Pearson College
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 6 Dec 1990, p. 182-192
Macoun, Tony, Speaker
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The United World Colleges: peace and international understanding. How the United World Colleges began and the ideas behind them. The history behind the Pearson College in British Columbia. A description of the programmes offered at Pearson College, and the environment of learning. Some anecdotes and examples of achievement by the students. Aims and operation of the College. The hope that the United World Colleges "can make education a force to unite nations and peoples in ways suited to the needs of our changing times."
Date of Original
6 Dec 1990
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Full Text
Tony Macoun, Director of Pearson College
Chairman: Harold Roberts President


"How can there be peace without understanding each other, and how can this be if they don't know each other?" So said Lester B. Pearson in his Nobel Peace Lecture in 1957.

Not so long ago when society in general was interested in the space programme both in the Soviet Union and the United States, we used to sit in front of our T.V. screens and watch the launch of each rocket. The disastrous shuttle explosion re-awakened our interest, but generally, like so many things in life, space flights are taken for granted.

I remember in those early days that one of the factors that contributed to the anxiety of the delays was the "window factor." This was especially true during the Apollo Programme when going to the moon required the departure of the shuttle while the earth and moon were in certain proximity to each other. If the launch was too late the meeting could not occur and the flight would have to be cancelled.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was reading material on Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific. This College, part of an association of seven United World Colleges, provides an opportunity for young men and women to meet people from around the world and to earn an International Baccalaureate in a two year programme. It is located in beautiful surroundings on a campus on Pedder Bay, 29 kilometres from Victoria on Vancouver Island.

To quote their own brochure, "The College promotes international understanding by creating an environment in which students from many countries are brought together in study, in recreation and in service to the community."

The College considers applications from youth between the ages of 16 and 17 and a half. This is the basis for my thoughts about windows of opportunity. Having read the information on the College 1 thought it would have been a fantastic place to study. But 1 have long since missed the window of opportunity.

Our speaker today is the Director of Lester B. Pearson College, Mr. Tony Macoun. He was born and raised in East Africa, educated in England and holds a Masters Degree from Oxford. He spent two years as an administrator in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the South Pacific before returning to England to teach at the Stowe School.

In 1974 he came to teach at Ashbury College in Ottawa. While at Ashbury, he was Director of Studies and became actively involved in the International Baccalaureate programme. From 1981 to 1986 he was Headmaster.

In 1986 he assumed his duties as Director of Pearson College. He and his wife Ann now live on that beautiful campus.

Tony Macoun:

Thank you very much indeed. It's a great pleasure to be here. It is a little intimidating having my chairman right beside me and members of my board, so I'm going to have to behave myself. And I also have Hamish Simpson here, my predecessor, so I'm also going to have to be honest and tell the truth.

The United World Colleges. The key words we have related to the United World Colleges are peace and international understanding. In the 1950s and '60s these words were linked with the superpowers, the arms race, nuclear war, freedom and independence from colonialism, among others. In the 1990s, our attention was focused on human rights, conflict resolution, environmental issues. And in the next century, who knows what wars we will have to rage in order to create a safe and peaceful planet.

The story of the United World Colleges is a story about how an individual can make a difference. The individual can contribute towards helping to solve the problems and issues of this world. Each of us, in fact, has a responsibility to do so and this is the message that we carry to our students.

Looking around this room, I know some of you are very familiar with the United World Colleges. Many have only a limited knowledge, so perhaps you'll forgive me if I go back to the beginning and tell you how it all started. As with all good things, in the beginning there are good ideas and the good idea in this case came from a prominent educator named Kurt Hahn who fled Germany in the 1930s. Kurt Hahn was one of the founders of various educational organizations--the Outward Bound Movement, the Gordonstoun School in Scotland and the United World Colleges. His idea was that people who meet challenges together, both intellectual and physical challenges, learn to see each other as individuals rather than as members of alien cultures. Only then can they understand each other.

