Category Archives: Conrad Hughes

The histories that we learn

Moving house

When I was about 17, in my final years of schooling in Eswatini, during the summer holidays, given that we were moving house from one part of Johannesburg to the other, and I had to throw piles of school documentation that I had been hoarding out of my bedroom, I found myself rummaging through artefacts from my earlier years of schooling in South Africa. 

Among the childish art projects and textbooks I came across was my history notebook from my Primary School. On the first page my own clumsily formatted 8 year old handwriting spoke to the maturing young person I had become. The trembling, awkward letters carried much of the sadness and solitude I had experienced as a child: looking at my own handwriting almost created a sense of pity in me for my earlier self.

But it was less the form and more the content of what I read that struck a strange, dissonant chord within:

“South African history started in 1488 when Bartholomew Diaz planted a stone cross at Kwaaihoek”.

This was when South African history was to begin. The next sentence jumped forward over 100 years:

“On the 6th of April, 1652, Jan Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope”.

The next pages of my notebook, the contents of which had been copied off the blackboard word for word, spoke of how the Cape was empty and how Dutch settlers simply moved in and took over. My notes also mentioned how the climate in the Cape was “Mediterranean”.

Early Days

The notebook took me back to the classroom of my former all boys, almost exclusively white school. This was a place where you would get the cane if you stepped out of line. The history lessons were highly formatted pieces of propaganda, singing the praises of Afrikaaner nationalism, the heroes of the Boer War, with caricatural representations of Zulu chiefs such as Chaka and Dingaan.

My teacher, who taught us Afrikaans as well as humanities, was a terrifying little man with piercing blue eyes, a thick moustache, burly tanned, hairy forearms and a sickeningly sweet smell of musk perfume mixed with cigarette smoke that would trail behind him. He was well known for his use of the cane, in fact he called it “bliksem”, which means lightning in Afrikaans. Beating us was clearly a pleasure for him, as was teaching us how white settlers roamed into a garden of paradise where, conveniently, there was no one to stop them before they were attacked unfairly by aggressive Zulu warriors.


My life changed when I relocated to Eswatini (then Swaziland) to attend a United World College, Waterford Kamhlaba, which was also an established anti-Apartheid school. Here I learned shoulder to shoulder with the children and grandchildren of Nelson Mandela, Albert Sisulu, Mosiuoa Lekota and Desmond Tutu.

My history teacher here was completely different: he was passionate about South African history and we learnt about it. However, the core of our learning was about Apartheid, from the 1930s all the way through to the 1990s. We learnt every Apartheid law, massacre and injustice. As my learning of my own history deepened, so did the unlearning of what I was told before. In my old school, the so-called “great trek” (white settlers exodusing the Cape to travel to Johannesburg) was presented as a Moses-out-of-Israel type fleeing from British persecution; at Waterford our teacher explained that it was because the settlers refused to abolish slavery, which had become illegal; in my old school, the earliest Cape Settlers had to defend their property from marauding thieves, at Waterford we learnt how they would shoot down locals who dared to walk across their land.

Understanding the past to understand the present

And the history lessons were not just about the past, they were about the present too. Each holiday, when I would travel back to South Africa, I would be confronted with my friends and even family who were still wallowing in the lie of Apartheid education, not knowing their own history, not even being able to name some of the most foundational Apartheid laws, facts and figures.

It was at Waterford that for the very first time I saw a picture of Nelson Mandela. He was a banned person in South Africa and it was impossible to see any images of him. The picture is a famous one of him in London, young, bearded, looking wisely but somehow mournfully into the middle distance. At Waterford, because of my history classes, the invisible was made visible.

None of this was easy to learn. I would find myself sitting in classes with friends from different African countries feeling deeply ashamed to be a white South African, having to endure in front of everybody what people like me were doing. When we put on a school play about South Africa, there was a riot scene and students were needed to play the soldiers who would open fire on the crowd. Everybody turned to look at me. I volunteered reluctantly.

We also studied the holocaust at Waterford. I remember having nightmares for several nights consecutively after seeing the black and white footage of bodies being discovered in the camps. Knowing that the early architects of Apartheid were Nazis connected the two quite seamlessly: it was part of the same vicious cruelty.

David Olusoga and Shashi Tharoor

A few years ago, as part of the extraordinary Guest Speakers Series that we run at the International School of Geneva, I was lucky enough to meet with the softly spoken, dashing and consistently poignant British historian David Olusoga. He addressed our students on British history with a focus on the experience from the point of view of Black people. I was familiar with his work on German concentration camps in Namibia ( The Kaiser’s Holocaust) and his television documentary Black and British: A Forgotten History.

