Fertile ground

SMUS-Views-Bob

The taxi driver who took us from our hotel in Amman, Jordan to King’s Academy, in Madaba, had formerly worked in tourism in the country, and spoke reasonably good English, for which I was grateful. He knew where King’s Academy was, and had taken people there before. Like many people, I have this half-baked notion that taxi drivers are representative of popular opinion. I obliquely raised the question of the King, Abdullah. The King is very popular, he said, very important. He really decides the future of the country, the driver said. Although representative democracy exists in Jordan, the King has influence far beyond his legal and constitutional power. A few minutes later he asked what I was doing out at the school. Visiting the Headmaster, I said, having a look. Was King’s Academy very well known, I asked? It is for the wealthy, he said, the upper crust. I nodded, and pointed out that nearly thirty per cent of the student body is on financial aid. He pursed his lips and nodded. He didn’t know that. Jordan is quite a stratified society, economically. The only people he heard about whose kids went there were well-to-do. I mentioned that the King founded the school. For some reason he was unaware of it.

The explicit pursuit of excellence attracts people who believe in excellence and want to pursue it – students who attend, parents who sacrifice, teachers who dedicate themselves, friends and alumni who support. Among my colleagues who are heads of other schools, I regularly encounter those who are uncomfortable with the notion of excellence, or who even scoff at it, as if once upon a time the word might have had an iconic, emblematic glow, but is now so covered with dust or moss or other depredations of history that it has lost its usefulness, a weathered stone god abandoned by a naïve and wayward lost tribe. To these people I say – and I actually do say it – that if you haven’t thought about excellence in education, what it is and how to pursue it, then you must take time to do so. Excellence is complex; to pursue it is challenging. At our school we do talk about excellence, we are both confident and humble pursuing it, aware when it manifests itself that it is larger than we are. The uses of excellence? We don’t use excellence, we serve it. The largest purpose of education is excellence, intellectual and moral, and it exists in all of us. We all have a role in sustaining and preserving it for those who come after us, creating a place where young men and women can fulfill the great potential that is theirs. Thoughts like these have often been in my mind as I absorb impressions from the schools I have visited on this odyssey.

The small city of Madaba, Jordan is much greener than the surrounding countryside. Almost all of Jordan is desert, but Madaba is at the edge of a somewhat fertile slice that eases down toward the Jordan River valley. Security entering the school is serious; the steel gate looks effective and forbidding rather than stately. You have to leave your passport at the gate when you come in.

The school has been functioning for three years, established on 144 acres of bare land. There are no trees of any size. The buildings are impressive, well-ordered as is possible when you spend about millions of dollars all at once constructing them. It just happened to be one of the coldest days of the year, and all the students were indoors. Like the students in Morocco and Turkey, these students wore uniforms not too different from the uniform you would see around SMUS, and the Headmaster spent a moment or two bemoaning the endless, seemingly futile energy expended on keeping the uniform up to scratch. We commiserated for a moment on that issue, sharing the thought that uniforms exist to create a sense of identity, and the risk in the conformity of dress is that it might promote some conformity of thought. A uniform also invites adults to treat students as younger than they really are, keeping them in the controlled sphere of children instead of the more difficult sphere of blossoming adults. Enough on uniform, then, I said, and he smiled and agreed.

King Abdullah of Jordan was educated at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, one of New England’s premier boarding schools. The founding Head of King’s Academy, Eric Widmer, had been Headmaster of Deerfield for twelve years before retiring and taking on the challenge of King’s. I reminisced briefly about a visit to Deerfield I made over thirty years ago when I coached a Senior Hockey team at another school, and we attended a tournament at Lawrenceville Academy, but were billeted at Deerfield. One of the challenges at King’s, said Eric, was to create an athletic programme: school leagues and school sports just don’t exist in Jordan as they do in North America.

The King feels that his Deerfield education equipped him, as fully as his capacities allowed, to engage with anyone in the world on the stage of national and international issues. Articulate, perceptive, intelligent and cosmopolitan, his goal in founding King’s Academy was to create an education that echoed the education he had at Deerfield: a school that is Jordanian and Arabic, but whose gaze will turn out toward the world, and whose experiences will prepare students for interactions they ought to have – and perhaps inevitably must have – with the rest of the world. In the Middle East, this intrusion of the rest of the world inside your own borders is particularly pervasive. There are some excellent public schools in Amman, apparently, but they tend to be the preserve of the elite, and the King deliberately wanted to see a more economically democratic student body, whose only elitism would based on the merit they attained in their intellectual and other, broader, educational pursuits. It is definitely a school that is built around the education of the whole student, with extensive programmes in athletics, the arts, clubs and service.

The classes are small, about twelve students per class. The school has an enrolment currently of 275 students, with a target eventually of 700, of whom 450 will be boarding students. Students come from all over the Arab world, and beyond, including a few who have dual Canadian and Jordanian citizenship. Jordan having steered an independent path in the affairs of the region, it is entirely possible that the school will succeed in its goal of enrolling an Israeli student or two before too much longer. They are very happy with their current enrolment – the founding Director of Admissions, Renee Duggan, is a graduate of SMUS, who moved from New York University about five years ago to take on this challenge, and through whose connections I was able to have such a meaningful visit.

Walking by the boarding houses, which stretch geometrically along the west side of the campus, I divined that we weren’t going to be visiting the inside of them. It soon became apparent why. We were a mixed group, males and females, and there is absolutely no possibility of a member of the opposite sex crossing a door into any of the buildings. Even mothers aren’t allowed into the buildings where their sons board, nor fathers into their daughters’ dorms. This rule is profound and strict. No one questions it.

Walking around the school, talking to our guides, and later with the Head once again, it is clear that King’s Academy is a very exciting place, and that perhaps its role in the education of the region will be pivotal. It is certainly visionary. Eric Widmer and I talked for quite a while about the programmes, especially the Advanced Placement programme, which is the backbone of their academic curriculum, and which gives their students an entrée into universities throughout the world. The issues of politics and culture are significant; homework, for instance, is a novel concept to many of the students, as is really exerting yourself to do your absolute best. Eric spoke about the huge advantages of having the King as your patron, but observed that that alone can’t create a school of enduring quality. I knew exactly where he was going next. No, I said, you can’t build the future of a school on patronage, even patronage as profound as the King’s. It has to be built on excellence, I said.

Absolutely right, he agreed.

 

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