Platonic ideals and Aristotelian imperatives
Platonic ideals and Aristotelian imperatives
This year, as attendees at my breakfasts will know, I have used Raphael’s famous image of Aristotle and Plato to illustrate the competing pressures upon UWCSEA. The painting in question is called The School of Athens, and in it the two titans of ancient Greek thought stand at its architectural vanishing point.
Aristotle, his palm facing the ground, is saying we must understand our landscape before we set our goals. From him came analytic empiricism: the scientific method. Plato, in the painting, is pointing upwards, ignoring the landscape and introducing the Western world to mystical idealism.
On the face of it, Singapore is more Aristotelian than Platonic. Great play is made here, for example, of Singapore’s amazing performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tables. The UWC mission, on the other hand, has a much stronger dose of Plato as it talks of education being a force to unite the world in peace. Many of you will know that as I write, we have in the College experts from Research Schools International, which is led by researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education. They are exploring how they might best measure UWCSEA’s impact both on our students, and by extension, on society as a whole. So, through essentially Aristotelian methodology they hope to better understand a Platonic ideal. We wish them well.
But let’s stick with Plato for a bit. Over the half-term break, I travelled, in my capacity as a UWC International Board member, to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the town of Mostar. Ravaged by war just over 20 years ago, Mostar is now in a post conflict zone (though I wonder, is any corner of the Earth not a post conflict zone?). And there, in the centre of town on the top floor of an old building is one of our siblings: UWC in Mostar. It is less than one twentieth our size. It is surrounded by bombed buildings and is just metres from the old front line. No Olympic pools, no grand theatres, no giant underground car park—not even a lift to the top floor. Just bricks and mortar. Teachers. Students.
The Head of UWC in Mostar, Valentina Mindoljevic, played a part in that terrible conflict of the early 90s. Not by firing a gun, but by dressing up as a clown and putting on shows by the front line. As well as making people laugh, she was pointing out the tragic absurdity of what was happening. Before the war, people worked together, ate together and fell in love across religious divides. Then everything changed. And now, there is a UWC—as Platonic a UWC as you will ever find—symbolically loaded and strikingly pure in its pursuit of the mission.
To share a service activity involving its students, as I did, is a piercing and salutary experience. And to hear the staff talk of days they lived through as children or young adults is moving yet invigorating. This school doesn’t need sympathy or a patronising pat on the head. It is no waif but a poster child. This is UWC in the raw: purposeful, authentic and therefore beautiful.
Comparisons with ourselves may at first seem strained, but once one is focused not on the craters and pock-marked buildings, but on the students, staff and their work, a refreshing sense of belonging will infuse anyone visiting from a UWC. I am sometimes asked whether UWCSEA has more in common with the giant international schools of Asia or the other UWCs around the world. In terms of the size of the roll, it’s the former of course; but beyond that there are moments when we seem to be Mostar’s doppelganger, stretched by a hall of geographic, economic and historical mirrors, surely, but otherwise entirely recognisable as a true and purposeful Hahnian foundation. Hearts of congruent passion and intent beat in both communities.
We are so very, very lucky to be here: in Singapore and in this incredible College. Aristotle deserves our thanks. Without him, our glass towers would not stand, our money would not flow around the world and our technocrats would not be driving the nation forward to still greater things. But first world easy street is not strewn with flowers: if you want it all you will never be satisfied, and we must guard against being trained to be dissatisfied with what we have. Mostar, that small Platonic outpost, was a compelling and emotional reminder to UWCSEA that we must be careful not to consume life but to live it.