Some months later a colleague lent me a book by Shashi Tharoor, An Era of Darkness, about the British colonial empire in India, the resources that were exploited and the financial reparations that amending this might imply.

I had learnt about British colonialism at school, Cecil John Rhodes’ dream of a train line from the Cape to Cairo, the “jewel in the crown” that was India for the British Empire, the Opium Wars and so on. However, these anecdotes were not particularly well developed and there seemed to be more emphasis on abolitionism, the suffragettes, Common Law, the Bill of Rights, extraordinary inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Michael Faraday and so on. In other words, British history was presented more as a series of Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution positive contributions to humanity and science than the slave trade and colonisation. It was only after coming into contact with these pointed, detailed and harrowing accounts by Olusoga and Tharoor that some of the more shocking facts became fully available to me. Notably:

  • The 1837 slave compensation act in which 20 million pounds were paid to slave owners and their families up until 2015
  • That the slave trade was financed directly by British monarchy 
  • Over a period of 200 years, the British East India Company and the British Raj syphoned out at least $44.6 trillion worth of resources from India, which is more than 17 years gross domestic product of modern day Britain 
  • Over a span of 40 years, leading up to 1920, between 50 and 100 million Indians were killed because of policies under the British Empire in India, more than all the “famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China and North Korea combined”

The list goes on.

How much of this is widely accepted and taught in schools? In the late 1930s, the Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams’ thesis Capitalism and Slavery substantiated the huge benefits slavery had brought to industrialisation in Britain, something that has since been reiterated by economists such as Thomas Picketty. However, he would have to wait more than 20 years before finding a publisher. This was because he was accused of understating the role Britain had played in abolitionism. It was only last year that the book was published by a mainstream group (Penguin) to become a best-seller.

Even today, according to the British academic Kehinde Andrews:

“The orthodoxy of the history of the Industrial Revolution is that slavery wasn’t important. If you go to most universities, most academics will say that and they’ll dismiss the book – because they just cannot accept that the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without slavery” (Feguson, 2022).

In  2022 article, Sean Matiluko says that British Schools have “whitewashed history”, leaving out important annals describing the contributions of Black people to British history and the extent of racial exploitation that built up Britain’s economy.

Since teaching Britain’s role in colonisation, or the transatlantic slave trade was not compulsory, a 2021  petition was signed in parliament with over 260 000 signatures requesting this. The response was mitigated: a School minister rejected the outcome, claiming that such a programme would “lower standards”.  

So the question is, when will the teaching of British history face the past squarely with all the facts? The same questions can be asked for a number of national history narratives: there are too many to mention, Britain is merely an example.

It takes courage to look much more critically at the histories of global powers whose legacies are taught partially, emphasising the positive and leaving out the painful stories of colonialism and slavery. There have been several genocides, and they must be known.

There is a diversion tactic which consists in the discourse of saying that things have changed and such historical facts are water under the bridge now. But are they? How can such important chapters of history not be taught and then treated as already forgotten when evoked? It is by bringing them into public discourse and problematising them that society will become more sensitive and aware. If the historical inequities behind the current dispensation are taught clearly and formally in school, it also allows younger generations to embrace questions of inclusion and social justice more openly. If not, any discussion on equity becomes a quarrel, a painful and humiliating one at that for those who have lost out historically because of systemic racism and exploitation. It should not be for these groups to have to fight their way into a space of representation, that work should be done by schools.

The histories that we learn must be true, and it becomes increasingly difficult to hide skeletons in the cupboard when the world wide web makes research readily available to the public. Those writing history textbooks need to understand that if we do not relate the whole story, no matter how shameful and painful it is, no matter how much it becomes a thorn in the side of nationalist, imperialistic and romanticised discourse about nation state history, the more dangerous it is, for those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

My textbook 

I toss the textbook into the rubbish bin. I’m not looking for things to hang on to as we move house, since we are down-sizing, and I can’t see the purpose of hanging onto a historically incorrect, propaganda-glazed set of notes from my pre-adolescence.

As I throw the book away though, in particular because I know the history of my country and feel part of it, I am reminded where I come from and, perhaps more importantly, the responsibility I have as an educator to tell it.

The histories that we learn should not be ideological narratives or partial stories, they should not be a crafted story to influence minds and shape opinions, they should aim to do one thing and one thing only: tell the whole story.

Ferguson, D. (2022). Groundbreaking work on slave economy finally back on UK shelves. The Guardian. 

