James Macdonald

November 20 2020


The first schools to call themselves ‘international schools’ opened in 1924, in Yokohama, Japan and Geneva, Switzerland. While these communities were not connected at the time, we know from the board of governors’ minutes in both places that the founding parents saw education as a force for peace. These parents believed that if children of different nationalities, specifically their own children, learned together they could play a small part in helping to avoiding a repeat of a conflict like the Great War. A hundred years later, and 70 years after the second world war, we don’t hear of many nations going to war with each other anymore, and Thomas Friedman has even argued that no two countries with a McDonald’s in it have gone to war.

But peace itself continues to be elusive, with countless examples of war being waged around the world. Humans have a desire to identify with and belong to groups, but they also have nasty tendency to conflict with those outside of their group. This seems to be as strong as ever as captured by Amy Chau in her recent book Political Tribes:

‘Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.’  

Years ago philosophers in Europe introduced the concept of the ‘other’, which describes a state of being different (or even alien) to the one’s own social identity. This concept of the ‘other’ helps explain what the founding parents in Yokohama and Geneva envisioned: an education to break down the cultural and national ‘otherness’.

I can’t help but think that the problem of the ‘other’ was more straight forward in 1924, as the only call to action was breaking down national and cultural divisions; today, by contrast, many educators and school communities grapple with many different forms of ’otherness’ including gender, race, economic class, and learning differences. This is no surprise because in many parts of the world, breaking down such barriers to the ‘other’ has become part of broader social change: the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a landmark document in this regard (and the Council of International Schools actually links this document to their accreditation standards) while certain companies, like Ciscoare celebrated for embracing ‘diversity in all its forms’.

International schools have gone from being a collection of small outposts scattered around the world, to something of a movement: as witnessed by the thousands of schools conveying the concept of internationalism in their title. The term ‘international’ correctly signals to people that at certain type of ‘otherness’ will be addressed in this type of school, but I wonder if terms like ‘international’, ‘intercultural’, and ‘global’ (or similar terms) can also create a subtle self-limiting barrier to our thinking about the importance of breaking down a much wider range of the ‘other’. I believe a modern ‘international education’ should unapologetically aim to break down the different forms of the ‘other’ (beyond nationality and culture). This is because we know that students with the skills to navigate differences between groups, and who have developed a disposition which enables them to relate to (and not exclude) those with a different social identity, will be some of the best prepared to thrive in the world they will inherit from us adults.

However, a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not work, and it is not the role of international educators to unilaterally impose their values upon communities. Rather educators should work with governors and community members to explore which categories of the ‘other’ are most appropriate to address within their specific context. It can be a sensitive conversation. But arguably, what international schools do best is break down the walls between ‘others’: just ask any Third Culture Kid, as they are often role models of seeing beyond ‘otherness’. As organizations, this unique ability is the core competency of international schools and it is what differentiates them.

What I am suggesting is not new; but bringing the conversation out in the open is a new approach in many settings. We need to formally branch out and declare that modern international educators go beyond national and cultural identities in addressing differences between people. 

When the core feature of diversity was citizenship and culture, the title of ‘international school’ captured very well the priorities of the educational programme. I think the words we use, like international, are self-limiting; even if we don’t come up with new words to describe the breadth of education we aspire towards, we should at least bring more of the dialogue around the ‘other’ to the forefront.