Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I was the sole New Zealand representative at a UNESCO Education Conference in Geneva when the topic was the role of the teacher in the 21st Century. It was a singular experience. There were 748 delegates from 136 member countries and 163 observers (who had speaking rights), a total of 911 people, there were 26 Ministers of Education, 25 vice-Ministers and many CEOs. Such statistics sound like a promotion. Not so, rather it’s to stress this was no minor league. The USA’s absence was its loss. New Zealand suddenly seemed very far away and very small.

UNESCO has had a rough press. But its existence is important. It is correct when it says that wars begin in the minds and hearts of men, (yes, the sexist tag is appropriate), and education is one of the ways to address this concern. But a large international conference has many frustrations. Just one small example, a 20th century equivalent to medieval theology’s debates over how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Point 5 of the declaration adopted by the conference reads, 'to call upon all the partners, such as teachers and their associations, learners themselves, moral and spiritual authorities, families, businesses, the media, intellectuals, artists and scientists to commit themselves to the development of a school envisaged as an active centre for learning and moral, spiritual, civic and vocational education, to be continually adapted to a changing world." The original draft had the words ‘government and religious authorities’. A number of delegates asked that the term ‘government’ be deleted. To them it was a dirty word. Others wanted ‘religion’ out. Others wanted it retained. Bearing in mind our system based on the concept of a partnership between teacher, community and the State I supported the word ‘government’. The lady Minister from Bahamas suggested a sensible reconciliation, "all the partners, teachers, learners and stakeholders". That was turned down by the chair on the grounds that "stakeholders" was a new term, not tabled prior to the meeting. So ‘government’ and ‘religion’ were both struck out. As the Australian delegate said to me, "the powers-that-be-back-home are going to ask 'how on earth could you support a recommendation that ignored two of the main movers in education?'" Watching these geopolitical arguments removed some of the glamour my mind associated with diplomatic jobs.

My mindset, my associations, my experience did not prepare me for the intensity of these debates. They were argued with a life or death fervour. For the first time in my life I understood the schisms of the early Christian church and the passionate heat of the various factions of the Reformation. The disputes between Sunni and Shi-ite in Iraq mirror the same intensity. Mirror is the wrong word. These debates are not about semantics. They arise from deeply held convictions. To such people I probably appear shallow-souled. So be it. I have no desire to enslave others to my own beliefs. It’s an age-old dilemna. Not being into ‘isms’ is both freeing and restricting.

It wasn’t all intense debate. Time was set aside for regional meetings. There was a delightful moment at the beginning of the Asia-Pacific one. A Japanese delegate said, "now we are all speaking English at long last we can understand each another", to which a Sri Lankan added in his clipped English "this conference indeed lacks an Anglo-Saxon dimension."

The final session saw not only the adoption of the conclusions of the major debates, the declaration, and recommendations but also a celebration of International Teachers Day. This proved rather inspirational and moving. The nations of the world with all their posturing and rhetoric were in agreement about the importance of this task and the need to value it. It was a coming together of the entire week. There was genuine idealism - many people with fire in their bellies about what education can do, should do, must do. It was authentic and global and heart-warming. I came away reinforced in my belief that New Zealand has a fine system and we don't acknowledge it often enough. In the conscious dreams that human beings have created, education is one of our finest. There is a time and place for idealism just as there is a time and place to be bawdy and comic and impolite and outrageous.

I also learnt a lesson – never make jokes at an international level. Delegates’ seating was based alphabetically. Next to New Zealand was Oman and because of French spelling after that was Uganda. They had an overflow of delegates and because I was on my own they asked if they could seat some of their people with me. I happily agreed and enjoyed their company. At a cocktail reception the lady minister from the Bahamas – a most impressive person – said to me she didn’t know New Zealand had so many blacks. I said ‘but we have the All Blacks.’ Mistake! My lame explanation didn’t help; a most embarrassing moment.

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