Artificial intelligence and education

The hype around ChatGPT is palpable: schools are racing to have staff meetings on it, share resources, and react quickly. After decades of being steadily and collectively formatted by a technology-driven economy and the resultant positivist ideology, peppered with our schizoid relationship with artificial intelligence (the pendulum swings from the feeling that we have to get ahead with artificial intelligence at all costs, to the other extreme of fear and reactivity), ChatGPT leaps out at us as from the dystopian sea of Deep Blue the “big data” craze and the robot Sophia. Remember the excitement and panic around Google search engines and Wikipedia and how much it would change everything? Here we go again … One can expect references to ChatGPT in conference keynotes for the next few months, speakers having grown tired of videos of robots or fun statistics about computing processing power.

And with these waves of advances in machine learning come the habitual rather hackneyed warnings of how this will change the face of employment, education and even what it means to be human. Such crystal-ball gazing can be quite serious, but it can also become ridiculous, always couched in norms and generalisations. There is the idea that educators should be doing something about it, changing something, getting ready for the future, or accepting that the future has already happened, and this needs to be done quickly and so on.

I don’t mean to denigrate the serious challenges and opportunities that technology creates (and always has as it has evolved historically), I write about it at length and seriously in Educating for the Twenty-First Century: Seven Global Challenges, but I do think that a pinch of salt here and there is not a bad thing either. 

Here are my four thoughts on ChatGPT at this early stage:

  1. Artificial intelligence should be where thinking starts, not where it ends. (that phrase comes from my colleague Yoni Osman). Those who still hang on to the idea of banning technology in schools are fighting a losing battle. I once heard a rather sad story of a child being told off by a teacher for correcting him in class having accessed Google on her phone to verify what was said. Is the goal to access knowledge or to hide it? Curriculum has to be relevant, and the world we are living in is assisted by technology. Sometimes I wonder if cell phones have not replaced parts of our neocortical architecture. It might not be what we want to see happening to us as humans, but trying to create a romantic garden where there is no technology and algorithms such as ChatGPT are closed is absurd. On the contrary, algorithms save time. This does not mean that we should stop reading or doing research, it just means that such arcane intellectual and academic pursuits need to be accompanied with technology in more colourful ways. Students can use ChatGPT for certain in-class supervised tasks, they can ask it to give feedback on the occasional essay, but they need to use their faculties of discernment to discuss what is being created. 
  2. The death of the search engine. One can imagine that ChatGPT will replace Google searches. Unfortunately, most users of search engines skim quickly through the first items that appear, so having artificial intelligence spew the answer out to you or create a narrative to your question instead is merely an accentuation of the same linearity. Discerning scholars might sieve through search engine responses, using their background knowledge and critical thinking to select the best sources, and they will have to do the same with ChatGPT, scrutinising it.
  3. The sterility of the artificial voice. As powerful as ChatGPT might be, and we should not underestimate its deep learning capacity (in a few months it will be much more powerful), when you read the texts it produces, somewhere, in the distant recesses of the prose, is a slightly flat monotonous machine-like sterility, resonant of the computer Hal’s metallic, depressed voice in Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. ChatGPT might sound human, but in that case, it sounds like a fairly dull human. And there are errors of course because of the automaticity of its understanding of semantics. Ultimately, expression is about style and voice, which is what I encourage in my philosophy students’ writing: give personal anecdotes, let the reader hear your voice. Perhaps it is a good thing that artificial intelligence is competing with us, it pushes us to bring out more vivacity, originality and personality in what we say. 
  4. Plagiarism is only as big a threat as we allow it to be. One obvious reaction to this development in technology is to fear that students will no longer bother to write essays at home, or even design projects, since they will simply ask ChatGPT to do it for them. This merely reinforces the problem of extended pieces of homework. As soon as we ask students to do substantive pieces of work at home, there are a host of ways of plagiarising, getting others to do the work, using pre-packaged prompts and so on. I  always have my students write every essay in class. At home they read and revise. Teachers who are fond of giving important and lengthy homework to students might have to rethink that strategy. And let’s not forget the Pandora’s box of assessment reliability problems that homework releases anyway, including issues of unequal work conditions at home: one of the reasons why schools exist in the first place is to create fair and equal learning conditions for all students. For coursework assignments, students might plagiarise and plagiarism-detection software will not pick it up. However, the irony of ironies is that ChatGPT cannot lie, so all we need to do is ask it if it wrote the piece of writing in question, and it will tell us.

