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Meditation Isaac

Chalet Mon Abri
CH - 1882 Gryon, Switzerland
(**41 24) 498 1656

Dear Reader of Footnotes:

It is a delightful pleasure to bring you here the carefully crafted talk, lecture or meditation, which our son Isaac gave a month ago as alumni of his school. It is his third presentation there; the previous ones were all very well received. He will first mention the nature and purpose of such a meditation and explain the background for the choice of subject. It has multiple applications in our lives. To judge by the encouragement it has given to many and the discomfort it continues to be for others, it is a timely proposition.

I shall add a short description of the school and our relation to it at the end. Isaac is presently a second year student at George Washington U in Washington DC with a major in International Relations and a special focus on Africa.

“It has always been, and will always be, Man's desire to make an impact on the world that surrounds him. Made in the image of God, the original Creator, we seek by default to alter the world, to create something that will outlast our own time here. Man is thus fundamentally displeased and malcontent with stagnation, as we feel that the world and that which is contained within it should change, should be improved upon, and should be adapted.

This desire for change is not something that should be resisted in and of itself. After all, a desire for change, for a new and improved response to the world, its beauties as well as its horrors, has often brought Mankind much good. The use of perspective in art, in order to portray reality more accurately, the railway as a response to Man's need to travel more efficiently, and Antibiotics, a response to the tragedy of disease and infection, can all be classed as changes that Man sought out in order to better the world. This is not to say that change is always good however.

Indeed, the main benchmark against which all change should be measured, by both the initiators of the new movement as well as those who are subject to it, is whether or not the proposed change furthers or reduces the great tragedies in this world, and whether it conforms to the reality of the universe in which we live. To use a simple example, any change in the treatment of persons who are experiencing illness should better their situation with regards to the illness. It should thus improve their chances of recovery and limit the spreading of painful illness. Furthermore, it should take into account the realities of the world in which we live: The Human Being possesses a unique worth within the world, and should always be treated with care, respect and dignity. Life is something that should be preserved, nurtured and created, not brought short. Death and decay are abhorrent travesties that should ceaselessly be fought with the strongest of weapons by all.

Education possesses similar challenges, and should thus be approached using the same guidelines detailed above. What are the realities of the world in which we live, as they pertain to education? How do we improve education, and the lot of persons who go through the educational process, and not impede it? It has been the trend, in recent years, to view change, in and of itself, as being the solution to the failing education systems that exist in many parts of even the most developed regions of the world. We have thus, in the United States, tried keeping children in school longer, reducing vacation time. We have tried tying school funding to the success rates of the school's students in examinations. All of these changes have, in the vast majority of cases, failed.

Why has this been the case, you ask? The answer is painfully simple. All of the changes have disregarded the reality of what an education truly is, what its goals should be. An education is not something that can be improved by keeping students in the classroom longer, nor by tying the measure of a school's success to its students' performance in simple exams. An education, in the true sense, is something that concerns the entirety of the student, both mind and body. All too often, we confuse "education" with "passing on of skills". The ability to multiply numbers together is a wonderful skill, vital to being able to live in our world. One cannot say, however, that being able to multiply, to add, to diagram a sentence (a great skill that has, incidentally, been forgotten by the
vast majority of educational establishments) makes one an educated person. After all, a Chimp or a fast computer can be taught most of the skills rather easily.

Rather, an education at its root is the passing on of an attitude, of an approach towards life. It is the conveyance and encouragement of curiosity, of passion for life and the world. It the teaching of the values of respect, honesty, humility and reverence that have been at the base of all of Man's successes in history, and the absence of which have always lead to our darkest, and most shameful, hours. As long as the educational establishment, as well as our society as a whole, continues to forget this fact, we will continue to churn out people who might possess a certain skill set that allows them to get through life more-or-less successfully, but that prevents any sense of fulfilment, any ethical and moral guidelines upon which to continue to
build our society.

