Thursday 02 Sep 2021

Diversity as the bedrock of peace: Implications for education

La Grande Boissière Campus and Secondary Principal Conrad Hughes wrote and delivered this speech in front of staff at the start of the 2021-2022 academic year.


In 1924, when the world’s first international school was established, then known as the League School, and later as the International School of Geneva, the vision was an education for peace.

But what did peace mean in 1924, and what does it mean today? And how do we educate for peace?

1924 saw the end of World War I. The violence of extreme nationalism had drenched Europe and its colonies in blood.

The tensions that led to WWI were around the suppression of multiple ethnic identities: Serbians could no longer celebrate who they were, children would no longer learn Hungarian at school, the ambitions of world dominion by colonial powers would drown out the hopes and aspirations of others. The violence of WWI was caused by the tension when the will of a few is thrust upon the diverse aims of many.

Colonisation also aimed to destroy diversity: to take continents with thousands of languages and impose one or two, to destroy ancient customs and belief systems and replace them with one or two religions, to destroy ancient narratives, as priests did in Mexico, smashing Inca tablets containing sacred coda, or Macauley did in India, designing an education system that would try to make Vedic culture vanish from students’ minds and memories.

Unlike these attacks on diversity, from the start, Ecolint sought diversity and not uniformity: different national dresses and not one uniform, an international history and geography course, not the study of one nation only, bilingualism and not monolingualism.

But the dark power of homogeneity, of monochromatism, of violent dogmatism continued: Hitler was against diversity: no Jews, no homosexuals, no anarchists, no people of colour, no freemasons, no handicapped people. The idea of the Third Reich was one race, one language, one Empire. Other dictators through history have wanted the same thing: Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, Salazar, Pinochet, Videla, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Bocassa, Mobuto: a desire for a morbid standardisation, a single party state.

And to destroy diversity, books must be burnt, art must be censored, freedom of speech curtailed, powers restrained, people killed. Above all, an anti-diverse education must allow no space for critical thinking whatsoever: people must think one way only.

Marie-Therese Maurette, the most striking and visionary leader of our school’s early history, an outspoken feminist who smuggled Jewish asylum seekers across the border at the Gare des Eaux Vives to save them from occupied France, was deeply disillusioned by WW2. But the dream of peace, of a place where a thousand flowers can bloom, where we can live in respect of one another, where diversity is a strength, remained.

The Cold War brought more violent homogeneity with it: of a symbolic kind, with an iron curtain across Europe, brainwashing on either side, but also real violence: wars in Angola and Congo, Iran and Iraq for example, were driven by Eastern bloc, Western bloc imperatives; the forced repression of millions of people under one monolithic idea on either side of the fence.

In the 1960s, the IB was a creation driven by many different partners: Ecolint’s International History course, started in the 1920s was shared with universities in England, the United Nations International School in New York and The United World Colleges movements joined. The IB Diploma was born out of diverse views of education: Kurt Hahn’s vision of a strong extracurricular dimension, Ruth Dreifuss’ belief in the centrality of philosophy, and the deep-seated idea of a broad and balanced, not a narrow, curriculum, came from a coalition of diverse views working together. Ecolint alone did not design the IB. Little of worth can be designed alone, by one person, as the propaganda of Great Man history would have us believe. In fact, nothing can be designed in total isolation.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, we entered modern history, even more concentrated: a globalised economy built on consumerist values, driven by a handful of rich men and companies. This structural violence is destroying the planet, just as the Brazilian rainforests are burnt, coral reefs destroyed and wild animals become extinct, choking and wallowing in the wake of a carbon footprint that is destroying all life.

For diversity is life: biodiversity, the reciprocity of the ecosystem and, at an individual level, a balanced diet, a varied lifestyle. If we live monotonous lives, the body sickens and we die. The enemy of diversity is the enemy of life itself.

Ecolint has grown since our origins: we have over 4000 students, eight schools, eight different curriculum structures, 140 nationalities, over 90 languages. We must cherish and be thankful for such extraordinary diversity.