All in all, the purpose of education is to live a better life, and this is achieved through the development of  knowledge, aesthetics and virtues. Using artificial intelligence to accelerate processes and find solutions should not be a problem, but it will be our fault if we let artificial intelligence carve out the end of our thinking and not the beginning. All the texts in the world written by ChatGPT will not make us any wiser, and we have to teach our students to integrate words, ideas and values for themselves, for it is with this truly natural, inner language that they will define and understand the world, and the world will be as interesting as the depth of concepts are to describe it, no more, no less. As the great Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. May those limits be the ones we choose, not the ones chosen for us by an algorithm.

Surfing and Education: Three Lessons

The sky is a pale blue and my daughter and I are bobbing peacefully on the lull of the Atlantic. A dozen metres away, a large silver fish thrashes out of the water, arching its back into the sea. We spot a set of beautifully stacked waves in the distance. The set approaches us calmly yet resolutely. We let the first and second wave pass under us, bobbed up by the enormous power of the ocean. Then, as the third approaches, we angle our boards towards the shore, paddle a few hard strokes to catch up with the swell and in that split second when we are synchronised with the wind’s fetch, when the time feels right, we both pop up to land squarely on our boards, our feet straddled across the smooth perspex, gripped by the wax. Our boards drop into the wave and race along the ocean’s back, the roar of the surging water all around us: past, present and future coalesced into a moment of flow, the dazzle of the sun, the solitary cloud and the line of golden beach whirled into a twirling psychic kaleidoscope.

Anthropologists say that surfing goes back to at least the 12th Century in Polynesia: it was considered training for warriors to determine who would lead the group. Others describe forms of surfing in Peru hundreds of years earlier. When exactly it started, who “invented” it and what its original purpose was are teleologically quaint scholarly questions, but ultimately, what does it matter? One thing I believe any surfer would agree with, no matter how experienced, is that it is not simply a sport or a hobby, it has a deeper meaning, an expression of some archetypal yearning that we have as humans to be connected with the cosmos.

To me, surfing teaches us three life lessons that are at the core of what an education means:

  1. Courage

Surfing does not come without danger. From having a board fin cut open your head, being dumped onto rocks or pulled across sharp coral, sucked into a powerful wave and held under water, colliding with another surfer, being pulled into a rip tide, drowning, not to mention attacks by sharks, stingrays or jellyfish, the perils are many! For some, the idea of braving the ocean’s waves is too overwhelming to entertain. Even the strongest surfer is never exempt from some form of danger, and the stronger the surfer, the larger the waves and, therefore, the higher the danger. It takes courage to surf. 

Schools should be safe spaces where students flourish, are happy and know that there are trusted adults to supervise them and protect them from harm. However, schools are also places where students are being formed to deal with the trials and tribulations of life: as adults, they will need to be brave in unforeseen circumstances and know how to take risky decisions in order to advance. Nothing great can be achieved without some courage, especially in the face of bullies who pry on fear. We need to build up our students’ and children’s backbones, give them the confidence they need to catch the wave when the time is right rather than resent the lost opportunity and the fear that drove them to inaction. Teaching for courage is not easy, it requires role-modelling, ongoing moral fortification and messaging.

  1. Patience

Much of the time that a surfer spends on the waters is not surfing but waiting for waves, and this only when the conditions are good enough for surfing in the first place. Like ancient human activities linked to the elements (farming and astrology for instance), surfing involves great patience. As one lies on the board with the salt water lapping softly on either side, a great peace descends upon the mind and life seems slow and simple, time stands still and in the blink of an eye, hours can evaporate. It takes patience to wait for the right wave, it is an art. And during the wait, it isn’t possible to be on your iPhone, you simply wait in silence, under the immensity of the heavens. The contrast of the timelessness in the ocean with the hustle and bustle of life on land is enormous.

There is another dimension to the question of patience. It takes time to improve as a surfer. Increments come in important thresholds: learning how to pop up, learning how to drop into a wave, learning how to cut back and so on. It takes hours and hours of practice and mental preparation before one is ready: “imagine catching the wave before you go to sleep at night” a coach once told me. But the victory of achieving a new threshold is all the sweeter when it comes because the work towards it was so serious and drawn out. This is how it is with all significant leaps in learning: they do not come overnight, they take time and resilience, practice, hard work and patience. This is how we become stronger. 

So much of modern schooling is plagued by hyperactivity, stress, cognitive overload, a sandwiched timetable that sends everybody rushing from one unit of time to the next. Parents are tempted to overmanage their children, or to ask schools for an ongoing commentary on their children’s performance (the reporting structure is not enough, we want to know on a daily basis what is happening!), multiplying pressure on their children and their children’s teachers. In many schools, teachers are squeezed like lemons by managers to produce more and more, often leading to resignation or burnout.