I mention this in introduction to the text that follows, which is the text from a speech which I gave to my former school this January. My school's founder, John Corlette, had as one of his main beliefs the idea that the entire school should meet every morning, before classes, in order that a member of staff, visiting person, or student might address, for a few minutes, the school with a thought for the day. These come in the form of stories, both true or proverbial, or in the form of poetry or a musical performance. These gatherings are called "Mediation", as there is always a period of silence directly following the message, during which students and staff think about the content of the meditation. This is but one of many ways in which my Alma Mater seeks to approach education in a holistic manner, whereby the staff attempts, and generally succeeds, to communicate to the students not only certain skill-sets, as defined above, but indeed far more importantly a specific ethos with which one should approach life.

Recently, at Aiglon, there have been numerous changes brought about by the senior leadership, in the form of a new headmaster. New to the school, and the job, he has wrought numerous, and far-reaching changes that do not conform to the school, to its unique approach towards education or life. He seeks to take Aiglon, which has always been delightfully eccentric, to a new place: one of conformity and blandness. He believes that the school should become, as far as anyone can ascertain through the shrouds of doubt and conspiracy that now surround the school, another one of the many international schools that exist in Switzerland. His reasons for desiring to do so remain unclear, as a result of his unwillingness to discuss any of his actions in an open fashion, with those who truly know the school.

I am reminded in the events that I hear of and see taking place at Aiglon of a tragic reality of our world, the fact that the founders and originators of ideas, revolutions, institutions are unable to exist for as long as the nations, countries, schools and movements that they founded. They are unable to defend these from outside forces. New people come, who do not understand their place in the greater scheme of things. Leaders forget that their place as the president of a nation, the CEO of a company or the headmaster of a school is not to promote their own worth or importance, but rather to be a good, true and faithful steward of the institution, its central meaning and ethos, over which they provide. It is their duty and obligation to take this most serious and difficult of task seriously, to make any changes in the spirit of the original organisation, to make decisions as a leader in a humble fashion, to subject oneself to intense scrutiny regarding one's motivations.

As much as it is the duty of leaders to lead in this fashion, it is equally the obligation of non-leaders within the same context to remain strong, to not shirk one's moral responsibilities, even if the leadership is currently doing so. History is full of as many examples, both big and small, of Man rising to the occasion, acting out in a moral and just fashion even when those in power were not, as it is of the exact opposite. In this, opposing cases, Man cowered in the corner, telling himself that he was not responsible for the actions of his leaders, that he could do nothing. These persons are, in many ways, as much to blame as the leaders themselves, for good leadership, honesty and morality our duties, which we all possess, no matter our position.

It was thus that I addressed my school, students, staff and leadership alike. I spoke to rally the students and staff, to encourage them to continue making the right decisions, to keep to Corlette's original vision for the school. Whether the new headmaster chooses to continue his sweeping changes or not, it is the duty of those who know what is right, what is just, to do so whether or not the headmaster himself chooses to do so. Change can only be wrought, or resisted, if people stick together, stand up as one, in unison. It is in the hope that this will be the case, that somehow the many Plebeians will resist the few, misguided, Patricians, that I find my solace with regards to Aiglon as well as in other situations that have affected my life and history.

Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning.

A few months ago, at a dinner I was enjoying with some of my friends at university, someone posed a most interesting question to the table. “What would you say is your greatest regret in life?” she asked. We all took turns answering the question, many mentioning their relationships with their respective families, things that they had said to friends and subsequently regretted, and poor decisions made in error. Finally, it was my turn to answer. After thinking for a moment, I stated that my greatest regret was never having been able to meet either of my Grandfathers, as both died just a few years before I was born.

