged that science has contributed enormously to the development and progress of humanity. And the contribution from the ancient world, including the Middle East, Greece, India and the whole Asian subcontinent has to be acknowledged in this accolade too, because the emerging myth in secondary school education is that modern science began with Darwin. A more erudite and accurate summary is that from the domestication of wheat to the development of writing, our species has developed some magnificent, yet quite imperfect civilizations (including our own). And, there’s clear evidence to argue that throughout the histories of these civilizations, empirical science and its use of evidence to support its claims of the day, hasn’t always been that successful. Science, like religion, Gould reminds us, is a “socially embedded activity, it progresses by hunch, vision and intuition” (Gould, 1984) Lewontin extends this view and it is worthwhile to share this in its entirety:

For an institution to explain the world so as to make the world legitimate

it must possess several features. First, the institution as a whole must appear

to derive from sources outside of ordinary human social struggle. It must

not seem to be the creation of political, economic, or social forces, but to

descend into society from a supra-human source. Second the ideas, pronouncements

rules, and results of the institution’s activity must have validity and a transcendent

truth that goes beyond any possibility of human compromise or human error. Its

explanations and pronouncements must seem true in an absolute sense and to derive

somehow from an absolute source. They must be true for all time and all place. And,

finally, the institution must have a certain mystical and veiled quality so that

its innermost operation is not completely transparent to everyone. It must have an

esoteric language, which needs to be explained to the ordinary person by those

who are especially knowledgeable and who can intervene between everyday life

and the mysterious source of understanding and knowledge….any revealed religion

fits these requirements…but this description also fits science and has made it

possible for science to replace religion as the chief legitimating source in modern

society. (Lewontin, 1991)

Science shares a flawed and fallible history with all religions, and its failures often outweigh its successes, especially in the fields of biology, physics and chemistry. Simple facts bear this out. We have had to wait tens of thousands of years to simply understand that washing of hands significantly decreases the risk of bacteria borne disease, yet hand borne bacterial infections still remains a primary source of illness today. Throughout their short histories as sciences, chemistry has given us poison gas which has killed millions of people from 1915 up to the present day, while physics has given us the atomic bomb, an equally pernicious weapon of mass destruction, which has killed millions of innocent people too. We have had some wonderful theories too, including Polygeny and Craniometry before Darwin’s theory, which argued that the more one’s head resembled a primate, the less human one was. Then there was the body measuring of the 19th century which argued that the more apish our bodies were the closer to that species and the less human we were. And on the cognitive side we had the development of the IQ test, including Binet’s scale which asserted that intellectual superiority was “tied to cerebral volume” (Gould, 1984), these later spawned a number of theories linking social class with levels of intelligence, moral degeneracy and evil.

Today, biology has given us the human genome and the unraveling of the DNA structure of human beings. The unlocking of this code, it is argued, has enabled all sorts of possibilities, all sorts of miraculous cures to occur. These include spectacular claims such as paraplegics and quadriplegics will walk again, multiple sclerosis sufferers will be cured, and cancer will be eradicated. And let’s not forget the now infamous, South Korean veterinarian researcher, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s now widely discredited assertion that the human embryo had been cloned, creating the world’s first cloned human being.

Despite such fantastical claims and lies, science as a general academic discipline is viewed by educators, and a significant number of adults and Theory of Knowledge students, to be above society, and to be the holder of all truths. If it is critiqued in any way it is done so within the canons of its own writings and is held completely unaccountable until a scandal breaks, and then such scandals are for the most part ignored by mainstream media and educational institutions. The exception to date is climategate, and the fudging of figures on supposed global warming and climate change, but the attention this received in mainstream media and educational textbooks is miniscule compared to the adulation science receives in debunking religious world views.

The current euphoria being shown to Theology’s secular equivalent, cosmology, and theoretical physics, is not dissimilar to the glorification of biological determinism’s hoopla over the mapping of human DNA. Yet their claims to truth are as equally disturbing as they are flaky. Two deserve consideration here. The first one, leading from theoretical physics is that lead can be turned to gold. This was raised by one a student in his essay on the nature of truth in the natural sciences. He had found a source for this miraculous scientific claim on the internet. He cited Ann Marie Helmensteine, PhD, who claimed that particle accelerators like the hadron collider will change lead to gold. In fact she claims this had happened twice already in the 20th century, once in 1951, by Glenn Seaborg, a Chemistry Laureate, and again in 1972, Soviet physicists achieved this monumental feat. (Helmenstine, 2011). She of course doesn’t offer any explanation as to why this failed to prevent the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union, or why today we aren’t all billionaires, with our own metallurgy forges in our sheds and garages, churning out gold bars from our now obsolete lead pencils.

Such truth-seeking insight is not lost on Stephen Hawking either. His very recent claim that he has found the answer to the philosophical conundrum of why there is something rather than nothing not only astounded the religious establishments, fellow scientists and many philosophers, it has literally bewitched senior high school science students. Hawking and Mlodinow claim that gravity alone has enabled the universe to come into existence. (Hawking & Mlodinow, 2010), what’s more not only is God dead, but so is philosophy. The whole Western philosophical and epistemological canon, including philosophy along with every major world religion has been annihilated and is no longer worthy of study, according to these two writers. Notwithstanding such naïve arrogance, neither has understood Heidegger’s question, and like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, before them, Hawking and Mlodinow venture into the metaphysical areas of Philosophy and Theology of which they know nothing about and their ensuing arguments collapse to the point of the absurd. Theories like vibrating strings, two dimensional membranes and blobs are the work of script writers on the Dr. Who series, and are very poor examples of science fiction fantasy.

Hawking and Mlodinow fail to understand that Heidegger posited the metaphysical question, why is there something, rather than nothing? since he was aware that western philosophy (like western science today) had become so preoccupied with its own narcissistic assumptions about its a priori existence that it had failed to consider the very nature of being itself. Heidegger’s question called for a re-evaluation of western philosophy. His intent was to re-trace our philosophical routes and return to an understanding of being, one which wasn’t separate from the 15th century philosopher and cleric Bishop Berkeley’s equally absurd and meaningless claim that matter doesn’t exist.

Heidegger’s vision, although not realized, was analogous to the Eastern paradoxical notion of Nothingness, or as Mathew Fox calls it the Via Negativa (Fox, 1983) in which self and ego are diminished to the extent that our true nature is revealed. Hawking and Mlodinow, in arrogantly claiming to have answered Heidegger’s question, completely misunderstand and misconstrue it. Their assertion that spontaneous creation is why there is something rather than nothing is the ultimate trick in the illusionists arsenal of make believe and is akin to the alchemist’s claim of being able to turn lead into gold. But, then is this surprising coming from a once eminent scientist who has dedicated a greater part of his life to theoretical fantasies? There is  no clear, concrete evidence for black holes, quarks, dark matter and other suggested matter, including neutron degenerated stars as postulated by the theories of quantum physics and cosmology. There is quite frankly more sound reasoning in St Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God than there are in all the theories of quantum physics and cosmology. Yet, it is Aquinas, and not Hawking and Mlodinow, who is cast as the myth maker, and whose ideas it is asserted belong in the realm of superstitious fantasy.