And to see the best political and historical example of diversity, and more precisely, how diversity leads to peace, we need look no further than Switzerland. In 1291, when the three original cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald pledged to support one another under the homogenising and oppressive yoke of the Habsburg empire, they were creating a country devoted to diversity: today, that’s 26 cantons, four national languages, seven leaders in a governing confederation , representing different political parties, the courage to let the people decide through referenda and national initiatives. Diverse cantons and communes.

But peace and diversity mean making compromises, being pragmatic, being prepared to disagree and then seek consensus. The road to peace through diversity is not the romanticised and artificial mythology of national hegemony, it is not the rose tinted, propaganda-saturated history textbook that tells only half the story, it is not the comfort of bias and thoughtless monocultural reproduction. Embracing diversity means embracing complexity. It takes hard work.

As our understanding of the history of ideas deepens, as the La Grande Boissière departments showed us last year in the decolonising the curriculum series, what we used to attribute to the few, in fact belongs to the many: Lafontaine’s fables were adapted from Aesop’s fables, and Aesop’s fables were ancient communal African tales – in fact much evidence suggests that Aesop himself was an African. There probably was no author called Homer – Homer simply means the blind one: The Illiad and The Odyssey are a congregation of ancient myths from diverse origins; Pythagoras’ theories came from India and Babylon, not from Greece; Thales’ principles came from Egypt, Pascal's triangle was not invented by Pascal but is much earlier and probably from Mesoamerica; there was a female biologist hidden beneath Cricks and Watson’s so-called discovery of DNA, and she was never accredited and never received a Nobel prize. Her name was Rosalind Franklin. Many of Rodin’s sculptures were actually made by Camille Claudel; European cubism was actually unacknowledged cultural appropriation of millennia of African art. History and culture are the work of many, not the one. 

And with time, as we find out who the many were. May we teach our student the truth and not the fable: who can stand in front of children today and talk of Columbus discovering America, or omit the Senegalese and Moroccan soldiers who were put on the front line of trenches in WWI and not treated by nurses; who can still pretend that the origins of philosophy are with Socrates and Plato. To get to the core of diversity means removing the simplistic veneer of the single story, the one that’s easier to swallow, it means grappling with complexity. Formulas are easy to remember, but they are often oversimplifications and sometimes, they are simply not true.

The Universal Learning Programme (ULP) allows us to generate our own universal understandings and questions, it is not a straightjacket of imposition and repression. Because no one can be happy and truly reach potential when they are simply told what to do. Diversity and peace mean freedom, in fact multiple freedoms that co-exist.

However, multiple freedoms do not mean cynical self-centeredness. There is a danger that the world we have created creates societies where each person looks after themselves more than the collective whole. What does it mean to be a global citizen? No person is an island. We are diverse and free, but we must support each other. We need each other. We are connected, and despite our diversity, we are one, like a mosaic made up of millions of beautiful shards of precious metals and glass, shimmering under the broad rays of the sun.

Peace and diversity mean systems that are not structurally repressive but multilateral. La paix du travail: another vital Swiss institution, means that management must work peacefully and respectfully with employees, we must work together, in our diverse structural organisation, with the dream of peace in our minds, not petty conflict and fear. Ecolint is a great school because there are checks and balances for all of us, to which we must all be made accountable. This makes us stronger and more responsible. It protects us.

And each of us has several identities: our passports, our languages, our cultures, our beliefs, orientations. Which do you bring to work and why? Which of your multiple identities do you celebrate as a teacher. May this school, La Grande Boissière, be a place where we all bring out the beauty of our multiple identities, where we celebrate our diversity and where each student feels safe and happy to do so.

Peace and diversity mean active listening, not distracted or competitive listening, active, whole person listening, restorative practice, feedback, believing in each other’s capacity, having the courage to speak up, but to do so with respect in our hearts. 

In the final analysis, peace implies diversity. An education for peace is an education for diversity. With the challenges we are facing at many levels, an education for diversity and peace is an education for life. Let’s make it happen, together.

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