This answer might seem conceited to many who know me, as I have indeed committed the same mistakes that everyone else mentioned regretting. However, it is indeed true that I feel most regretful, and saddened, at never having been able to meet either of my Grandfathers. Both were extraordinary, unusual, men who lived their lives with rare dignity and honour. While I know much about them and feel close to them, it is unfortunate that I have not yet had the opportunity to meet them in the flesh, so to speak, to actually be with them. Let me tell you a little bit about them.
My father’s father was German, and came from a rather humble background. Having a young family in the thirties and forties in Germany was not an easy thing, considering the circumstances. What strikes me is the way in which he responded to the tragic events in his country during those years. Indeed, not only did live an honest, good life but indeed he made decisions, and comported himself, with honour, dignity and wisdom at a time when those qualities were so desperately lacking among his countrymen. He thus did not only refrain from participating in the horrors of WW2, but indeed actively resisted them in every way in which he could. Having gone on to do a great amount of humanitarian work, eventually becoming head of UNICEF in the Middle East, he would indeed be worthy of a meditation all to himself.

However, it is my mother’s father, Francis Schaeffer, upon whom I would like to concentrate today. Francis, a young American pastor, moved to Switzerland with his wife and children in 1948. From here, he travelled around Europe, addressing the moral and cultural destruction that the Second World War had brought upon society. Eventually, he started an organisation in Huemoz, just down the hill from us today, where people, in all walks of life, could come to discuss and debate the central questions that surround all of human existence. Is there a point to life? How do, and how should, Humans relate to the world, our place within in? Does God exist and, if so, what is his nature, his role within reality? Through frank, honest, discussion and countless hours of study my Grandfather attempted to answer these questions, to work through the issues of life with any, and all, who came to see him.

As stated, the questions asked by my Grandfather were not new, for Man has been asking them since the dawn of time. What was unique, however, was the nature in which he attempted to wrestle with the issues, to attempt to find answers. He did not present himself as a Guru, as a bearer of knowledge to whom the plebeian masses should come for tantalisingly vague answers. He did not run his centre as a business, for profit. Nor did he fall into the mould that so many Christian philosophers fall into, of seeking to “Convert” as many people as possible to his way of thinking. He was, rather, genuinely interested in the individuals who came, and treated all, from the youngest child to the greatest thinkers of his time, with the same regard and respect. Most of all, he did not attempt to turn L’Abri, the name of his centre, into a brand name, with new centres popping up all over the world, where Christians could go to pat each-other on the back in a self-congratulatory manner, all the while disregarding the many tragedies of the world.

Francis died in 1984, after a battle with cancer. If you’re only listening to one sentence in this meditation, this is it: His centre died with him. Oh, certainly, there is still a place called “L’Abri” down the road from us here, in Huemoz. There are still people who work there, and around the world in places which emulate its name. But, remember that an organisation, a group, a centre of study, is not characterised by buildings, the presence of a newsletter or a brand name. Rather, it is the people who work there, who dedicate their lives, who truly make an organisation, a centre of education, what it is.

So, what happened to my Grandfather’s work, you ask? Well, lacking his leadership and understanding of the purpose, nature and make-up of the organisation, new people took over and made many changes. They, acting out of a certain combination of well meaning naivety and nefarious self-promotion, changed the way in which the centre was run, the manner in which it addressed the questions of those who came to study, to learn. They did not understand that which my Grandfather had spoken of, did not recognise its relevance, its qualities and thus saw fit to change it. This change proved fatal, in that L’Abri, as it exists today, is nothing but a brand-name, infused with the weight of my Grandfather’s good reputation within the philosophical community, that has nothing to do with the original organisation.

In thinking about my Grandfather, and his work, a strange parallel emerged in my mind. He was, come to think of it, strangely similar to John Corlette in a number of ways. Both men initially appear to be rather odd leaders. One wore leather hiking shorts around with a startling lack of self-conscience, and the other began the oddity of a school that Aiglon is. My Grandfather, as I stated, did not want to start yet another conceited, inwardly-turned Christian bible study centre, in denial about the real world. Similarly, Corlette had no desire to start another Eaton, yet another school where the pupils would walk around in dress more suited for participating in the Berlin Conference all the while preparing them to run large areas of the world by proxy of the Queen.