Notwithstanding its commitment to critical thinking and rational enquiry, it seems to be the case that there is no room in the debates and arguments of international education for faith and belief, along with the sound reasoning and arguments of religious world views. Rather, it is more acceptable to promote scientific theories which invoke a fantastical world occupied and haunted by aliens, two dimensional blobs and membranes, string theory out of a can, and interstellar cloud bursts of spontaneous creation from which soar blood sucking vampires, werewolves, Harry Potter impersonators, and personal avatar gods created through the equally flaky notion of virtual reality.

Where in amongst this phantasm of fairytales and horror stories masquerading as reality, are the arguments for a civilized, sound, rational world view?

Dewey asserts that despite living in social groups like families and communities, we are not by any means civilized. We are, at a base level using each other to fulfill primary and secondary needs. He explains that the relations between parents and their children, teachers and their students, employers and their employees are not civil, if they remain in an imperative mode of simply actions and results. The formulation of real, genuine relationships of knowledge and understanding, leading to a civil society, needs to take place formally and in an educational setting based on sound principles of inclusiveness of ideas and beliefs, justice and goodness, the application of sound reasoning, the promotion and development of empathy, and compassion for one another, and a vision of shared values, and common ethical frameworks. (Dewey, 1916). It is these integral aspects of the grand narratives of western civilization which have been under attack for decades. Epistemology, along with critical thinking entails a measured, balanced assessment of all arguments and evidence, before drawing conclusions. Such an approach is noticeably lacking in a majority of the essays I have assessed and despite the warning signs, no-one, above all in the scientific community, and in international education in general, seems to be understanding that humans as “organisms do not find the world in which they develop, they make it” (Lewontin, 1991)


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Fox, M. (1983). Original Blessing. Santa Fe: Bear & Company.

Gould, S. J. (1984). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Penguin.

Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books.

Helmenstine, A. M. (2011, January 1). Chemistry. Retrieved April 22, 2011, from

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is Not Great. New York: Atlantic Books.

Lewontin, R. (1991). The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology. London: Penguin.

Midgley, M. (1985). Evolution as Religion. London: Routledge.

Pogge, R. (2005, January 2). A Brief Note on Religious Objections to Copernicus. Retrieved April 21, 2011, from Ohio State University:

International Education & Change in the Arab World by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

 In his definitive novel about a quest for meaning from within the Arab World, Naguib Mahfouz (Mahfouz, 1992) chronicles the journey of Ibn Fattouma (Qindil Muhammad al-Innabi) as he leaves his home on a search for an understanding on the differences which exist between a society’s ideals, principles and values, and how they are lived out on a day-to day basis. Throughout his ensuing journey, Ibn Fattouma undergoes many struggles, both on an existential and intellectual level, as he attempts to determine the meaning of life in relation to who he is.

 The story is inconclusive, insofar as the outcome of Ibn Fattouma’s journey isn’t revealed to the reader.  It’s a poignantly clever twist by Mahfouz, because one is thrown back on their personal existential struggles, and forced to confront their unknown future, perhaps with renewed commitment; at least that was the case for me when I read the novel some years ago.  I was so inspired by the novel, and Mahfouz’s gift as a story teller, that I placed a number of his texts on a senior reading list, which had hitherto been dominated by Latin American, North American and English poets, novelists and playwrights, while I was teaching at an international school in Jeddah.

International schools are in a unique position to make significant contributions to the development of education in the Arab World. However, the caveat is a question. How much are international schools willing to balance claims to their exclusive cultural affiliation and heritage, or an overt entrepreneurial profit making venture, and accommodate the culture and faith of their host country?

  Despite their varied and contestable heritage, all international schools share a common element in that they are social environments. Groups of people, inclusive of children through to mature adults, representing a variety of social groups and cultures, come together in the name of education. Each person in the international school is a “being connected with other beings and cannot perform his or her activities without taking the activities of others into account” (Geertz, 1973) The interdependence of each member of a school is an extension of their relationship in the wider culture of a society. And schools, like the wider cultural site from whence they emanate affirm ideas of what reality is, and how one is to behave and act within any cultural system. (Geertz, 1973) International schools, no matter where they are located, are a microcosm of the human condition and experience.

 I have been fortunate to hold key positions in 2 international schools in the Middle East, and each one has been characterised by its particular, exclusive cultural affiliation and heritage. The schools operate in conservative Islamic societies, and notwithstanding their co-educational status, for the most part, acknowledge the distinctive culture of their host country. They are specifically western in both name and character, incorporating the name of the country which most closely symbolises the school’s raison d’être, and uphold a mission statement with very clearly defined western values and ideals, closely linked to the international curriculum offered to the student body. Both schools required their students to wear a uniform based on the kind of uniform worn by western students in a private and public school setting in the United Kingdom or Europe. At the same time, both schools are required to offer important components of the national curriculum of their host country, which includes the Arabic language, and Arab and Islamic history.

  The most striking difference for me while teaching in these two schools, was how they acknowledged, supported and cared about the host country’s culture, religion and associated values. One school had a mosque for Muslim students, who constituted the majority of the school’s population, and they were able to pray at the appropriate time, and felt that while they were benefiting from an international education, they were also able to integrate into their daily teaching and learning experience, their unique cultural and religious heritage, which outside of the school setting, underpinned the key values and experiences of their family and social life. During the holy month of Ramadan, the school day and lesson times were shortened, the canteen remained closed.

  The other school, while offering a similar highly valued international credential from primary through to secondary, as well as aspects of the national curriculum of the host country, as mentioned above, did not have a mosque, or any indoor area set aside for students to reflect and/or pray. Pray mats were made available on the balcony of an upstairs room, which during the heat of the months leading up to summer was unbearable to most of the Muslim students, who comprised of over 85% of the school population. During the holy month of Ramadan, the daily timetable remained the same, lesson times were unchanged, the  canteen remained open, and those students who were not fasting (around 15%) bought their food, and were required to eat it at the back of the school building, at first having to walk past all those students fasting.  Such insensitivities were not lost on the student body, and did not help to engender tolerance and understanding of some key cultural values in relation to the intellectual heritage of both the international school, and that of its host country.  It seemed to me, at the time, that this was such a lost opportunity to bring together the intellectual and cultural traditions, and the religious heritage of the host country. At the same time, it denied the non-Arabs in the school, an opportunity to experience and understand in real terms, key aspects of another culture. It also denied the significantly large Arab student population an opportunity to associate their own intellectual and spiritual tradition more fully; with the one which underpinned the curriculum they were being taught. The school administrations argument for such a polarising position was that all students should be treated the same, to avoid inequalities developing.  Once again, I was reminded of Ibn Fattouma’s journey through Aman, where justice is the highest value; yet it only generated suspicion and intolerance. (Mahfouz, 1992).