After the Second World War, as people struggled to find ways to prevent future conflict, Kurt Hahn, with others, founded the first United World College, Atlantic College in South Wales. They founded it with the idea of bringing together students at an impressionable age--that is in their late teens--not too young so that they would be homesick--not too old so that they would be frozen in their thought processes--young people who knew their own culture, their own system, yet were still open to new ideas. These students would be brought together for two years to work and serve and learn together, a great experiment in international education.

Atlantic College was opened in South Wales in 1962 and was visited by many who wanted to see this new idea in action. One of the famous people who went there in the early days was Lester Pearson after he won his Nobel Peace Prize. As a diplomat and a man of peace, he had studied the question of international conflict all his life. He had come to the conclusion that conflicts begin and end in the minds of men therefore, if you're going to attack this question of conflict, you have to reach it through the minds of men and women. He saw Atlantic College as a place that was doing something about this. It was not a place of guns and machines and tanks and buildings and diplomats and spies, but a place of ideas. He came away convinced that we had to expand the system of colleges started by Atlantic College. Mr. Pearson wanted one in Canada and, in particular, he wanted one in British Columbia. Why British Columbia?--because he felt that what we really needed to do was to open an intellectual window on the Pacific. That was the concept. Mr. Pearson died in 1972 not knowing that the college was going to be built and not knowing that it was going to be named for him. After he died, it was chosen as a memorial to him. There were of course others, but it was to be the principle memorial to him and a lot of his friends got together to work on realizing this project.

One person in particular, Senator John Nichol, became the driving force behind the project and to this day is a vital, active and interested member of the Board of Trustees. He was the Chairman of the Board in 1974 when the college was opened to admit its first 100 students under the directorship of Jack Matthews. They had chosen a truly beautiful site on the shores of a beautiful bay in the south end of Vancouver Island--not too far from Victoria, but not too close. This is how the college came into being. Today, some 16 years after its opening, we have a well-developed campus in a beautiful setting, accommodating 200 students from 74 different countries, and from every province and territory in Canada. Twenty-five percent of our students are Canadians--one in four. All of these students come to us for two years, having completed grade 11, for what we would call in North America the last year of high school and the first year of university. But you have to appreciate that the language of the college is not North American, since the students come from 74 different countries. Most of them arrive at age 16 or 17 and the college offers them an international curriculum, the international baccalaureate which is a program based in Geneva, Switzerland. This broad liberal arts program diploma enables our students to gain entry to universities around the world. In North America, if they do well, they go directly into the second year of university. However, academics are not all that we are involved in and, in fact, students come with a great deal of passion for the other side of our program. We are actively involved in a highly organized program of service to the community, with outdoor activities relating to the environment, both on land and sea.

The students come for two years, not for their whole educational program. Our purpose, in part, is to upset their way of thinking and show them that there are other ways of functioning and doing things. But after their two years, we expect them to return home and share what they have learned. In many cases, they have to make considerable adjustments in returning home to the old systems that they were brought up with.

From the beginning, the overriding principle has been that the students should be selected on merit only--on a competitive basis without reference to their colour, creed, sex or the economic well-being of themselves or their families. It was deemed to be vital that lack of money would not be a barrier to entrance to the United World Colleges. At Pearson College, all of our students attend on full scholarship. Around the world, and in each province and territory in Canada, we have our own selection committees which represent us to promote and receive applications, interview and select the students who are to come to represent their region, their country, their district. Our students, therefore, are indeed representatives and we are dealing with an exceptional group of youngsters from a tremendously varied range of backgrounds.

Now, all I've said so far could easily have been gleaned from the publication about Pearson College or the United World Colleges. My purpose today is to try to give you some sort of sense as to what it is like to live and work with people from 74 different countries. Just how significant it is that these young people have been selected from places as far apart and as diverse as Norway and Eritrea, Argentina and China, Greenland and the Philippines. In each room in our residences, we have four students--one Canadian and three others from three different continents.

