Fredrika Tuttle Blair

A School For Nations



The United Nations, according to the front page of the New York Times, is about to start a school. In response to the needs of children from all over the world whose parents are stationed at Lake Success, experts in the Secretariat under the leadership of Dr. Sven Bjorkland of Sweden have drawn up plans for an unusual institution. It intends to give its pupils the sort of education which will enable them to return without difficulty to the schools of their own lands; and its curriculum will be flexible enough to accommodate boys and girls speaking different languages. Not merely self centered in its aims, it will adapt children to the ways of the United States, while imparting an international point of view.

To many readers of the newspapers, this announcement doubtless could not compete in interest with more pressing headlines. But to one who is a graduate of the International School and who remembers vividly our life at that extraordinary place, it awakened an immediate response.

For the United Nations experiment is not the first venture of its kind. At a corresponding moment in the development of the League of Nations, men and women connected with that organization founded the Ecole Internationale de Geneve. Moral as well as academic considerations prompted the founders. Believing with G. K. Chesterton that unfamiliarity breeds contempt, they resolved to create a better understanding between children of all countries by educating them together. The school which was the product of their labor outlived the League of Nations and is still flourishing today. Its current student body numbers more than 300, and its 2,OOO alumni are scattered from Denmark to Japan, It is not strange, therefore, that the head of the Geneva school, Mme Therese Maurette should have been invited to the U.N. staff members' meeting to give the planners the benefit of her twenty years experience at a similar task.

This being so, a look at the Boole Internationale will give us some indication of what we may expect from the new organization, both in techniques and effectiveness. If personal reminiscence figures my account, it is because I know of no other way to convey the flavor of the education we students received, or the life we led.

It was evident to the founders of the Boole that ordinary teaching methods would be inadequate for a student body of as many as twenty-six nationalities. Besides the difficulties implicit in dealing with children of many tongues and backgrounds, the school had to prepare its students for examinations for French, American, Swiss, Canadian and English universities. It met these needs first of all by giving classes in one of two languages, so that each pupil could decide whether he wanted to take, say, mathematics in English or French. These were the two official teaching languages, but German was given also.

Where conventional courses did not meet the school's re- quirements, new courses were invented: national culture (the study of one's country), and world history( the history of the orient as well as the occident) which was taught by Mme. Maurette, the principal. It was she, whatever part the founders had played in devising the curriculum, who had created the school's particular atmosphere of friendliness, dedication and informality. Endowed with a combination of forcefulness and warmth, she had the gift of awaking enthusiasm, and the ability to direct it. Another of the special courses, international culture, was taught by Mme. Maurette's father, M. Dupuy.

M. Dupuy was not unknown to the world outside the International School. He held an honorific post in the top ranks of the French educational hierarchy, and it is in his role of teacher at the Paris Ecole Normale that he is described by Jules Romains in Men of Good Will.

Because both his lessons and character illustrate the sort of instruction we received, I must say something more about Inter national culture. It was not exactly geography or map-making; though when I entered the classroom for the first time it seemed to be preponderantly map-making. I was then thirteen, and a newcomer to the School. M. Dupuy, patriarchal with his white beard and skullcap, was dictating measurements for geographical projections, Flustered by the unaccustomed task and even more by his impressive appearance, I soon lost my bearings and he had to help me out.

Our work took place in a room which reflected M. Dupuy's tastes and the range of subjects on which his lessons touched. Three-fourths of the wall behind his table was covered by a blackboard extending from the ceiling to the floor, upon which a map of China and Japan had been carefully executed in colored chalks. A little blackboard and a photograph of part of the Parthenon frieze, occupied the remainder of the wall. A great many smaller maps and pictures were posted on the other walls, among them being Rembrandt's "Resurrection of Christ", a Holbein portrait, a Durer rabbit, and photographs of Michelangelo's frescoes. Reference books and atlases in many languages filled three shallow bookcases, on one of which was placed the plaster model of a Greek girl's head. Between the windows were two dark brown blackboards with a nude male figure, half crouching, half dancing, drawn in tan chalk on each. I later learned that M. Dupuy had copied them from the Sistine ceiling.