One of the most sought after a secondary school credentials is the International Baccalaureate Diploma, a two year academically, and intellectually challenging, liberal arts programme of study. The Diploma programme is the 3rd credential in a tripartite programme of study, offered by the International Baccalaureate, which begins in primary school, continues through middle school, and culminates in the final two years of high school with the diploma programme.

  The ideals and principles of the IB, while discrete, are also to be found in a number of global organisations which promote inter-cultural understanding, as well as basic human rights, equality, compassion and justice regardless of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, creed and social class, to name a few. These are values and principles which grew out of the League of Nations, founded in 1919, following the Treaty of Versailles, and which were elaborated on in the international charter of human rights in 1948, which in turn, were a response to the horrendous consequences from the Second World War, which ended in 1945.

So, in essence, the IB curricula are more than just tracks of learning to educate the world’s children and youth. Embedded in the  organisation’s mission statement  and in their programmes of study  are very explicit ethical frameworks and associated ideals, designed to nurture and promote particular values and attitudes,  and inculcate these into the personal and professional behaviour, and lives,  of all those who undertake their programmes of study:

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment.

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (IBO, 2005-2011)

 At the time of writing, there were 2,306 schools throughout the world offering the IB’s senior Diploma Programme. Only 68 are located across the Gulf Arab States, Occupied Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt. (IBO, Find an IB World School, 2005-2011):


Schools offering IB Diploma Programme







Palestinian Territories (Occupied)






Saudi Arabia




 According to a 2008 report in the online Middle East business magazine and forum, AMEINFO, the IB is targeting the region for growth in its tripartite programmes of study.  They quote the current Director General, Dr. Jeffery Beard as aiming for a target of 400 schools across the region by 2020. (Florian, 2008). While this may signify a shift by local educational authorities in the region, to indicate an interest to integrate a western liberal arts educational programme with its innate ethics and cultural world view into the national systems of their respective countries, it is extremely difficult to predict to what extent the IB diploma programme will lead to positive educational and social transformation in the countries cited above.

 There’s no doubt that the diploma contributes towards a successful education, and entry into tertiary studies and the world of work. Universities throughout the world acknowledge the ability of IB graduates to adjust and successfully pursue degrees at tertiary level. The world of work acknowledges the ability of IB graduates to cope more efficiently and successfully in the early years of their careers. But, most importantly the vast majority of IB graduates acknowledge that their success was in great part due to undertaking the IB diploma programme.  These assertions are supported through an extensive 2010 study into the IB’s three programmes, undertaken by the Hannover Research group in the United States of America. (HanoverResearch, 2010). It is interesting to note, that this report only dealt with indicators of success which were of an academic and intellectual nature.   In 2001, Judy Hinrich of City University, Washington DC published a comparative study on whether students undertaking the IB’s diploma program fulfilled the underlying principles and ideals of the mission statement. The research compared levels of international understanding among students of the IB’s diploma programme, and Advanced Placement programmes in the United States of America. Hinrich found that IB Diploma students “on the whole did not score significantly higher than did AP students.” (Hinrich, 2002) She went on to further argue that “while education has a profound effect on world perspectives, we also know that the value systems of the underlying ideology of a society have tremendous influence on the attitudes and behaviors of its members. It may take years for that underlying ideology to shift substantively enough to allow a program such as the International Baccalaureate program to exert its full effect.” (Hinrich, 2002) In a response to the Hinrich study, George Walker, the then Director General of the IB argued that the organization should not become complacent, even though it “holds a number of defensive cards in this debate. Its mission statement is so general, as to be very hard to measure. The aims and objectives of its strategic plan are so obviously worthwhile that anyone with a sense of vision will be persuaded by them.” (Walker, 2002).  To date, little further research has been undertaken to attempt to measure the success of the integration of the inherent ethical frameworks, and associated values, which are embedded in the IB diploma programme curriculum, into the personal lives of individual graduates and their graduating class. To what extent are IB diploma graduates, in a state of becoming more caring, compassionate, understanding and tolerant global citizens? 

In terms of the kinds of social transformation which Dewey regarded as essential for the development of a civilized society, and its ability to change for the better, (Dewey, 1916), there’s not a lot of evidence, as yet,  to suggest that the importation of a European curriculum, into the Middle East, or any other non-Western country for that matter,  will have any great influence on the host country’s culture and traditions and how it perceives itself and the wider world.  Presently, in terms of measuring the extent to which the IB diploma program may shift hardened cultural and moral prejudices, the kind of which are bred through fear, suspicion, decades of conflict, religious intolerance and just plain bigotry is extremely difficult to measure.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a graduate of an IB World school, The British School of Lome, is a case in point. This young man, coming from a very privileged background and an education in one of the top private schools in West Africa became a Jihadist suicide bomber and attempted to blow up a US bound airliner on 25th of December, 2009. Another instance from my own professional experience as an educator is Jeremy Strohmeyer.  I taught this young man while he was a first year IB student in an international school in Singapore. Jeremy is serving a life sentence in the United States, for the murder of a 7 year old girl, in Nevada, in 1997. While these are isolated incidents, they do suggest the inherent complexities in assessing the overall long and short term efficacy of a value based educational curriculum, such as the IB’s high school diploma programme, no matter where it is located.

  Yet, despite the overall pessimistic appraisal of general educational trends in the Arab world, and the ongoing social and political instability in the region, there is good cause for hope and optimism that with change comes progress. Early in 2011, the World Bank published a very upbeat report on education reform in the region citing a 2010 meeting in Qatar attended by a number of Arab countries. The report asserts that the next 5 years will be critical for positive reform of the regions educational sectors. A memorandum from this meeting endorsed reports from UNESCO, UNICEF and the UN calling for quality, and opportunity in education across the region. Moreover, the Arab League’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation is working on an educational framework which will facilitate coherency of learning along with curriculum reform and to align disparate educational systems in the region with Global expectations. (WorldBank, 2011) It is to be hoped in doing so, the rich intellectual and spiritual traditions of the Middle East will form the very foundations of curriculum reform and implementation.