Imagine for a moment the chemistry that exists between the four students living in one of the rooms, which this year has, for example, an Ontario Scholar from Ottawa, who shares with students from Pakistan, Bulgaria and Swaziland. I am indeed envious of them for the kinds of conversations and relationships that develop when you get this kind of group together--full of ideas and striving to make sense of this world of ours.

In another room, we have a student from Hastings, Ontario, and I notice that he shares with students from Bhutan, Senegal and Panama. As those of you who are married know, when you are living together it is not simply the differences in religion, culture and clothing that matter, but such fundamental issues as when do you go to sleep, who's going to look after the garbage, and how high should the heating be turned up on a winter's night. Yes, living together in residence is probably one of the most important learning experiences our students have and truly a vehicle for learning to understand others.

The contrasts of the college are sometimes staggering. Most of our students come for the first time out of their country and away from home. They face an awesome journey across the world in order to arrive finally in our peaceful haven on the south shore of Vancouver Island. Many come with a very limited grasp of English. We spend two weeks at the beginning of the year in an orientation program to help them in their adjustment. I well remember about three years ago the arrival of our first student from Lesotho in southern Africa--a small country completely surrounded by South Africa, a mountainous region. And Leonia came from an isolated village in the mountains. She learned that she had won a scholarship to Canada--the first time she ever heard about United World Colleges--when she heard it announced over Radio Lesotho. In her first week at the college I went out with her and some 20 other students in a boat to an ecological reserve. I noticed as we travelled out that she looked quite terrible--pale, withdrawn. I didn't want to draw attention to her in front of the others, but as soon as we got on the island, I went across to her and I said quietly, "What was the trouble?" She turned and she said, "Oh Tony, you've been to Lesotho. You are the only person who would understand. We don't have any sea or lakes in Lesotho. I've never seen a boat before let alone go in one. I was absolutely terrified."

Many of our students have very few material possessions. A young man joined us this year from an African country. He walked onto campus in the only footwear he had--a pair of flip-flops. We had to have a system for providing such students with clothing and shoes in order to cope with such needs. They come from very diverse backgrounds. A young man this year from Greenland has a Danish mother and an Inuit father, and his family are fishing people in a small community of 400 in western Greenland. At least three of our Canadians this year are from fanning communities--a dairy farm in Alberta, a beef farm in Saskatchewan and a honey farm, a bee farm, in Manitoba. We have refugee students--Palestinians from West Bank, Eritrians from camps in the Sudan and blacks from South Africa. Many have never been out of their local district, be it in Slavinia in Czechoslovakia or Oyer State in Nigeria, in the Himalayas in Bhutan or Beijing, China.

The last 18 months at the college have been extraordinary as they have been around the world. We feel the events of the world through the presence of our students. June 1989--China, Tiananmen Square. Will our Chinese students be allowed to return? My telephone was ringing off the hook Are they safe? How do we reach them? They did, in fact return. But they had real concerns. When they have completed their program with us, should they go home? And if they don't go home, what about their families? How will they be affected? November 1989--Germany, the Berlin Wall. At the time, our German students really felt that they were missing out on history by being in Canada and, of course, they were. Today, we can debate with those same students the unification question. And interestingly, most of our German students at the college are, in fact, opposed to unification. On the day of unification last month, they all dressed in black South Africa and the freeing of Mandela in 1989-90--the ANC national anthem became the favourite song for our choir and was the concluding song at all of our concerts. We have South African students of black, white and Asian origin at the college. It has, indeed, been an interesting, emotional and confusing year for them and for us.

