Choking for words, she just asked “Why?”

One of my daughters was reading a powerful novel set in WWII, and had followed the protagonist though appalling circumstances; his compassion, warmth and courage made him an immensely likeable character whom she felt she somehow really knew. His sudden brutal, quick and surprising death came as a shock; and Millie was powerfully moved, almost to tears.

Not the most cheering of sentiments, but important ideas emerge, and we owe them due consideration. I have been reflecting on many of our schools Mission statements about leaving the world a better place, and the extent to which this goal can be addressed when our days are largely taken up with a fairly traditional academic curriculum. If we want to educate for peace then should we rip and throw away the regular academic classes? Should we join those who see traditional academic education as prolonging an outdated system that was really set up for the industrial era?

I think you will see where I am going; that I am somewhat skeptical of the need to start again. Not, of course, that we cannot do better – we can, we must, and we are always striving to do so. But in our unswerving dedication to improvement, I sometimes see a tendency to take for granted the goods that we already have. And having students clearly moved, emotionally connected to far away situations and people – who are very different to them – has to be one of these goods; and a small but powerful step towards educating for peace.

So I am seeing the value in traditional literature, though that runs contrary to some Departments of Education around the world which seem only interested in more obvious and quantifiable returns on investment. Not that there is not a place for the quantifiable – I also believe that maths and science can help us understand possibilities and probabilities in the widest arena of human affairs; and that history, psychology, politics and so on should help an engaged citizenry weigh up the costs and benefits of war. But short of experiencing war itself, perhaps the arts of literature and drama are the closest we can ever get to understanding what those costs truly are. I can attest to the profound effect it had on my daughter.

That seems to be a defence of an intelligently designed, passionately delivered, broad and balanced traditional academic curriculum, with a central place for the Arts. Academics are not everything, for sure, but properly done, they contribute as much to the holistic and emotional growth of students as anything else.

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (13), Millie (16) and Ruth (19); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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