Nonetheless, these are vast expectations and are akin to Ibn Fattouma’s journey as he prepares to reach his ultimate goal, the land of Gebel, which is to be found on the summit of a mountain. This mythical land is where peace, solidarity, tolerance, learning, understanding and happiness are located. As the novel ends, we find Ibn Fattouma, along with fellow pilgrims standing at the base of this very intimidating mountain, whose peaks reaching way up into the sky are almost invisible. Will they reach their goal?


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Walker, G. (2002). Response to Judy Hinrich’s Article. IB Research Notes, Vol 2. Issue 1 , 10-11.

WorldBank. (2011, January 15 2011). Next Five Years Can Herald New Direction for Arab Education. Retrieved July 21, 2011, from World Bank:

Spontaneity and Improvisation in the Classroom by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

In the 1980s film Dead Poets Society an English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams), inspires his students to change their lives of conformity and become spontaneous, creative individuals who should seize the day (carpe diem). It’s a stirring film and still resonates with me today as an educator, through its powerful portrayal of conflicting pedagogical views: conformity versus spontaneity and improvisation. There’s a telling scene in the film where Keating has his students improvise marching to music; as well as listening to music prior to kicking a football to encourage them to get in touch with their own individuality and creativity. These are inspiring examples of spontaneity and improvisation.  But, over 20 years have passed since Peter Weir’s film and there’s been a kind of conservative restoration in most western societies, and in all fields of education over the last two decades. A preoccupation with teacher as technician, rather than teacher as a facilitator of teaching and learning has become de rigur in a vast number of educational training programs, institutions-primary, secondary, tertiary, including institutions and academies which specialize in ESL/EFL/EAL teaching and learning. This is evidenced through increasing educational bureaucracies, overprescribed curricula with repetitive skill development, a preoccupation with testing, and a possessiveness with administrative tasks which can tie up teachers for endless hours of work which could be better spent with their students.  Notwithstanding the generalized nature of my assertions, there would be many colleagues who would be very happy to have the time, energy and motivation to improvise in their classrooms. The caveat is that there needs to be a ‘safe space’ within the institution’s rasion d’être which would allow this to take place. An institution’s culture can either stifle or promote and encourage spontaneity, improvisation and creativity in teaching and learning. Also, some educational institutions are so prescriptive in their dictates on what is to be taught in the classroom, that a lesson plan must be strictly adhered too!

However, leaving aside the analysis, I love spontaneity and improvisation in the classroom. It’s comes naturally and can make teaching and learning fun. Also, it is often the catalyst to authentic learning and guarantees successful students outcomes. I’m not talking about that superficial notion of the ‘wow’ factor, borrowed from corporate self-help books and imposed on teachers by a few over-zealous and retired educators looking to make a quick buck on the ‘key-note address’ circuit.  Rather, I’m suggesting the concept of resonance with learners, which evokes in us a natural spontaneity, whereby we build and improvise on what is happening in our classrooms at any given moment. It does mean that circumstances require us to digress from a work plan, but the results can be nothing short of outstanding.

How can teachers develop a resonance with their learners? What I term here as resonance is the ability of a teacher to have empathy and understanding of what it is to be a learner.

Resonance assumes a perceptive intuitiveness on behalf of the teacher, about the kinds of qualities and attributes that learners bring with them to the classroom to help them be successful. For example, they are for the most part (leaving aside any learning disabilities) fluent in their mother tongue, intelligent, and generally speaking have more than a superficial understanding of their culture, and through this will hold particular assumptions about others, including their teachers, fellow students and the institution as a whole. Furthermore, they will bring to the classroom, a unique identity, for the most part, forged within a family construct of which both the language and content based teacher may know very little. Moreover, each student will be dealing with particular personal issues of which only they are privy, but that nevertheless will impact on their ability to integrate course content into their intellectual understanding.

All teachers are well able to tap into this and get to know their students as individuals. For example, through a 10 minute group activity, either at the beginning or end of a lesson, where teacher and students sit in a circle together, with the teacher facilitating, a wealth of important information can be garnished to assist both the teacher and student about the teaching and learning process within their classroom. This will include essential curriculum issues with a language focus, but at the same time it will reveal elements of the hidden curriculum present in all formal learning situations. Eisner (1989, 97) argued that

“…we are well advised to consider not only the explicit and implicit curricula of institutions, but also what they do not teach. It is my thesis that what institutions do not teach may be as important as what they do teach…” [1]

So, it is important we consider these powerful determiners of students’ success or lack thereof in their language and content courses; because, they are always there, simmering beneath the surface. Consequently, some of the issues which may emerge from this group activity will include, but not be limited to:

  • Language learning needs and issues
  • Content learning needs and issues
  • Progress in the course
  • Social/behavioral issues
  • Teacher/student expectations
  • Clarification of cultural understandings/misunderstandings
  • Worldview of your students beyond the classroom and organization
  • An understanding of previous educational experiences
  • Development of a trusted teacher/student relationship

These learning circles can be conducted regularly by any teacher. They are easy to run and provide an alternative teaching modality from the intensity of teacher centered instruction as the complexity of the linguistic and content components progresses. The activity in itself is a valuable provider of cross curricula shared information on students’ achievement levels and abilities. I use them myself and find them advantageous for students and teacher, and they are successful. I have measured the success of this activity in several ways. Firstly, empirically, through observing how learners participate and the kinds of information they share. Secondly, a simple online survey was conducted seeking learners’ personal opinion of the activity. Finally through teacher intuition, that important, but often overlooked skill that seasoned teachers acquire – the innate knowledge that the activity worked well. There was harmony in the group, everyone participated and the group asked to be able to repeat the activity in another lesson. If the focus in the learning circle remains on fluency over accuracy, it will become apparent that EAL students have already managed to develop skills in the learning processes, which enables them to navigate conceptually from their first language to their newly acquired second language.

