- Taking A Stand
Through interviews with most of the Head of Departments at Seisen International School, this article explores the rationale behind its curriculum and potential for reform.
When one thinks of famous scientists, who inadvertently comes to mind? Einstein, Newton, Galilei. Mathematicians? Pythagoreans, Archimedes, Euclid. Artists? Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet. Classical musicians? Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart. When we think of renowned individuals at the forefront of shaping history, we associate them in our mind as white cis-gendered (where one’s gender identity correlates with one’s assigned sex) men.
The current political and cultural climate has intensified heated disputes in universities across the globe swirling around European colonialism. From Princeton University removing Woodrow Wilson from the public policy school and Wilson College to Oxford College destructing the Cecil Rhodes statue which embodies oppression, universities are responding to their students’ impatience towards obsolete practices of racism and anti-blackness throughout the world.
This discord has brought about the question of whether international schools can be lauded for their diversity. In “An Open Letter to the International School Community: Our Role in the Black Lives Matter Movement and Anti-Racism Work”, Rachel Engel, a sociology Ph.D. student who is studying the impacts of globalization, colorism, and race/ethnicity in Southeast Asia, explains that “the birth of the international school can be traced back to the migration of European expatriates and diplomats to developing countries” in which “diplomats and expatriates sought to create an educational system comparable to those in their home countries” while remaining financially exclusive in the local community. They have grown to become institutions for local, opulent students often endeavoring to receive Western tertiary educationーa manifestation of prosperity. In “Growing up in Transit”, Danau Tanu elaborates upon how Eurocentrism is entrenched in daily lives of international school students, whether it is through only deeming one as “international” if one is speaking fluent English with the “right” accent or arguing in English to a non-English speaking parent as a means of dominance.
At Seisen International School (SIS), current students and alumni are clamoring for educational reforms. Indeed, some elements advocated by the Eurocentric university systemーthe conceptual constructivist epistemologyーshould not be discarded, as cross-cultural disparities in learning configurations would have detrimental implications on students. Although SIS can be commended for their commitment to foster open-mindedness, they can continue to further decolonize the curriculum at the content level, which can ensue in the decolonization of other facets including the wall display and the physical space. For example, most classroom set up aligns with a Eurocentric epistemology, where the students face the teacher who stands at the front of the classroom. Susan Preston, an associate professor at Ryerson University, brings about these questions into consideration: “What is it like for Indigenous students when they walk into this university, into any educational institution, and see a white woman in front of the class? What is it like to walk into that space with the four walls and the desks and the chairs? What kind of images does that conjure up for them?” A circle seating arrangementーotherwise known as “a sharing circle”ーcan break the misconception that teachers are omniscient by opening up the conversation to explore disparate perspectives. What’s more, students should be enlightened by the rationale behind the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, encompassing the newly-implemented Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the already-implemented Primary Years Programme (PYP) and Diploma Programme (DP), which seemingly champions intercultural respect and global-mindedness. Dr. Hatch, who completed a dissertation in international education and is the incoming Global-mindedness Coordinator, had this to say: “IB is merely a framework. What schools don’t understand is that you can teach IB in a way that suits your local needs.”
The decolonization of the curriculum is often discussed in relation to History and English. Mr. Skulmoski, the Head of Individuals and Societies Department, contends that History is now “less prescriptive,” such that there is “an opportunity for diverse voices to be studied.” The newly-introduced World History options provide “thematic outlines,” leaving ample freedom for both the MYP and the DP.
Mr. Skulmoski has meticulously constructed the Grade 6 MYP curriculum to cultivate diversity, for example by inviting representatives from indigenous groups, allocating time for current affairs, and culminating the year with a service-learning project. Likewise, in the IBDP, students engage with historically excluded groups such as in the Anti-Apartheid and Civil Rights movements. Moreover, as opposed to the IGCSE curriculum, the “Cold War Conflicts in Asia” unit breaks free from the emphasis on the US and the USSR; despite this being seen as less relevant today with regard to the social issues than the history of racism and white supremacy, it is designed to examine Western imperialism from the perspective of non-Western nations by accentuating local experiences.
In my IBDP HL History class, I am grateful for the focus on the modern and historical geopolitical tensions in Eastern Asia in the context of current events. This has allowed me to consider entrenched historical injustices and develop a deeper understanding of the current tensions between Japan and its East European neighbors. However, it was only in the IBDP that it was structured as such. Why is there a perception that World War I with a death toll of 15 million is more significant than China's Taiping Rebellion with 20 million? Why is it that we classify Japan, perhaps rightfully so, as a malevolent nation during World War II without mentioning the implications of Commodore Perry forcibly opening Japan and the English bombing Kyushu on modernization, while not forgetting the xenophobic US Exclusion Act of 1924 and the rejection of the racial equality clause at the Paris Peace Conference? Why is it that education is subject to local distortions, bigotries, and prejudices, which produces history textbooks with varying content even in the same country? Why is it that from an early age, we do not nose-dive into issues Japan has yet to adequately confront, from the Nanking Massacre to so-called “comfort” women to Unit 731 (where the Imperial Japanese Army conducted lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War on mainly Chinese people)? With the implementation of the MYP, I am cautiously optimistic that these deeply-rooted prejudices will be addressed.
