Somewheres & Anywheres

Sunday 30 April 2017

Is it time to change the IB’s name? The ‘International Baccalaureate’ was an effective title when the IB was dreamed up in the late 1960s, but arguably the IB has evolved and times have changed. To start with, what the IB offers is a ‘transnational’ educational system – an education which is presented as optimal for all human beings, regardless of national boundaries. On the other hand, the direct consequences (as opposed to programme content) are more generally ‘international’, in that there is agreement, in theory at least, that an IB Diploma enables access to any national university system. Crucially, though, these ‘international/transnational’ elements have been joined by the evolution of ‘internationalism’: that the IB advocates a belief in the inherent value of the ‘international’. This value is asserted to be important on moral and social grounds - in short, the IB promotes a cultural stance, so perhaps we should re-name the IB the ‘Intercultural Baccalaureate’?

Such ‘interculturalism’ is what we actually meet in the classroom. After all, nations do not appear in any classroom, but rather individuals, culturally conditioned. Note that the IB’s Mission Statement emphasises “intercultural understanding and respect”; and that the list of qualities in the Learner Profile, such as ‘Open-mindedness’, are component parts of the ideal of “internationally minded people”. But what is this mythical creature Culture, and how does it really behave?

A book recently published in the UK, The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart, takes an interesting angle on how cultural attitudes are created and have influence. It is worth reading in full the review in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, but to summarise... Goodhart’s thesis is that there is a crucial social faultline between people who are Somewheres, who define themselves by a specific place with specific social norms and traditions; and people who are Anywheres, who do not define themselves by their roots, but rather by selecting their values, goals and aims from experience of various places.

Goodhart’s research appears to be mainly based on the UK (indeed, the Guardian review suggests that the Somewheres/Anywheres division helps to explain the Brexit vote), but the basic concept can be applied across the world. Somewheres are mainly to be found in rural areas and small provincial towns, while Anywheres are most common in cities with large cosmopolitan populations ... consider the Divided States of America?

It would seem obvious that the IB takes an Anywhere position, but how valid is this? All of our students come from somewhere – apart, perhaps, from those who are nomads and have never really lived anywhere for long. The Guardian review cites Theresa May as saying “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” – which must be a definitive Somewhere point of view, and is the antithesis of what the IB stands for.

What lies beneath this intellectual game of Somewheres versus Anywheres is the important psychological distinction between rootedness and rootlessness. If ‘rootedness’ means ‘psychological coherence’, how is this to be achieved in the IB’s Anywhere ideal of “internationally minded people”? The Somewhere solution for coherence seems to be to live exclusively with People Like Me, as opposed to The Others Who Are Not Like Me. Well, that certainly makes life easier and more comfortable ... but it’s not exactly what the IB proposes, is it? The crucial question for the IB’s ‘intercultural’ aethos is to be clear how Anywheres construct psychological coherence.

The coherence of Anywheres must begin with the qualities of empathy and respect: the ability to place yourself into someone else’s view of the world, and the ability to accept the right to see things differently. But psychological coherence cannot just mean the receptive skills of empathy and respect – it must also mean the productive skills of evaluation and commitment. So the (trans)cultural engagement that the IB requires must involve the application of critical thinking to other cultures’ values ... and ultimately, being prepared to commit yourself to whatever you select from other cultural views.

In short, psychological coherence relies on the ability to focus oneself. Theresa May’s superficial Somewhere cliche about “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere” may be as absurd as saying “if you’re interested in everything, you’re interested in nothing” – but both statements can be qualified by indicating commitment. If you’re a citizen of the world, what are you really committed to? And if you’re interested in everything, what are you really interested in? Both of these lead to your focus: what you actually do. Action is what gets us past the Somewhere/Anywhere divide – it’s the psychological GPS that tells us where we truly are.

And thinking of putting belief into action, I reckon that the Somewhere/Anywhere divide may also relate to my pet theory that all political parties fall into the Rigid Tendency and the Flexible Tendency ... but that’s for another blog, another day. 


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