He thus began a school here, in Switzerland, and not in England. As Teddy Sen writes in his book about this school, he served only brown bread at breakfast and made people run laps for punishments. He did not believe in school uniforms, believing them to have negative connotations after the Second World War. He believed in self-reliance, and thus insisted on the delightfully boot-camp-esque nature of Expeditions. I’m sure that those of you who have been here long enough, that’s most of you in this room, can come up with further examples of the wonderful eccentricities of this school, and its uniqueness as a institution that is not quite a British boarding school, and yet not quite an International depository for the children of the world’s elite. What is it, you ask? Well, it’s very similar to my Grandfather’s work: It is a unique, effective answer to one of the essential questions of Human existence. While my Grandfather worked on a philosophical religious plane asking related questions, this school answers the question of the manner in which young people should be educated in an inimitable way.

So why have I gotten up here today to remind you of this, to tell you what so many of you already know. And why, oh why, have I spent so much time speaking of my Grandfather and his work? The answer is that it is my belief that Aiglon currently faces challenges of a very similar nature to those with which L’Abri was confronted following my Grandfather’s death. Indeed, while both organisations find their strength and value in their uniqueness, in their oddities, these qualities also result in an inherent fragility. This fragility can be attributed to the fact that Aiglon, due to its differences as compared to other schools, faces considerable pressure to change, to alter its very nature in order to conform more closely to the norm.

In these challenging times, we must thus all pay careful attention to Corlette’s original vision, his ethos, which he so carefully instilled in the school. We must look to those, many of whom who are still at Aiglon, who have been careful stewards of his vision over the years, in order to ensure that Aiglon should not lose its place, its unique nature. Aiglon thus faces forces of change that desire to make the school conform more closely to the typical British boarding school profile, a character which is neither unusual or unique, and does not conform to Aiglon’s original intent. Aiglon has been a great success as an oddity, an exception. To put it simply, being different from the proverbial pack is something that we have become excellent at, and have excelled at utilising to the best of our advantage. It would be most unfortunate, in my opinion, to revert to being the second-rate British-school that one might be tempted to cause Aiglon to become.

Guiding a school of this nature is no easy task, and is thus a responsibility that all who work, love and know this school have. Indeed, it is a hopeless impossibility to do so if one does not look to the past for guidance. One of Corlette’s visionary desires was the concept of meditation, and event where the whole school is gathered as equals, on a daily basis, and where an exchange can occur between the entirety of the community in an open, fair and balanced manner. This is one of the most sacred institutions of our school, and one that must be preserved as originally intended. Additionally, in standing up here today, I look with great consternation upon the absence of the plaques, which used to be on the wall over there. Those plaques, as many of you will remember, contained the names of those who have gone before us, of notable students and staff members who had the largest effect on Aiglon and its direction. The remembrance of these stewards of Aiglon’s ethos, and the physical reminder of their time here at Aiglon, served to remind us all, staff, students and returning alumni such as myself, of our great duty and obligations to the concept and ideology that Aiglon embodies. The absence of these plaques thus hinders our ability to remember our obligations in leading this school.

It is no surprise to me that a school such as Aiglon, in all its uniqueness, should produce unique students. Indeed, it is evident to all staff members that there truly is no typical student here. Some of us are great academics, and others excellent sportsmen. A few lucky students are both. We come from all continents, and will go on to lead the most extraordinarily diverse lives. This diversity within the student body brings a great deal not only to Aiglon’s reputation, as this rich body of students goes out into the world after graduating, but indeed also brings much wealth of experience and ideas to the classroom. It is vital that we preserve this unique nature of our student body, that we neither revert to the old British way of picking students based on the rank of their last name, or on the typical international school method of making acceptance decisions based on the size of one’s bank account or simple exam scores. Rather, we must pick students for who they are themselves, and the dedication and loyalty that they will likely show the school, and its surrounding community, both during and after their time here.

In all things, the entirety of the school community must ensure that any changes that are taken are thus made in the spirit of the school, of Corlette’s vision and desires. Change should not occur for the sake of change itself, in order to merely please the general trend of education or the banker’s quest for economic efficiency. If other schools decide to run themselves as a for-profit institution, to turn the student body into a moneymaking group at the detriment of the educational quality, so be it. That is a tragedy, a tempting force against which Aiglon, or any other school which stands for actual education, should always fight. It is everyone’s duty to ensure that we do not head down that path, as great as the pressures may be. It is particularly vital that those members of the teaching staff who have been here for many years, and have thus seen this school change itself over their time here, preserve Corlette’s original philosophy, in order that it might always remain an integral part of this institution.

