Since Christmas Day the question had been nagging away at me throughout the extensive coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab's attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day.
The boy I shared my dream with ?a suicide bomber?
Since Christmas Day the question had been nagging away at me throughout the extensive coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab's attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day. As I read The National on January 2, my uncomfortable thoughts and uneasy feelings resolved into distress and sadness. Of course I know you! I am connected to you. You - a suicide bomber? Dear God, surely not?
You are my former student. I taught you. I played football with you. I visited you in your boarding house. I shared school lunch with you. I also shared the same dream as you…then. You are Abdulmuttalab. From 2000 to 2002 I was deputy head of the British School of Lomé in Togo. Abdulmuttalab was a talented, motivated and articulate student who just as eagerly attended to his studies, played football and basketball, as he discussed current affairs. Abdulmuttalab listened keenly, and always shared his opinions with those whose attention he caught. There were many.
Adbulmuttalab's boarding-school life replicated that of so many other students. He understood the value - and values - of our small international community and developed attitudes, qualities and abilities that seemed to make this time for him a happy and fulfilled one. In The National, Abdulmuttalab is pictured with other British School students in front of Buckingham Palace. I know all the faces, the anonymising pixels hiding expressions of excitement and wonder. They are Abdulmuttalab's friends and confidants. But I am drawn to Abdulmuttalab himself. This picture shocks me; I notice the brooding look and a posture of detachment. Did I see it then, at school? I really don't know.
In many respects, Abdulmuttalab was an unremarkable student. He did not stand out from the crowd, neither did he become lost in it. Yet in so many ways he epitomised everything good about the education our school provided. He was developing the ability to think critically and creatively, and to find ways to live, learn and communicate across cultural, social, economic, linguistic and religious differences.
Abdulmuttalab was developing an international mind and an international heart. He was - to the delight, I know, of his teachers, and I am sure of his parents - maturing into a confident, articulate, compassionate, caring and responsible young man. Abdulmuttalab embodied hope for the future. Our school community shared in the collective shock and grief that followed 9/11; suddenly Manhattan and West Africa became connected. The hastily arranged school assembly on September 12 was poignant and emotional. Muslim, Christian and other community leaders shared a platform. We prayed and wept together.
Abdulmuttalab was there, of course. Whether he prayed and wept, I don't know. I do know that he cannot have failed to have been affected by the central message of our collective words, songs and thoughts that day: never has there been a more urgent time for every one of us to learn to live with each other. It is not a new message, but it is today even more urgent. Yet to some it also seems even more difficult to achieve. As a teacher I believe passionately that education is the key. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations, once described education as "peacekeeping by another name".
My career over the past 25 years has been in international education, founded upon values of tolerance, compassion, intercultural understanding and an unconditional spirit of humanity towards fellow human beings. That a former student of mine can have moved so far away from those values is the root of my distress and sadness. Abdulmuttalab: I also shared the same dream as you…then. Yet rather than be distressed, saddened or perhaps perplexed by the apparent failure of everything educationally I believe in, I sit here now writing these words with a greater sense of resolve and purpose, knowing that learning to live with each other is the biggest challenge of our time, and the biggest challenge facing education.
International education has the potential to exert power across the globe. The 1996 Delors Report, published by Unesco, highlighted four essentials in education: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be, and learning to live together. Never has there been a more appropriate moment to examine the critical role that international education can play in making sense of our interconnected world. Never has there been a better time to ask how education for international-mindedness (and international-heartedness) can make a profound impact upon the global community in a positive manner.
Idealistic? Of course! And why not? Our time demands idealism. We cannot go on like this. The UAE, as it drives forward its visionary education reforms, is uniquely placed to embrace the power of international education. Regardless of physical location, unique population, cultural, social or political backdrop, every school makes two commitments to its students: to prepare them for future academic success, and to prepare them as citizens of the world.
As human beings there can be no greater responsibility than to make our planet a better place in which to live and work. The key to success is that we can learn to live with each other to address this common responsibility. An internationally minded education can share no nobler mission, no greater challenge. Between 2000 and 2002, when I knew Abdulmuttalab, he was a member of a small community that shared these common values and this common purpose. Now, in January 2010, Abdulmuttalab faces a life behind bars - and just what to look forward to?
I am a teacher, but I urge you to send out the clearest signal to all those who will listen, and to those who will find it difficult to listen, that international education truly has the power to be "peacekeeping by another name". Please, do it - for Abdulmuttalab's sake.
Chris Edmunds is lead adviser at Cognition Education in Abu Dhabi