Waging Heavy Peace
Waging Heavy Peace
What would my Board of Governors, or any board of governors, do if I said I wanted to change the mission statement to the following: “Every pupil will know beauty when they see it, for the rest of their lives”? I suspect that when everybody had stopped laughing they would book me a one way ticket home from Changi and throw in some psychological counselling for good measure.
But hold that laughter for a moment. I used to work at a school in the UK called Stowe. Though the palace and grounds in which the school is housed are marvels of past centuries, the school itself was set up only in 1923 by a most interesting Headmaster called JF Roxburgh. It was he who decided that the pursuit, recognition and understanding of beauty should be integral to a Stowe education. And why not? A little over a hundred years earlier, the poet Keats had famously said “Beauty is truth; truth beauty”. Many people thought long and hard over what he might have meant by that, and some grounded their lives in the search. None of this is really so long ago, but today, surrounded by all the getting and spending, and the obsession with what can be measured rather than valued, these echoes of the past sound like foolish whimsy. (Just as so much of what we angst over now will be whimsy for future generations).
Now please allow me just one more reference from the English literature canon before I get properly to business. The play is Julius Caesar, and Brutus is saying to Cassius, before an important battle, that they should seize the moment because the time is right:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat…
The thought is familiar enough and is especially well known to Elvis Presley fans - It’s now or never - but Shakespeare’s unforgettable metaphor amplifies and energises the idea.
I cite Roxburgh, Keats and Shakespeare because an opportunity has just arisen for the UWC movement, and for UWCSEA, to avoid the shallows and miseries of irrelevance and instead take advantage of the tide. As I write this I am in my fourth year as Head of College at UWCSEA, and in those four years, four new UWC’s have opened: Dilijan in Armenia; Changshu in China; Phuket in Thailand; and ISAK in Japan. But as the movement swept East, 55 years after the founding of the first UWC college, it felt a need to clarify the role UWC ought to play in today’s world. Furthermore, it sought to identify UWC’s strengths and opportunities and critically question itself on the challenges to be tackled in order to increase UWC’s impact. Sounds suspiciously like a strategic plan.
And at this point my eyes glazed over. Humankind survived for millennia without strategic plans. How much more wonderful to do what Roxburgh did. There is something cramped and confining in the notion of a long term plan which disciples follow with unswerving reverence. And there are obstacles. First, we need to get past Peter Drucker’s ubiquitous and all conquering “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” mantra: UWC has a strong and resilient culture, so who needs a boring old plan? And secondly there’s that nagging sense that strategic plans turn real and messy challenges into similar but fundamentally different problems that can be solved. By rooting the plan in known quantities, the result is often emergent strategy (which is reactive) rather than deliberate strategy (which is intentional).
But UWC is a risk-taking movement, and when I was asked to help with the drafting of the new strategy, I thought I might be in for something different. I wasn’t necessarily expecting “Beauty is truth; truth beauty”, but I was hoping for some bold thinking. I wasn’t disappointed. I would not be writing this if my experience had been same old, same old (though had that been the case I would of course have kept a dignified public silence while fighting like a wildcat behind the scenes). I quote from the plan intermittently in this article.
Modern strategic planning began at Harvard (where else?) in the 1920s. But the word “strategy” comes from the Greek (where else? again) strategos which means “general”. UWC did not look to a grand leader: instead, at the start, it went to the people. The strategy was two years in the making and gathered the thinking of thousands within the UWC community. I remember, in the half term break of 2016, looking at a huge wall full of post-it notes at the UWC Congress in Trieste. On that wall, alumni, staff and students were celebrating successes, sharing ideas, positing scenarios and sometimes venting anger (usually about our failure in the domain of sustainability). In true UWC fashion, nothing was off limits. It was a passionate, not a professional, start. Good. What followed, was a highly consultative and participative UWC movement-wide process involving all constituencies and inviting input from all UWC community members.
Now is not the place to share the finicky details on financial transparency, mutual responsibility, accountability and such like. I shall simply say here that the strategy is built on three pillars called seek, educate and inspire.
UWC will seek a deliberately diverse group of students and strive to enable access to a UWC education for these students, independent of socio-economic means. We will educate our students based on trust, responsibility and autonomy in order for them to develop agency, experience values and gain the attitudes and competencies to be forces for peace, sustainability and social justice. We will inspire members of the UWC community to live and act in accordance with the UWC mission and we will inspire our partners and other actors in education to embrace values-based education celebrating diversity and promoting peace, sustainability and social justice.
Now I am a great believer in considering the opposite of any supposedly inspiring pronouncement, and if the opposite is nonsense then your original statement is likely to be bland or embarrassingly obvious. The opposite of what is cited above is not nonsense. So, in one convoluted sentence, one could make a perfectly good case for having a chain of academically selective schools with didactic teaching models, high fees, socio-economic homogeneity and curricula rooted in national systems, which eschew holistic, experiential education and instead deliver only academics and entrance to Ivy League, Oxbridge and equivalents with an expectation of their alumni becoming high earning professionals. No harm in that, some might say, and the fact that such places thrive in abundance is proof of the model’s popularity. UWC is offering a different map.
Concurrent with the UWC movement’s plan, UWCSEA has embarked on our own new strategy. Many parents and colleagues responded to the stripped down questionnaire we circulated, and the leadership teams are now at work (students groups will follow). Where thinking is completely aligned we will introduce protocols to encourage divergence and play out opposite scenarios. But every strategy needs to start from an axiom, and ours was the Guiding Statements. Our high grade averages are a welcome and happy by-product of something much more important: we will be values driven and holistic. Over the coming months we will be connecting the UWC movement plan to the UWCSEA plan, focused on our particular Singapore context. There will be opportunities for our community to provide further feedback and our plan should be ready for the Board of Governors in March.
But my planning is inspired most by a cartoon I once saw. Two cavemen are staring at the wall of a cave on which one has drawn the famous images of stick men hunting bison. The other caveman says to the artist: “OK, enough of the strategic planning: just get out there and kill something.” Hear, hear. Except we will be waging heavy peace.