I think he must have invented International culture. Its aims reflected the aims of the School: to bring about a better understanding among children of all nations by teaching them about the world. In drafting a vast number of maps, both physical and political, we learned to disregard the arbitrary divisions of atlases (which -- when American -- give a full page chart to the Middle Atlantic States, only to squeeze China into a small scale diagram of Asia), and we began to consider the earth as a whole, We discovered that Brazil is larger than the United States, and that Switzerland, despite its prominent place in Swiss textbooks, would fit into Lake Superior. M. Dupuy recalled with malicious pleasure that the Negroes in the French colony of Senegal were instructed from official geography books beginning "Long ago our country was called Gaul and our ancestors were known as the Gauls', and he resolved that we should at least never fall into that kind of folly. So he encouraged our critical abilities by discussing Wegner's theory of "Floating Continents", and other geographical matters, making no attempt to persuade us that we were either Gauls or Pacificists. Instead he showed us the globe, countries divided, and yet brought together by the same oceans, by climate and by human purposes. We learned a great many things too, about the pipe-line from Baku to Poti, and where Kamchatka was, and that the Mongol invaders had always swept over Europe through the narrow pass of the Dzungarie, and we were also asked to calculate the meridional height of the noonday sun at different latitudes upon different dates, (though I could never do it properly).

He was rarely strict in class. He let us talk as much as we liked on condition that we get our work done, and we made the most of his leniency, Our noise must have been hard to bear - he was then seventy years old - but perhaps he thought we would learn as much from the congenial atmosphere, and the art and people by which we were surrounded, as we would from more formal lessons.

Not all the classes at the School were special classes. After all, we had to learn mathematics, French, English, history and other standard subjects. Though the International believed in progressive education, the teachers had different types of academic backgrounds, and methods of teaching ranged from classical to progressive,

The classicists, as exemplified by M. and Madame F --, professors of history and French literature, stressed facts, organi- zation, analysis. We were expected to know the two theories of the origin of epic poetry, the difference between a bard and a troubadour, and be able to analyse a page of Racine or write a composition on Moliere's development, The F---s had little tolerance for unconventional points of view. A writer had certain known properties like the chemical elements, and if you denied them you had not read him properly.

To students accustomed to being told which authors to admire and how to grade a ruler's achievements, Mr. A---'s history lessons seemed at first confusing. Mr. A --- was not satisfied with answers parroted from textbooks, and he raised as many questions as he settled, Why does a revolution occur at one time and not at another, when the injustices that prompted it are of long standing? How much is it safe to compromise? And does unwillingness to compromise help or hurt your cause? If the abolitionists, say, had been less violent, could slavery have been abolished without a Civil War?

In this way Mr. A--- tried to shake us free from preconceived notions; and when we no longer took any statement on trust nor saw things as black and white, in short when we were both confused and suspicious, he declared that we were in the proper historical frame of mind. But characteristically, although he stressed the uncertainty of the factors which a historian must deal with, the impression which emerged from his talks was one of order. Perhaps this was because he did not devote his attention to any one of these factors but to their interplay, and because, like M. Dupuy, he had a gift for seeing his subject as a whole.

Both Mr. A--- and the F---s had the gift of teaching dramatically, and all three abhorred sloppy work. From the F---s we learned how to analyse what we read and organize what we wrote. From Mr. A --- we learned to work for our own satisfaction. The other teachers taught us according to their temperaments in methods somewhat between these two, but whether they relied on formal technique or on awakening our spirit of inquiry, there was between them and us students a sense of comradeship which came from feeling ourselves partners in the same enterprise.

Not all the teaching was done in class. We learned a good deal from contact with our fellow pupils in sports, in plays, at dances and in all the other activities, planned and impromptu, which formed our social life.

Sports regularly took up part of two afternoons a week and sometimes free Saturdays, when there was a special match with another school. During Christmas vacation the boarders and the more athletic teachers went to the mountains for skiing; day pupils could join these trips if they liked, as they could the other ski-trips that were arranged during the year, The June "Interascolarie" match in which most of the boys' academies around Lake Geneva competed was always a big event. The girls did not take part, but they went along to cheer for the boys, and to dazzle and make envious the young men from the other (non-coeducational) schools.