The learning circle opens up a dialogue with students which highlights particular assumptions and needs in essential skill development within any academic program.  One assumption which all teachers make is that their students are literate and able to read. Is this a valid assumption to make given that specific issues about reading will inevitably arise when the process of reading is not fully acknowledged and/or understood? I think not because the processes leading to any learner being able to read are complex, seldom linear in their progression and is inextricably linked to other aspects of the foundations of literacy as well as a person’s psycho-cognitive development. For example, we read from a very early age, the shared signs and symbols that underpin the uniquely personal world to which we adhere. Infants and small children learn to read the cues, symbols and codes of their immediate social environment often before they can articulate language utterances, or construct a string of words together. It is widely accepted today that the approving and/or disapproving adult responses very young children get to their reading of the world does impact on their ability to learn as they grow into themselves. It is called self confidence and it emanates from these very early childhood experiences. It is this self confidence or lack of it, which they bring into our classrooms and in turn affects their capacity to learn and to read well.  Having gathered this understanding in the field of teaching and learning over two decades, I feel there’s an important place for spontaneity, improvisation and creativity in the classroom, and I am reminded of the words of Pablo Casals: Every second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and never will be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four and that Paris is the capital of France. We should say to each of them, “Do you know who you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been another child like you.”[2]


[1] Eisner, E.W The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs, p.97

[2] Casals, P Quotation’, Great Musicians on Sound, Spirit and Heart,

Suggestions on how the international education community can prevent school based homophobia and homophobic bullying and harassment. by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

On February 12, 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King an eighth grade student at the E.O. Green School in Oxnard, California, was shot in the head for being gay. He died several days later. His assailant, another male student, only 14 years of age, approached him from behind, while King was sitting in class, at his computer. King had been subject to t homophobic bullying and harassment in and out of school. Why do such tragedies occur, and how can they be prevented in the future? It seems to me that there is a case to be argued for the education of youngsters about the terrible consequences of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This article offers seven steps towards the elimination of homophobia and homophobic bullying and harassment in international schools.  It recognizes the usefulness of a values framework created by the American Educator, David Purpel, to support and argue for the implementation of the seven step program. Furthermore, the insightful case work study by Associate Professor CJ Pascoe provides one perspective upon from which the argument is predicated. That is, schooling is a primary site for the formation of a deeper psychological understanding of a developing child’s psychosexual and emotional character, and as such requires particular attention within any values based school program. The seven steps which I advocate are able to be implemented and practiced in all international schools, even those in which any positive acknowledgment of homonormativity[i] could be perceived as undermining the school’s special character, or be perceived to be in contradiction of the civil or religious laws of the host country. A socially inclusive PSHE program which is imbued with transformative values, along with equal opportunities across a school’s curricula, creative positive support and solutions, rather than punitive sanctions against perpetrators of homophobic violence, a peer support program, a compassionate and caring counseling service, and the promotion of personal and professional responsibility in interpersonal relationships throughout a school community, are the foundations upon which the seven step program is implemented.

Bullying, harassment and discrimination of any sort is very counter-productive in the school environment and should be addressed. Also, given our key avocation is the education of the young towards the greater aim of creating more just, humane and kinder societies, in which we all want to live, the elimination of these behaviors should take on a greater urgency.

Homophobia, a fear, loathing and hatred of men and women of all ages because of their sexual orientation is on the increase. In particular it is on the increase in schools. Associate Professor CJ Pascoe argues that the basis of homophobic bullying and homophobia is sourced in the “structure of sexuality at school…because masculinity and femininity are forged through a heterosexual matrix””[ii] especially though the middle and senior school years as children move into puberty and further on into adolescents. Pascoe argues persuasively that schools are powerful socialization agents, and as such have a clear ethical responsibility to ensure that the students who graduate hold core values of respect, understanding, tolerance and acceptance of difference. When this does not occur tragedies like the Lawrence King murder occur.

It is 36 years since the murder of George Duncan, whose death led to homosexual law reform in the Australian State of South Australia. Dr Duncan, an academic and a university lecturer, was in an area near the Adelaide University footbridge, a purportedly noted meeting place for homosexuals, as they were denied any other kind of civilized place to meet and socialize. On the night of May 10 1972 he was set upon by unknown attackers and thrown into the Torrens River, where he drowned.  A lengthy investigation by Scotland Yard, led to two South Australian police officers being charged over the attack, but they were later acquitted through legal argument[iii] (which is not always just argument)

It is 10 years since a young university student, in the US State of Wyoming was murdered because of his sexual orientation. On October 7 1998, Matthew Sheppard, a 21 year old undergraduate at the University of Wyoming was brutally attacked, and tortured by two young men who hated him because of his sexual orientation[iv]. He was left to die. Matthew’s assailants could offer no rational explanation for their behavior. The community from which the assailants came was shocked that two of their own could be responsible for such a terrible crime. According to interviews carried out with local people, both assailants had had a good education and had been raised in a caring Christian centered community.[v]

The educational environments from which Lawrence King, Professor Duncan and Matthew Sheppard emanated were fraught with negative stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. In all cases their respective societies reinforced the negative images of these concepts, perhaps unwittingly, through powerful institutionalized messages about heterosexuality and heteronormativity[vi].

A particular example of this is recalled by Pascoe. She writes that “hypermasculine environments such as sporting events continue to be events of intense harassment…” [vii]for young gay students, and that “…masculinity and sexuality are deeply embedded in school socialization processes, like sporting events, dancing and high school dances…”[viii] particularly through the sport a teenage boy or girl chooses or the way he or she dances.  “…if a boy manages maneuvers like back flips, or spinning, rather than hip and body movements he’s considered heterosexual, whereas any other movements and he’s stereotyped as “a fag”[ix]

The making and selling of these and similar concepts of masculinity and femininity are a multi-billion industry throughout the western world. Furthermore, there are deeply held social, cultural and religious values about gender and gender roles which transcend western societies and are found across all cultures. In would be naïve to assume that these deeply held values do not impact on the very nature of our International School communities, because essentially our school communities will reflect the values of our client base.

So the question becomes one of imparting transformative values to our students rather than values which reinforce negative stereotypes with their powerful, destructive outcomes. The Educator, David Purpel breaks down the layers of meaning in the debates, discussions and arguments about values. His argument that a conflictual model operates in schools, perhaps unbeknown through a lack of institutional awareness, highlights the inherent contradictions in the values, which infuse the modern educational process.[x]

Transformative Values Institutionalized Values
community individual
worth achievement
equality competition
compassion sentimentality
responsibility guilt
democracy authority/power/coercion/control
universalism ethnocentrism
humility arrogance
commitment alienation/displacement/complacency
faith reason
professional   responsibility self deception


The suggestion here is that such a dichotomy creates confusion and frustrations for students and educators. We end up applying simple solutions, to complex problems. Discussions on curriculum reform, electives, student behavior, codes of conduct, assessment procedures, exam results, sporting prowess, and building maintenance, while important, are more often than not prioritized over the core issues confronting some students and teachers daily, like, bullying, sexual harassment, homophobia and discrimination. Purpel suggests that in denying the more complex reality of interpersonal relationships we legitimate a false consciousness, which could lead into a self-deception about how successful we are in educating the young.[xi]

What could be done to correct this misrepresentation, and alleviate the personal anguish, suffering and struggle of teachers and students in the international school environment, who suffer from bullying, sexual harassment, homophobia and discrimination?

Firstly, it is worthwhile to look closely at the Mission Statements of international schools and see if they are inclusive of all the rights by which a person is dignified:

Our recruitment policies match our mission: we are inclusive. We hire very young teachers and very experienced teachers. We hire single teachers and teachers with partners. We also welcome teachers with children, who have a wonderful experience at ISB. We are totally non-discriminatory in terms of age, sex, religion, culture, and sexual orientation.