In a conversation with Mr. Dutki, the Head of the English Department, he indicated that they plan to mitigate Eurocentricity in the MYP by introducing more culturally diverse, insightful works. Moreover, he expounded that there are many rationales behind the reading list for the IBDP, including the representation of female authors or texts with strong female protagonists as an all-girls school. Indeed, while Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sophocles’ Antigone are written by white cis-gendered men, it features strong female protagonists. It does not fail to expand the predominantly literary canon by including works, ranging from Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches.
Although the selection of texts is significant in promoting global-mindedness, the conversations concerning them are nonetheless pre-eminent. Although I acknowledge the teachers’ efforts in facilitating these conversations, they were rather done so in the past tense or nebulous terms. With SIS existing within the bubble of international schools in Japan, these issues may seem far-fetched. It is imperative to delve deeper into historical injustices and their embodiments in the contemporary world. When discussing To Kill a Mockingbird, we must go beyond addressing the enactment of Jim Crow laws. Let’s talk about the underlying white savior narrative. Let’s talk about systemic racism, such as the flawed institutions that still enable police brutality towards black people and the exception clause of the 13th Amendment in the US.
In the IBDP, I have appreciated the national and international contextualization of texts. For instance, despite The Handmaid’s Tale being a speculative fiction novel, we compellingly discussed how the atrocities were based on real human history and drew parallels to the US under the Trump administration.
The STEM subjects are not often as challenged as the humanities for Eurocentricity, due to their rigidity to shift the emphasis of their content. However, Eurocentricity exists within all disciplines, including within STEM subjects. Mr. Cabiles, the upcoming Head of Sciences, elucidated that the Sciences are taught in a way that glorifies Western progress: “It’s always taught that some Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, began thinking and questioning things 2000 years ago, and then the world was in the "Dark Ages" until the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century.” He continues, “Through research, the truth is that while Europe was in the "Dark Ages", the Arabs and Chinese were furthering many aspects of science, perfectly fine, without the help of the Europeans. For instance, China invented gunpowder and hot air balloons, the idea of the number 0 was invented in India, and anything with "al" in front is from the Arab world, namely alcohol, alchemy, and algebra. Harvard historian of science, George Sarton, even rebukes that “From the second half of the eighth to the end of the 11th century Arabic was the scientific, progressive language of mankind...When the West was sufficiently mature to feel the need for deeper knowledge, it turned its attention, first of all not to the Greek sources but the Arabic ones.” The exclusion of these important historical/scientific contributions seems to put the European "Age of Enlightenment" at the forefront of when people started to think, which is completely untrue.” The illustrious European individuals who spearheaded their respective fields “stand on the shoulders of giants”, including non-Europeans.
The pronounced gender and ethnic imbalances still exist today, notably in computer science degrees as seen in the graph. While Mr. Usher, the Head of Mathematics, and Mr. Cabiles seek to articulate that the STEM subjects are not solely dominated by white men, they do acknowledge the reality, where this message is not being conveyed profoundly enough, with the face of the discipline remaining much too dominated by white males. However, Mr. Usher notes that “One way that we can begin to fulfill that mission in the math classroom is by developing data literate students who are better able to recognizeーand respond toーinequality in the world around them.” This does not detract from the fact that discussions about modern non-European scientists and mathematicians can empower students to see that the STEM field is not merely constituted of white cis-gendered men.
Unfortunately, individual and communal blind spots to consider the complexity of social justice issues still plague SIS. For instance, SIS students overly utilize superficial and easy methods to raise money for non-profit organizations such as hosting bake sales and approaching people with a donation box at the Festival of Nations. While good-intentioned, such acts of social justice must be accompanied by deep and active reflection to understand how privilege and inequality are manifested in our daily lives, which in turn leads to reflexive grounded action. This ongoing normalized ignorance, for example, has been reflected in the response of the Black Lives Matter Movement. While I have been ecstatic by the great strides made towards addressing this issue, I have concurrently witnessed SIS students perpetrating performative activism.
To encourage students to voice their opinions and take action, there needs to be a social justice class from primary school, where students are given opportunities to navigate their third culture kid identities, recognize their own biases and privilege, fully immerse themselves in the local community, and learn about seemingly distant social justice issues plaguing our world both historically and today strikingly, just to name a few.
It cannot solely be the SIS administration endeavoring to effectuate educational reforms; the entirety of the community, especially students, must be responsible for stepping out of their comfort zones and making change as well. This encompasses reflecting on your privilege which cannot be mitigated, unlike the curriculum, engaging in conversations in classrooms, not merely sharing posts on social media, and facilitating conversations outside of the classroom among your family about the moral imperative of being taught by teachers with diverse heritage.
In writing this article, I was able to get in touch with many teachers and the SIS administration. Despite the difficulty in changing curriculum and mindsets, given their thorough responses to my questions and receptiveness to my ideas in further decolonizing the curriculum, I am very hopeful for the future of SIS.
- Social Justice