Message from Keystone Academy Head of School (March 2021)

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“I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.”

These are the words of Kurt Hahn, a famous European educator, spoken around the middle of the last century.  I have written about Kurt Hahn before and I offered a brief analysis of these five qualities then.  In some ways, Hahn is a little like Zhang Boling, one of our legendary Chinese educators.  Hahn’s succinct commentary on ‘the foremost task of education’ is, for me, a classic.  Like all classics, it endures over time, and it remains a classic because it can be adapted easily to the changing circumstances of the present day.   New contexts create fresh insights into these five qualities, and reinvigorate their significance and substance.

Five qualities make a short list.  Inevitably, some things that you or I might consider to be as important as these five, or even more so, have been left out.  So be it.  For now, I am interested in what is in the list, not what is left out.  I am especially interested in the middle three, so I’ll say just a little about curiosity and compassion.  Enterprising curiosity is a feature of Keystone, and our students, teachers, and curricula encourage and exemplify this admirable quality.  Compassion is one of our five shared values, and we preach and practice this invaluable virtue in many ways.  In our Keystone Mission we refer to an “enterprising, global, and diverse community” and “compassion” is the first of the five values listed in that statement of intent.

It is the middle three that might be less common, or at least less commonly understood, in our community.   And it is these three that have special relevance to the situation in which we find ourselves right now, a pandemic of ghastly proportions.  This is how I described these qualities when I first introduced them to you in August 2017, over three years ago, and long before the difficult and dangerous time that we are in now:

An undefeatable spirit
I love the notion of spirit that is undefeatable.  We know that humans have extraordinary capacities, when called upon, to persevere, sometimes in circumstances of unimaginable hardship.  The migrant crises in some parts of the world right now are a sad but apt example of this spirit.  In schools that are well-resourced, like ours, and where we all enjoy unusual privileges, we need to foster self-reliance and stamina.  Cultivating an undefeatable spirit is admirable training for a life of good work.

Tenacity in pursuit
Tenacity is a tough, old-fashioned word.  It refers to the capacity that some people have to hold fast, to hang on and not let go.  It is the quality that dogs have when eating bones – dogged and determined.  We need that quality as we pursue learning in all its forms, especially when the going gets rough.  Learning is not always fun.  There are times when it is a hard slog.  That’s when tenacity is so important.

Readiness for sensible self-denial
Self-denial is often associated with some types of religious austerity.  Certain people choose to deny themselves the pleasures of a normal life.  This is not what Hahn meant.  Sensible self-denial tells us not always to expect an easy or quick gratification of our wishes.  There are times when we have to wait and there are many things worth waiting for.  There are other times when we need to realize that denying ourselves might mean opening up possibilities and opportunities for others.

But times have changed.  The world of three years ago seems so different.  Our lives have been turned upside down.  So, in that spirit, let me invert the order of these middle three, and try to say a few new, fresh things about their relevance to us right now:

Readiness for sensible self-denial
Some of my colleagues have not traveled or seen their families for a year.  I have not been near a plane or an airport since I returned to Beijing at the end of January last year.  That’s sensible self-denial.  But I have just seen this news headline: EasyJet seessummer bookings surge 250%. This seems like insensible indulgence to me.  Of course, many are frustrated by lockdowns here, there, and everywhere.  But we need to restrain ourselves for longer, in the here and now, if we wish to enjoy a brighter future, in the there and then.   Gratification which is delayed is required in this moment much more than that which is instant.

Tenacity in pursuit
One thing we know for sure is that the virus has shown great tenacity in pursuit of us, its host.  We have not shown the same degree of tenacity in pursuit of it.  Yes, we have made extraordinary progress in developing vaccines much faster than expected.  But we have still to show real toughness in distributing these efficiently and fairly across the globe.  Many have shown tenacity in distancing, and masking, and quarantine, but too many have not.  Just as this virus reveals hidden health conditions in individuals, so it exposes latent fault lines in whole societies.  In pursuit of the goal of prevailing against this pandemic, we need more of the tenacity that Hahn advocated.

An undefeatable spirit
I put this one at the end as it is so hugely important.  It’s all too easy to moan and complain.  We have a tendency to focus on bad news.  That’s defeatist.  About 100 million humans worldwide have now been infected with the virus.  Of those, around 2 million have died.  That’s staggering, and awful.  But there is good news, too.  Around 70 million have so far recovered.  That’s seldom celebrated, and it’s awesome.  Add on to that number the many stories and examples of heroic service and sacrifice, and we become aware quickly that adversity can bring out the best in us.  We do have an undefeatable spirit, and it’s undefeatable because it is spirit, something that cannot be seen but can be sensed, something that cannot be destroyed physically because it is indomitable mentally. 

We know that they are needed now more than ever.  Help us realize and practice them.

With warm regards, 
Malcolm McKenzie, Head of School

Written by

Keystone Academy

Keystone Academy

Keystone Academy is an innovative and unique school in China and the world. It draws from Chinese, American and International learning traditions and weaves them into a powerful bilingual education model. It is truly one-of-its kind in China. The curriculum is bilingual in the primary years with more intensive instruction in English through middle and high schools. We focus on inquiry-based learning, critical thinking, and creative problem solving in a rigorous intellectual environment.