What counts for us is intelligence, energy, commitment to students, passion for learning, a collaborative approach and a close alignment with our mission.’[xii]

International schools, like the International School of Brussels, are role models for the global international school community. Unfortunately, of the many philosophy and mission statements of International schools I surveyed, only 3 had a similar Equal Employment Opportunity caveat in their Mission Statements like the International School of Brussels. Yet, it would be naïve to suggest that every international school could include a caveat which acknowledges its homonormative members, particularly when the host country of an international school has a legal basis for its non-inclusivity platform for the homonormative community. Nonetheless, a more generalized statement could acknowledge and respect differences, while being non-offending to the civic and/or religious laws of the host country. At ISB as well as many other international schools; administrators, teachers and students are respected for who they are, what they may become through their humanity, and what they may contribute to the educational communities to which they belong. They are not defined by a particular aspect of their human nature.

I know of no other group in any society or culture who are defined by the sexual aspect of their lives as are the homonormative minority. It is my opinion that this has emerged firstly, because of the negative perception and repression we have endured for centuries, and secondly, unlike our heteronormative cousins, we seldom have had positive role models on which to base our lives in a functional society. And as Pascoe argues, the dominant cultural model will define the terms of human relationships on both a group and interpersonal level, and not always positively.[xiii]

The paradox of course is that from a heteronormative position it can be argued that a person’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter. Or does it? Would it make any difference to know that Albert Einstein was a heterosexual? Or that John Maynard Keynes was a homosexual? Perhaps not, but given my point that positive homonormative role models are essential for creating non-discriminatory schools, and non discriminatory societies, and eliminating all kinds of homophobic violence, then such an understanding of Keynes’ life is essential; after all the tolerance, acceptance and understanding of Albert Einstein et al is assured because it is taken for granted. Why leave it to governments to educate through legislation for our safety when history along with other subjects, offer such a positive, valuable and powerful learning experience?

So, it may be a worthwhile piece of social history for students to know that Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov and Pavel Sergeevich Aleksandrov thought to be the finest mathematicians of the 20th century belonged to the homonormative community. Their mathematical achievements were recognized by their fellow mathematicians and by the Soviet officialdom – both were high-ranking members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.[xiv]

These men lived together as a happy, balanced, harmonious couple in a society perceived by many to be ruthless in its discouragement of difference.  There are others too; Christopher Isherwood was an English author. Pier Paolo Pasolini was an Italian film director, and Yuki Mishima a famous Japanese author. Eleanor Roosevelt was U.S. stateswoman and wife of a US President, while Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar were Roman Emperors. Not to forget James 1st of England and Pope Benedict IX, both ruling over large populations in which one’s sexual orientation could lead to torture and death.[xv]

The point here is to show the homonoramative individual’s rightful place in our schools and wider communities, because of who they are and what they may become, and over time to shift the focus from just one aspect of their human nature. To this end the following seven steps are offered as way to assist us to develop school communities which are kinder, and more tolerant and accepting of differences. The eventual positive benefits for our students, colleagues, school communities, and societies will be immeasurable.

Step 1: Incorporate into the school’s mission statement a clause of social inclusivity which either explicitly or implicitly implies the acceptance of difference and welcoming of all people regardless of their gender, religion, color, sexual orientation and political views.

Step 2: Develop a personal and social educational programme with transformative values.

Step 3: Ensure equal opportunities are available across the curriculum for both genders.

Step 4: Develop creative solutions to reverse discrimination, bullying and homophobia. For

example nominate a day per term in which to celebrate unity through diversity.

Step 5: Develop a peer support programme in which trusted senior students provide

a safe, secure environment in which junior students can grow through their

fears and insecurities about differences.

Step 6: Provide a supportive, caring and confidential counseling service for all

members of the school community, particularly the student body.

Step 7: Promote personal and professional responsibility through interpersonal relationships.

Education can lead to change for the good, but: we may well ask what good? Who’s good? I  think that universals still exist insofar as every human being requires love, acceptance, and wants to be acknowledged and cared for by others. However, if what I have argued for is to be achieved within an educational framework with such a purpose; then that purpose must be stated.


[i] I use this term along with homonormative to describe the normal life style of homosexual oriented individuals    and their communities.

[ii] Pascoe, CJ, Dude You’re A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, p27

[vi] I use this term along with heteronormative to describe the normal life style of heterosexual oriented individuals

and their communities.

[vii] Pascoe, CJ, ibid, p.67

[viii] Pascoe, CJ, P.68

[ix] Op.cit

[x] Purpel, D, The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: A Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education,

pp. 28-64

[xi] op.cit

[xii] accessed 15/3/2008

[xiii] Pascoe, CJ, ibid, pp 1-24

[xv] Op.cit

A Case for International Mindfulness and Compassion in Education by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

“Reasoning and education, though we are willing to put our trust in them, can hardly be powerful enough to lead us to action, unless besides we exercise and form our soul by experience to the way we want it to go; otherwise when it comes to the time of action, it will undoubtedly find itself at a lossMontaigne

If education is to be liberating, then it must begin with liberating the self.

There is a case to be argued for the inclusion and recognition of the significant influence religion; culture and spirituality have in the world today. I would argue for a paradigmatic view of religion rather than a traditional interpretation limited to religions said to have been spawned from the time of the prophet Abraham. Furthermore I would argue for a definition of spirituality in its broadest sense too, as the unique ability of individual human beings to transcend the rational and acknowledge the experience and understanding of the non-rational in their lives. These two concepts of knowing and understanding the world of the ‘visible and invisible’, are inextricably linked to, but not necessarily limited by, or beholden to, the concept ofculture. International schools by definition are inextricably linked to a variety of cultures.

The eminent ethnologist, anthropologist and academic, Clifford Geertz’s definition of culture is significant here, because of its reliance on a simple truth that human beings give significance to their actions which in turn creates meaning in their lives. Moreover, these actions become the means by which we attempt to understand ourselves and others, and communicate our experiences to one another.