Traditionally we gave a Shakespeare play or a Greek tragedy at the end of the year, but we also found time to act in farces, morality plays and comedies. That most of us spoke either French or English with an accent did not daunt our ambition. We once did try to get around language difficulties by writing a play of our own about the Norman Conquest, in which the scenes in England took place in English, those in France took place in French, and William was crowned in Latin, but as a rule we were satisfied with the classics. One cf the most successful productions was l'0iseau Bleu in which most of the student body took part. In the spectacular first scene, when the fairy touched the room with her wand the pots on the stove spun and leapt, rattling their lids. Naturally there were mishaps. The Star-dancers created an untoward effect when the flashlights concealed in the bodices of their filmy garb slid down into the seats of their bloomers. Once when a door was opened in the Palace of the Night, we disclosed the manual training teacher instead of the expected bluebirds, but we shut the door quickly and all those behind the scenes assured us that the audience had never noticed it.

In all these activities there was, besides the pleasure of doing things, the stimulation which underlay any work or recreation shared with members of the opposite sex. Though we were used to boys, it would be inexact to say that we were hardened to them. The desks in the classrooms were scrawled with inscriptions of a sentimental or disabused nature: "Pierre loves Mary-Helen" -- and underneath "Le pauvre! Il se fait des illusions". Flirting was frequent, but it was decorous, as befitted students in a Calvinist city, The socially approved way of showing your attention to a young lady was to walk home with her, if she was a day student, or accompany her around the garden if she was a boarder. And of course at dances you were her partner as often as possible.

The most prominent dance cf the year was the Escalade. The Escalade is a Genevese festival celebrating the attempt of the Savoyards to capture the city under cover of darkness, one December night in 1602, and their subsequent defeat at the hands of the townsmen.

Every December, therefore, when private citizens began to send out invitations to masquerades, we at the International made preparations for a costume ball. We chose a subject for costumes and decorations: sometimes the dining room where we danced would be transformed into a small fishing port, or the bottom of the sea, or a scene from the Arabian nights, these changes being brought about by the expenditure of time, ingenuity and very little money: we rigged up lights, and painted frescoes on huge sheets of brown paper which we tacked to the walls.

The day after the dance we would be excused from classes, and after sundown a group of us would go to hear the proclamation of freedom read in the old city. I remember one Esacalade night very clearly. We stood huddled together in the Bourg du Four, our shoulders hunched up under our coats, the lamplight glazing our wet umbrellas, while all around us the first snow of the year fell silently. Finally the cortege appeared, heralded by a sudden flourish of trumpets; the torches making shifting blobs of light all down the hill. We could see the marchers better now, the town crier in his parti-colored coat, swaying astride his horse, the long file of armored guards and pike-bearers, creaking a little as they drew near. The procession came to a standstill, and for a moment there was no sound but the snow which hissed as it blew against the torches. Then the town crier proclaimed the city's victory in a ringing voice, and when he had done there were cheers and the crowd burst into song: "Hail to the glorious Escalade -- Savoyards beware, beware!"

We went off with the procession in the midst of a great tumult, jostling one another, clattering down the cobblestones, and every time we came to a square, we halted and repeated the ceremony. Workmen hailed us, businessmen winked at us, and borne along by the mob we descended unfamiliar steps and crossed indistinguishable alleys. In this manner we crossed the Street of the Rising Sun, the Street of Purgatory, the stairs known as "the Chicken Run". and White Horse Street, we ascended the Street of the Cauldron Makers and the alley of Booted Cocks. We felt ourselves too choked with happiness to utter a word. Instead, we laughed at a solemn woman because of her glumness, and at a band of children because they were so gay; then suddenly we found ourselves carolling at the top of our lungs:

"Oh. the glorious Escalade!
Savoyards -- beware, beware."

Strange enthusiasm born of the memory of war: we were Americans, Bulgarians, Columbians, French, Poles and a Chinese.

Such was the International School when I went there, and since I have left I have often wondered whether the friendship, the claiming of one another's ancestry which we learned then has been able to survive the hate and bitterness of war. Was what the school taught us successful? Was It wise?

Doubts of its wisdom were expressed to me by a former pupil whom I met at a school reunion given at the League of Nations pavilion at the World's Fair. He said: "I think the education we had was all wrong. Because it led us to expect peace, and We're not going to have peace. Yet how can we fight (and we'll have to) if we believe war is a crime? -- the nations have never done anything but talk about peace and prepare for war; and we have been made fools of, to think that peace is possible."

