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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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