The past few decades have seen an explosive growth in international schools in Asia. At the last count, Thailand had a hundred and seventy two, Hong Kong a hundred and seventy one, Malaysia a hundred and forty two, and Singapore—where locals aren’t even permitted to attend international schools—sixty-three.
The demand is so great that, even in dusty third-tier towns, one can occasionally spot hand-painted signboards calling for applications to the latest international school project. That’s because, more and more, it’s the children of local Asian elites that enter these schools, rather than the traditional expatriated American or European families.
What do these schools promise? Everything short of world peace, it seems.
Marketing materials tout an academic environment that initiates intercultural dialogue, stimulates interest in foreign languages and guarantees admission into the world’s best universities. This, while maintaining a client-focused approach, the client being the parents forking out upwards of thirty thousand dollars a year.
It’s debatable whether pragmatic Asian parents are wooed by visions of this warm and fuzzy globalism. More likely, they are simply trying to buy their kid any perceived advantage they can in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world.
After all, this is what the international schools excel at: producing the foot soldiers of Anglo-American capitalism, an international bourgeoisie of frequent flier executives, bureaucrats, professors and media personnel.
The members of this group all speak the language of a banal cosmopolitanism. They consume the same global brands (Chanel, Gucci), the same global icons (David Beckham, Steve Jobs), and the same multicultural foods (sushi, kimchi, etc. but only at swanky Soho restaurants). It’s doubtful, however, that any of this is leading to greater global understanding.
The typical international school is not a value-neutral transnational space, but one where there is a clear, if unspoken, hierarchy of values, accents and passports. The teachers and administration are from the Anglo-American world, the curriculum is Anglo-American and students are prepped for admission to Anglo-American universities.
An annual parade where people get to dress up in national “costume” (implying of course that these clothes are not acceptable in the real world) should not obscure the underlying reality that all the students are being taught is how to get along in an Anglo-American world order.
All of this is fine, of course, and people should be free to choose (there’s a favorite word of the neoliberals) what they deem best for their kids.
Still, let’s be clear on one thing: a globalized world is not necessarily an Americanized or Anglicized one, and that is increasingly the case today.
Despite these changing realities, today a Malay can interact with an Indian can interact with a Chinese can interact with a Korean only through the intermediation of Anglo-American culture. No wonder nobody in Asia wants the U.S. Pacific Fleet to leave.
But let’s take a moment to consider what a real international education would look like.
It would require an environment where a non-native English speaker felt no more intimidated than a native English speaker when expressing his or her ideas in the classroom.
There would be few assumptions about what constitutes the norm. Thus, alternative conceptions of the good could be presented without fear and students could debate them rationally and respectfully, recognizing that absolute consensus is not required (none of that “you’re with us or against us”).
Students could aspire to role models who come from many different countries. (Why must a superhero always hail from New York City?)
These are some of the prerequisites for a meaningful exchange of ideas, which in turn leads to more engaged global citizens, who understand and fulfill all the rights and duties of citizenship, not of any particular nation, but of the world.