Although I could understand his feelings his argument seemed irrelevant because the school had never taught us that it could prevent war, or even that there would be no more wars in our lifetime. What it taught us was more modest but fundamental: that peace is perfectly possible between people of all nations. After all, we students were ordinary people, not sweeter tempered nor more civilized than the common run, but opinionated, impulsive, and prone to argument. And yet we had dwelt in the closest proximity for a long time without any serious flare-ups, working together, respecting each other, sorry when anyone left. I might prefer Sergio to Peter, but the inference that therefore Italians were better than Canadians never entered by head. We accepted one another on personal grounds; nationality did not influence our choice, indeed we were scarcely aware of it. This was particularly true as regards racial and religious prejudice. When you attend school with children who are Confucians, Japanese, Caucasians, Atheists, Eurasians, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Protestants and Jews you do not bother about whether so and so has a Semitic nose, in fact it never occurs to you to classify so and sots nose at all. And when you go to a school where everyone, including yourself, is foreign, "foreigners" disappear.

Of course, in teaching us to judge one another as individuals the school risked shocking us when we returned to a world in which prejudice and national antagonisms were fostered. But it is not a bad thing to be shocked. You cannot accept the unjust and arbitrary as inevitable if you have known a place where justice and reason work. And to teach children to expect things as they can be, but seldom are, is surely a matter for praise, not reproach.

But behind the reproach that our education unfitted us for a warring world lies a more serious criticism: The choice of peace open to a man who believes war to be a crime and yet sees injustices committed which only a war seems able to stop? Though aware that Hitlerism was not necessarily a disease peculiar to Germans, the school's very pacifism made it anti-Nazi, because the Nazis stood for everything which the school opposed, militarism, censored thought, and that worst of all sins, denying the humanity of your fellows. Thus many of us were faced with a very real moral struggle between our hatred of war and our desire to destroy the Nazis.

While I came to accept the necessity of this war I still believed that what we had learned about brotherhood was true, and I waited with anxiety for letters from friends in conquered or ravaged countries, hoping that friendship would still be possible between us. How much greater must have been the anxiety of the school's founders, who wondered whether all they had taught us had been forgotten, or worse, had served only to increase the misery of those who must fight. It must have been hard for them to get letters like one which Mme. Maurette received from a former student, in answer to a request to help a German prisoner of war. The student wrote back that he would help the prisoner, but did not want to have any personal contact with his enemy. "I don't know whether you who have not seen the filth, the cruelty of war with your own eyes can understand my point of view...I saw companions at my side die a horrible death from German bullets. I cannot shake the hand that loosed those bullets."

Because the founders felt they could not continue to teach without knowing what effect their teaching had had, they sent out to all their old students questionnaires asking: "Has the International School affected your opinions, your outlook on life, or your choice of a career? sincerely as you can."

The answers to all the questionnaires have not yet come in because it is hard to trace people from whom you have not been able to get mail for five years, and who have in the meantime married, moved, been mobilized and demobilized Some students doubtless did not answer because they wished to sever their connection with the school. Others were silent because they thought their allegiance to the school was too well known to be worth mentioning. But of the answers which have come in so far, all but ten praised the school for teaching tolerance and understanding. Eight of these, although they did not mention tolerance, praised the school for other reasons, and the two others gave qualified praise to the school's purpose. It is noteworthy that none of the students who wrote in declared that brotherhood was impossible to achieve, or an unwise aim. The two who had reservations had them on other grounds. One, while she admired the harmony existing at the International said that the school was held back by its lack of Christian faith,* And the other (A Dutch girl) expresses herself as follows: "For me the school is a very good memory. One thinks of it when one feels blue...When I arrived in 1943, tired, depressed and sad from what I had lived through, your school was like a place in a dream showing that men could live together in peace without torturing each other...This made a strong impression on me because after these terrible years we began to ask ourselves whether man was ever capable of goodness ... you have shown me how the world can and must have struck the word foreigners from my vocabulary. I now know only different individuals in the same world -- except for the Germans whom I cannot help hating because I hate crimes and criminals. You surely cannot ask me to forgive the murder of my parents, and many friends and compatriots in the gas chambers of Auschwitz?" She adds touchingly, "I'm sure you will understand that this doesn't mean that your efforts have failed. You have made me want to live. You have given me back confidence in myself and mankind..."

