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: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/9474948/Pussy-Riots-stunning-victory-over-Putins-bureaucrats.html

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)

Bibliography

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). About.com: Chemistry. Retrieved April 22, 2011, from About.com: http://chemistry.about.com/cs/generalchemistry/a/aa050601a.htm

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: http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast161/Unit3/response.html

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):

Country

Schools offering IB Diploma Programme

Bahrian

9

Egypt

9

Jordan

9

Palestinian Territories (Occupied)

1

Oman

2

Qatar

9

Saudi Arabia

7

Syria

1

 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?

References:

Akrawi, M., & Matthews, R. (1949). Education in Arab Countries of the Near East. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education.

Akrawi, M., & Matthews, R. (1949). Education of Arab Countries of the Near East. Washington, D.C.: American Council of Education.

Al-Azzawi, S. (2011). Decline Of Iraqi Women Empowerment through Education under American Occupation 2003-2011. Belgium: http://www.brussellstribunal.org/pdf/IraqiWomen_Azzawi_100311.pdf.

Department, U. S. (2011, March 18). Background Notes-Syria. Retrieved July 19, 2011, from US State Department: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3580.htm

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

El Baz, F. (2007, February 12th). Reform in Arab Countries-Role of Education. Retrieved July 19th, 2011, from Inclusive World Forum: http://www.strategicforesight.com/iwforum/farouk.htm

Florian, J. (2008, November 25th). IB programme Targets Middle East. Retrieved July 24th, 2011, from AME info.com: http://www.ameinfo.com/176898.html

Geertz, G. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures-Selecetd Essays. New York: Basic Boooks.

HanoverResearch. (2010). Current Trends in International Baccalaureate Programmes. Washington D.C.: Hanover Research.

Hinrich, J. (2002). The Effect of the International Baccalaureate Programme on International Understanding. IB Research Notes , 3-9.

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