Some years ago, while teaching at an international school in Papua New Guinea, I viewed original footage of the first contact between Europeans and the Papua New Guineans who had lived and worked in the Highlands of their country for millennia without encountering other humans. They had evolved a complex and highly developed cultural system, incorporating several hundred different language groups.  In their first encounters with the Europeans the indigenous people sought out common signs to attest to their understanding of who these strangers were and where they had come from- clothing, bodily waste, and human emotion and actions became the measure by which the Europeans were defined eventually as fellow human beings. David Attenborough explores this further in his fascinating and inimical documentary series ‘Life on Earth. In the specific program entitled ‘The Compulsive Communicators’ (BBC, 1984) he and his crew meet with a group of Papua New Guineans in the Highlands, who do not speak English – they communicate with one another using signs and gestures, but what is most fascinating, and reassuring is the lack of aggression in the encounters, and the attempts by both groups of people to disarm one another fears and apprehensions about who the other party is by smiling and laughing, thereby establishing common ground, in an attempt to understand one another. It is as Geertz so eloquently puts it a case of us humans being suspended in our own “webs of significance.”  Geertz also delivers a cautionary message; he argues that culture is “public, because meanings are necessarily the collective property of a group. When we say we do not understand the actions of people from a culture other than our own, we are acknowledging our “lack of what is familiar with the imaginative universe within which their actions are signs to us.” (Geertz, 1989) We are in a sense demonstrating an ignorance which is partly of our own making, and ironically a residue of culture, a sort of cultural dissonance if you like, founded on what we want and choose to acknowledge, rather than seeking an understanding what there is to be understood.

Culture, Religion and Spirituality, are three of the most significant, yet problematic concepts humans have devised for themselves and their fuller inclusion in international education and would support a greater realization of our goal to assist young people to become compassionate thinkers and participants in an increasingly interdependent cultural world community.

My argument is predicated on the proposition that thinking and being are a form of prayer. This is not an original idea, in fact I heard it on television, being somewhat distracted by what was happening in the program, but conscious enough to jot it down on a ‘post it’ note. It has a very strong resonance with me, because it says that we do not need to compartmentalize our lives in order to acknowledge spirituality, practice a faith or understand our own and other’s cultural expectations on life, religion and spirituality. When I was 10 years old, myself, along with my brothers and sisters had to change schools. We were withdrawn from a local Catholic primary school, and placed into a local state primary school. We took it in our stride, nothing traumatic in it at all. It was, I think, one of my earliest experiences of discovering the impermanence of everything. But one aspect of this change still resonates with me – each week we had a lesson in “religious education”. I remember the first lesson well, a very kind elderly woman came in, and spoke to us about scripture, and recalled a biblical story – and it ended with a quiet but gentle admonishment on the importance of being good for the remainder of the week. I recalled the experience that evening, at home, where upon it was pointed out to me that I didn’t have to attend these classes because I was Catholic. At 10 years old it wasn’t my first introduction to religious difference through dogma and doctrine; but it was the awareness of the experience of this difference for the first time, something I hadn’t been aware of before- I want to emphasize here awareness, because it is a quite distinct area of knowing – it is the merging of the intuitive with the rational to create a deeper understanding. This awareness informed me of the divisive nature of the experience – it wasn’t so much a celebration of difference, it was a difference founded upon a religious and cultural worldview which claimed the moral high ground of certainty for a select group. I recall this without rancor and condemnation of others – it is just the way it was then, and at 10 years old my protestations were considered insignificant – even to myself.

Some 40 years later it can be argued that circumstances have changed – or have they?  In a pre September 11th world, I may have been bold enough to claim that cultural plurality, difference through unity in diversity, along with ecumenism were shaping our world, and the world of secondary and post secondary education, but regrettably in a post Sept 11th world the converse is true. While some have argued that a ‘Post September the 11th world’ has been with us for a long time – that extremism has always been around-we are today living in an age of unprecedented polarities – culturally, philosophically, economically, socially, and politically – the grand narratives of our own collective histories have fragmented, and a cultural dissonance seems to vibrate throughout the world. Such a timeforces debate and discussion upon us, and seeks from us a time to pause and reflect upon our own“webs of significance”. George S Counts, an American Educator from the mid twentieth century argues  that: “we must abandon completely the naïve faith, that schools, and education generally automatically liberates the mind and serves the cause of human progress”, he argues that “we know that it may serve tyranny as well as freedom, ignorance as well as enlightenment, falsehood as well as truth, war as well as peace, death as well as life…”(Counts, 1962) As educators there’d not be many of us who’d disagree with his assertions, and those of us who teach within the curricula offered through the International Baccalaureate Organization are aware of the significance of this organization’s efforts to serve the “cause of human freedom”, and how its curricula are “designed for that purpose”. The question to ask now is: given the challenges that face us as human beings on this planet – exponential global population growth; dwindling natural resources, global warming; resurgence in religious nationalism; widening gap between rich and poor; to name a few – is it enough? In focusing on international education two further questions arise:

  1. How do we realize the human quality of compassion through our curricula?
  2. How can we promote ‘reflection’ through our curricula?

Educators and academics who have a longer and more personal standing with the IB and the Diploma program are not new to these questions; in fact the late Alex Peterson provided a partial answer when he argued that IB students should be “aiming to recognize all persons are of equal value, they should develop skills to empathize, acquire the knowledge to understand the emotions, and motivation of oneself and others; gain awareness of the seriousness of moral situations, and form a commitment to generate an autonomously accepted set of moral principles and act upon them.” (Peterson, 1987) These are a commendable part of the Kantian ethic to uphold; but, these ideals, even when realized are exclusive to a humanist tradition, which has often found the spiritual and religious dimension of human history either antiquated, and no longer relevant to academia, or too fraught with a history of controversy, that silence is preferred over debate, disagreement, and perhaps inevitable divisions.

Kant’s vision of a civil ethic to guide humanity through the trials of existence has produced the foundation for a just society; but his belief and vision that the individual would develop his/her own moral sense given the right conditions, we know, from historical experience, has had only a moderate success. It is nothing less that a lament for humanity that there are too many examples to draw from to support my assertion, but  one that moves me on a deep emotional and spiritual level is Dr. Pascal Ngoga,-the Ambassador for Rwanda to Ethiopia- account to an IB regional conference on the genocide in his country. “Who” he pleads, ‘in international education will speak with passion and conviction for the refugees, the famine stricken, the illiterate and the genocide survivors if not the IB?” (Ngoga, 2002) What are we to do? In essence we find ourselves revisiting our religious paradigms, and their respective positions on what constitutes a good education, a just society, and a humane world.

In his Peterson Lecture of May 2002, to the IB Annual General Meeting, His Excellency Ahmad Jalali, the President of the General Conference of UNESCO summarizes four different positions on the role of religion and spirituality in education.     Firstly, he argues they can be used as a source of social and political power, the effects being freedom, liberation, social harmony or oppression and tyranny. Secondly, they are distinct and separate from secular powers, thus religious and spiritual knowledge can be ‘taught’ in schools to those who want to learn. Thirdly, nothing is taught in schools except that the history and philosophy of religions is taught as a subject among others; and to some how know “the other” as one knows “oneself” The fourth option he suggests is to follow none of the above. Moreover he argues that we ought to consider the importance of understanding ethics and spirituality within an ecumenical framework, and that such a paradigm would not eschew the humanist tradition from which we have drawn so much of our ethics throughout the modern period, but develop it to suit the times.  I agree with him. (Jalali, 2002).  Our challenge he argues is to “create an atmosphere of dialogue among different religions with the aim of codifying the common core between them, to be introduced in our educational curricula, thus providing a basis for the wider acceptance of the IB diploma programme in the eyes of different partners” (Jalali, 2002)

He offers us part of the answer through suggesting that religious dogmas and doctrines be spurned in favor of teaching religious paradigms of understanding, and their respective traditions. This could include autobiographical accounts of the great men and women who have inspired tens of millions of people throughout the course of human history in matters of the spirit.