I shall let some of the others speak for themselves:
A Danish boy: "The International school must not disappear... In fact there ought to be such a school in every country ...I never forgot my knowledge of colors and nationalities being without any importance if only we had been together long enough to know each other a little... I have never been able to get caught up by the nationalistic and 'chauvinistic' currents which came all over the world following the war, and even though my country was occupied by the Germans, and I naturally stood on the side of the Allies and looked forward to the day when we would be able to throw out the invaders, I never felt any hatred directed against the Germans because of their nationality..."

An Italian boy who fought in the war: "The war has only reinforced my conviction that we need international solidarity based on the understanding of peoples."

A French girl: "I think I was most struck by the great liberty and respectful friendship which exists between teachers and students..."

An Italian girl (writing to her teacher): "Are you discouraged? Do you doubt the usefulness of your efforts? But for the love of heaven, continue, persevere. It (the school) is the most formidable institution on earth, and my sole regret is that only one exists instead of 1,000 or 10,000, so that everyone could grow in its free and cooperative spirit,,,"

An Anglo-Spanish girl: "I went to eighteen schools between the ages of five and sixteen, and all the same I only belong to one, the International. The biggest result is that unlike the people around me I have not been able to hate the Germans, nor could I rejoice in the atomic bombs falling on Japan, which to me is not a far away country, but the country of the most beautiful girl at school in my time..."

A French boy: "The school succeeded in uniting two things which till then I had thought impossible to bring together: liberty and discipline."

A Bulgarian girl: "The Armistice Day assemblies at school made the deepest impression on me. I came from a country where this date was not celebrated...impregnated with the atmosphere which we breathed (at school) each November, I was shocked when, back in my country, I discovered that for my compatriots the llth of November was a day of mockery, not of meditation. I had learned better here..."

A Southern girl from the United States said that the school had made her an opponent of racial intolerance. An Austrian boy declared: "The Ecole Internationale is not so much a school of learning as a school of understanding*"

A Japanese girl who did not answer the questionnaire wrote to four former classmates (one French, one Austrian, and two Americans): "Maybe you would like to know what I think of my own country? Well, I will tell you frankly, I am ashamed. I have been brought up to love justice and to hate war ... Then war broke out. I will never be able to tell you the distress, the awfulness, the fury that overwhelmed me at the news ... I could not hate my enemies. Even when, in the beginning Japan was drunk with victory I looked on them (the militarists) as criminals... The news of a possible armistice made me jump with joy. But when I heard the Emperor's voice over the radio I could not help crying...I cried, thinking of our soldiers who died, ... of our sufferings for such an end...But I heard about our soldiers, the atrocities they had done...and I wanted to die with shame*...I have no right to say that you are still my friends because you are the ones to decide whether you still acknowledge me as such..." But the most moving testimony came from a former German Jewish boy, now a Polish citizen, who served in the R.A.F., was shot down on his twenty-third mission, and was imprisoned for two years, being one of those whose hands were bound for eight months. He writes: "During the last few years, in spite of some rather varied experiences, I could never bring myself to hate, and I always felt guilty when other people preached hate. Even when witnessing S.S. men beating up young Jewish boys on a railway siding near Auschwitz I could not help feeling sorry for them to have become so degraded, their minds so numbed that one could hardly call those man human beings anymore..." Although the capacity for forgiveness which this young man displays is too great to be explained by any outside influence, he himself attributes it to his years at the International School. And it is plain that the inability to hate need not paralyse action, for this boy is the holder of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Polish Virtuti Militari, and the Cross for Valor.

Another German boy, this one not a refugee, was given a certificate of thanks by the French slave laborers of whom he was in charge for having, at the risk of his life, helped at least thirty of them escape. The prisoners explain that the young man took these risks "through love of justice and peace." And they might have added "through patriotism," for M. Dupuy reports that some time before these events the boy's father had come to the geography teacher to thank him for helping his son "not to despair of his country,

Until all the questionnaires have been returned, it will be impossible to determine just what proportion of the students who went to the International School have made its teaching part of their lives. But the tone of those answers which have come indicate that the school has been successful in its purpose, In the words of the Dutch girl whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, it was shown us how the world can and must become. The more people believe in brotherhood as strongly and as emotionally as they believe that they are citizens of a country, the better the chances for peace. That is why the plans at Lake Success are good news. Two international schools cannot, of course, reeducate humanity but they can make a beginning. And they can remind us that such a way of life is possible among men.