We all thus have great obligations to this school, to its principles and ideals. As we confront the problems and issues that surround the school, we must always keep Corlette’s principles close to our hearts and minds. This is not a task that can merely be carried out by certain members of the community on their own. Rather, we all need to be united against the challenges that we face, the temptation to change for reasons of convenience and economics, in order that our defence be effective in nature. To use a childish image that works rather well in this situation, we can picture the effect of a fox in a hen house. The fox, the foreign threat, finds his success in disorganising the hens, in confusing them and in making them fearful. As hens, we must thus all work together to confront the relevant issues and challenges if we are to be successful. Disparate, un-coordinated acts of resistance are as always, and will remain, entirely futile.

As a former student, I find it particularly necessary to remind the entirety of the current student body that much of the responsibility regarding the school and the path down which it decides to head, rests on your shoulders. Indeed, while the complaints and concerns of students are frequently written off by parents and staff alike as being exaggerated, unimportant, and not worthy of serious consideration, I ask you all to carefully consider and analyse this school, the challenges which it faces and our response to those issues, with your parents, who through their financial support of the school, should indeed have a great amount of say in the direction in which we go. If you bring these issues up in a mature, and humble way, you will have the best chance of actually being listened to.

I’d like to finish with a story that is central to my Grandfather, and that describes his character most succinctly. He was a very faithful man, who kept his obligations and faith close to his heart. He would thus pray, every day, to God about the concerns and issues that he and his work faced. Naturally, his prayers would differ over time, depending on his concerns of the moment. However, there was one prayer that remained constant. He would always pray that should L’Abri cease to do good work, to be effective, honest and moral, that it might close. He thus valued his own work, the product of his mind and the sweat of his brow, above his own position as a leader. He would rather have seen his work close, than that it should do poor or immoral work.

I’ve always found this story of humility rather wonderful, and extremely touching. In conclusion, I thus address myself directly to you, Mr. Armstrong, and ask a great favour of you, the chosen leader of this great school that embodies such a wonderfully eccentric and unusual approach towards education. I ask that you might ensure that this school continues to be run as it was originally intended, with respect and understanding not only towards to the staff and students, but indeed even more so towards Corlette’s founding principles. I ask this of you, as I ask the same of everyone here, in order that I, and all those who truly care for this school, need not begin to pray my Grandfather’s prayer, to hope and endeavour towards the fact that this school, having lost its essence and soul, its very meaning so-to-speak, might close before too much harm is done.

I thank you all very much, and wish you all the very best of luck with regards to these most pressing, and urgent, issues. This school, and all you here who truly know and love it, shall be in my prayers.

Good day.”

Aiglon is an International Private School near where we live with children from 65 different countries. Parents send them there because of the unique educational opportunities in the form of good instruction with sports and regular physical and cultural expeditions. Come rain or shine they camp, hike, ski, and cook in teams for the whole group almost every weekend, somewhat like an outward-bound experience. They learn to respect, enjoy and help each other, where their economic and cultural background had thrown up protective barriers to protect them. They get to discover what they are capable of and are surrounded by what is central to a culture nurtured in many ways by a Christian way of seeing life. That is mostly new to those coming from other cultures. Roughness, rudeness and disrespect for women is in this way diluted and removed. In addition to a good British education the students often experience a cultural change, which will serve them well when they return to their native settings.

Some of the teaching staff are also house parents and give the often- neglected rich an atmosphere and the personal attention of caring adults.

Isaac attended this school on a full scholarship for three years, when his long bout with an autoimmune disease and added complications prevented him from continuing in his normal schooling. Debby teaches fourth and fifth grade children in bilingual classes, and the former headmaster generously offered to have him attend Aiglon.

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