The consumer culture we have built around young people has become a ruthless and incessant stream of quick entertainment. The 70 odd gigabytes of information hitting us daily and the dopamine they release leave us reeling by day and tossing and turning by night. Until we have learned to slow the clock down and enjoy the emptiness of a minute of time, we will be forever lost in chasing something we will never catch. 

Patience is a virtue and schools can help with this by creating mindfulness programmes, moments of silence in group gatherings, in-class reading and classes away from technology. Above all, schools can send the message out to students and parents that what they are looking for will come, maybe not immediately, maybe not even today, but tomorrow or the day after. All things come to those who wait.

  1. Respect

Surfers come from different social backgrounds, different walks of life. The age difference on the waves can be quite staggering, from teenagers whipping up and down waves to athletes in the prime of their age cutting through barrels to more senior surfers coasting along their longboards with a smile on their faces. There is an etiquette among them and an understanding of who should take priority on a wave. The stronger surfers will go further back to take the larger waves, the weaker ones stay closer to the shore and agree to move out of the trajectory of the former. The world of surfers, which can easily fall into Hollywood clichés of blonde-haired hippies, tends to be synonymous with convictions about life and the environment connected to sustainability and peace. The world of surfers is not predicated on blaming, shaming, mistrust and labelling, it is predicated on a deep sense of unity.

However, the greatest respect, the respect that bonds all surfers, is that of the ocean. This vast blue covering of more than 70 percent of the globe, the giver of life itself, is respected profoundly, and with this respect comes a love of nature, the creatures of the sea, the cleanliness of the beach, the song of dolphins.

Although we look to schools for literacy and technical learning, the two greatest planetary challenges that all educational systems must turn to are the environment and learning to live together peacefully. What better way to teach sustainability than through a love of nature, a real reverence and respect for its majesty and the gift of life on earth that it gives us? Sustainability objectives in schools should not only reduce our carbon footprint, but put young people in contact with nature as they do in the forest school systems, allowing them to appreciate their deep atavistic connection with nature.

And schools are the places where young people learn to socialise with one another, where social codes are understood and nurtured. Education for peace programmes, such as the Model United Nations system, community service and restorative practices must be strengthened across school systems and the history lessons that we teach should move from the traditional glorification of war to the celebration of inclusion, peace and humanity. Above all, schools should be places where we learn to listen to each other, to celebrate who we are and to be happy through our common humanity, not divided through our differences.

My daughter and I decide to head back to the shore: our arms are tired from the paddling and our souls have been filled with the courage, patience and respect needed to leave the water feeling replenished. There is a vague frustration that we could have caught a bigger wave, that we might have been steadier in managing another, but that comes with the experience, for it is not meant to be perfect, it is a microcosm of life itself, and at the end of the day, you can only do your best. That is the deeper lesson any education teaches us, the one lesson nobody sees – that is nobody but yourself, in the private eye of your soul, for in truth the real responsibility to learn lies with no one else.

On the beach, with the firm sand under our feet and the boards tucked under our arms, we make our way back to land, looking forward to the next day when we will connect once more with the ocean and with ourselves. May our next day at school be much like this one at sea.

Human Rights and the Students’ League of Nations

Today at the International School of Geneva we begin the first of two days of the Students’ League of Nations  (SLN) at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. This was first invented by the International School of Geneva in 1953 as a simulation of the United Nations and has since become a world-wide phenomenon in most international schools  known as the Model United Nations.

Students learn to draft resolutions, to present them at a General Assembly and to conduct a debate which leads to voting for or against the drafted resolutions. Two of the cornerstones of freedom of speech are used: the right of speech and the right to reply.

The right of speech, what the Ancient Greeks called isegoria, and the right to reply, are of paramount importance: people must be given a voice and, crucially, the right to defend themselves. It is difficult to conceive of human rights without these two essential pillars. In fact, the Ancient Greeks had a specific term, parrhesia, meaning not only freedom of speech but the right to say almost anything. As long as it is true, not libellous or hate speech, a truly open society must be one where people are not afraid to voice their opinions, even when those opinions are not necessarily what those in authority want to hear.

One of the rules in the SLN is that students may not represent their own country when acting as a delegation. This opens the minds of those debating on behalf of another country, calling them to look at complex political problems from the perspective of a different nation state.

As we stand by Human Rights across the world, let us embrace freedom of speech and the power of being prepared to see things from others’ perspectives.