I want to briefly return to my point that thinking and being are a form of prayer and contextualize it through an experience I had during my appointment to an IB school in Saudi Arabia. In a somewhat cynical aside, an IB graduate in his valedictorian address made the point that he felt cheated if he had to wait another 5 years or more to gain benefit from what he described as “two horrendous years of study”. It would be easy to dismiss his point as just another example of modern youth seeking instant gratification – but I knew this young man, and only a few months earlier, as he was attempting to complete course work, an extended essay, CAS requirements, prepare for his trial exams, and complete several vitally important University applications he broke down, and in a moment of vulnerability and near defeat said “ it is just too much – what if at the end of it all I fail or I don’t get in to College?” Now, there was no way that this young man was going to fail – his human qualities would not let him down, and we explored this very point for sometime in the moment. It is my view that what he hadn’t allowed himself to do was take time out to think and reflect on what he was doing, and why he was doing it.  In his defense it wasn’t just a matter of him being more organized, sacrificing his social life, staying on top of the program – he was organized, he didn’t socialize during term time, and he was never late with any aspect of his studies. He was like many other young men and woman in the final phase of their secondary schooling, and perhaps like the tens of thousands of IB candidate throughout the world who are so consumed by their opportunity in it, and their commitment to complete it successfully, they seldom take the time to “think and reflect” on what they are doing. Yet, my experience over a decade as an international educator in the Middle East, Europe, South East Asia and South America suggests that there is time during the day to do so. It seems to me the time is there, but perhaps we need to create the right conditions.

The modernist international educational curriculum offers subjects within a sphere of influence that has a causal historical link to the early grand Universities of Europe. These in turn evolved from the Monastic, scholastic institutions of some of the great Monasteries of early Christendom. The intellectual traditions of the Orient are also strongly connected to their respective religious cultures and traditions. H.E Ahamad Jalali upholds the view that his own religious tradition of Islam cannot be delineated from an intellectual tradition either. This point was illustrated beautifully for me in a recent Theory of Knowledge Class. After giving a brief summary of how Christendom developed its secular tradition one of the young men in the class rather perplexed by this separation of the sacred and the secular explained how Islam is his life. “My scholastic tradition” he said, “is founded upon the Prophet Mohammed and the Holy Koran”.

Clearly for this young man ‘thinking and being are a form of prayer’. It is the case that a great majority of religious world views are founded upon an intellectual tradition, which is not separated from the day-to-day activities of life. So, I think the challenge for the IBO, and for educators and curriculum writers, is to create the right conditions whereby our young people are less incline to compartmentalize their lives, and are able to integrate their lives at school with their lives in the wider communities and societies from which they emanate; however I am not suggesting that we begin a crusade of sorts legitimizing the concept of a religious education. Quite the opposite.

Rudolf Otto, in his seminal text ‘The Idea of the Holy’ argues that before “religion became “morality touched with emotion” it was emotion itself, or a group of emotions, and still is…” (Otto, 1950) He argues that the feeling of the ‘uncanny’, the thrill of awe or reverence, the sense of dependence, of impotence when confronted with immense, indescribable power, or of nothingness, or again the feeling of mystical rapture and exaltation – are called the non – rational feelings, the sense of the tremendous, the awful, the mysterious, or in a word in which he sums up all of these extraordinary aspects of the human experience the ‘numinous’. (Otto, 1950) It is somewhat to our detriment as educators that the non-rational more often called the intuitive no longer holds its rightful place in our sphere of learning and education. He cautions us that we cannot experience this if the conditions are not there-for some individuals they may never experience this, for others they will. The experience cannot be extracted through dogmas or doctrines of any kind, but rather is a unique individual calling to discover from within the dependency of a “creature on his/her creator.”

We are all dependent – notwithstanding the importance of interdependency, we seem a little ashamed to admit any kind of dependency, yet everyday in our lives we are dependent on someone- from a person we know, and love, to a complete stranger. Some people fly regularly, now there is an example of complete dependency. But more to the point, children and young people in our schools are dependent on us to create the ‘right’ conditions for them to grow and develop into whole persons.  A couple of years ago, while on an assignment at an English Medium comprehensive school in Kuwait, I noted that on the school campus there was a mosque, which the Muslim students use regularly for prayer. There wasn’t another ‘space’ for non- Muslims to use, so a few ventured into the Mosque, but most didn’t bother.

Recently, while in transit at an airport in Thailand, , I noted their international prayer room, with its simple instructions for peoples of all religious denominations. It is a spacious room, painted in soft hues of pastel shades, heavily carpeted, with a few cushions and prayer mats-nothing else. I was struck by the ecumenism shown in a devoutly Buddhist country. It occurred to me that such a ‘significant space’ for ‘thinking and being’ could be set aside for students in international schools. I envisage this ‘space’ becoming a sacred place where the fruits of our intellectual tradition can merge with the innate spiritual qualities of our youth and children, and that the whole person can be recognized in the educative process. Such a space would be non-denominational, and in its silence on religious specificity, would speak of ecumenism, cooperation, tolerance, understanding and compassion. It would be a sacred space where young people can fulfill their faith requirements, and find strength of purpose through reflection on all that takes place in their lives as participants in the
post-modern world of international education. This will only contribute in a positive way to their holistic development, and in the fulfillment of our responsibilities to see the aims and objectives of our particular school philosophies and mission statements realized earlier in the lives of our students. All we have to do is create the right conditions-the rest will take care of itself.

So, a final question becomes what of the spiritual, and its vexed relationship within our own intellectual tradition within the post modern period? How can we readdress this balance in a subtle, non- intrusive way whereby we are educating the whole person?  It is my argument that intellectual traditions are imbued with innate spiritual values – whether opposing (rather ironically) or arguing for their existence. Through invigorating international curricula with knowledge, skills and sustainable values, including religious and spiritual ones, we can reaffirm our status as ‘knowers’ in the truest sense of the concept, and claim that the reflected life is well worth living. This will rekindle hope and the quest for open-mindedness, understanding and compassion for future generations of students in international education


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