The Gulf crisis. A few weeks ago, we learned that a former student, a Japanese student, was one of Sadam Hussein's guests. Our students heard of this and they wanted to take action. They wanted the college to send letters and telegrams to governments and embassies seeking his release. Fortunately, I suggested caution and we talked about it a bit and, much to their surprise, not everyone in the community at Pearson College was condemning Sadam Hussein. In fact, two of our Palestinian students have his picture on the walls in their rooms. It is, indeed, good to have their viewpoint in our midst and I am pleased to say that the Japanese former student has been released. And then, of course, there is Eastern Europe. Our students today include representatives from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and the USSR.

It has been fascinating. It has been worrying and it has been emotional to live with these people through these last few months. I think it's very important for them also to be able to see their countries from the outside and from our point of view. Of course they have done a great deal to help us to understand what is happening. As I said earlier, we are a group of seven colleges around the world and, of course, each of the colleges has a similar remarkable mix of nationalities and the same kind of stories to tell. There are plans for more colleges in the future. The present seven, however, can really be divided into three groups. There are four colleges of the Pearson College model--that is, two-year residential colleges catering to students on scholarship between 16 and 19 years old who are studying the international baccalaureate for entry into university. Those four colleges are Atlantic College in South Wales, the College of the Adriatic in Italy, Pearson College in Canada and the College of the American West in New Mexico. There are two other colleges, one in Singapore and one in Swaziland, that are full international schools catering to primary and secondary levels, but in their last two years, they have some 20 or so United World College scholars. Thirdly, there is our seventh college in Venezuela which just last year became a full member. It provides postsecondary programs in farm management and rural development. It's a very different model.

Each college is autonomous and responsible for its own funding and management, but we do have an international board and a head office in London, England. All of the colleges share a common philosophy. We bring people together from all over the world to learn about each other. All of our students are involved in service programs; service to the community, social service, community service, working with handicapped, working in the hospitals, visiting old people in their homes, providing wood to the old people, teaching the disabled to dive and to swim. We work, in fact, with some 20 different agencies in the Victoria region. This service also includes learning skills such as firefighting, mountain climbing, first aid and using those skills to support your own community and also work within the surrounding community. Everyone at the college is actively involved in such services. Rather than competition through sport, we use service as a vehicle for teaching students to contribute and to grow, to develop teamwork and learn conmmitment.

Our aim, therefore, is to teach these young people to work together, to be tolerant, thoughtful, considerate human beings, to contribute through service both to their community and to those less fortunate than themselves.

We are entering an era where we need global interdependence without parallel in history. With a real sense of urgency, we really do have to learn how to get along with each other. We are interdependent. We do need one another. No man is an island. It was Ghandi who said, " I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be closed. I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any." So it is with us. Over their two years at Pearson College, our students do indeed share the cultures of all lands, but we do not see this as a two-year experience. We see it as a lifetime experience. Our graduates--some 1,400 from Pearson and over 10,000 from all of the colleges--are out there all over the world sharing what they have learned and contributing in so many ways. Some of them are with us today.

Yesterday I was in Manitoba and I was asked a question by someone in the Ministry of Education which I foolishly had not prepared myself for and the question was "What has happened to the Manitoban graduates?" And so, off the top of my head, I said, " Well f m sorry. I haven't got a list for you, but there's Liz. She went off after she finished at Pearson and did a year in Taiwan with a Mennonite mission, teaching English. Then there's Anna. She spent a year by herself hitchhiking around South America--amazing--and is now studying at the University of Winnipeg. And then there's Lorraine, who works as a radio broadcaster with the CBC and spent the summer behind the barricades at Oka. And then there's Robin. Of course, Robin went off to France last year to learn French. And David's doing archaeological research in Norway. And then, of course, our real star was Allison who, after she finished her first degree, went to Sri Lanka and, last year, won a Rhodes Scholarship. The man from the Ministry of Education threw his hands in the air and said, "Enough. Enough. I am convinced."

It is difficult to quantify what our graduates have done. It is a personal thing and they go out and contribute in their own ways. But they have a commitment and a feeling such as I have never encountered before with graduates. As I said earlier, in 1957, Mr. Pearson gave his famous quote on receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, "How can there be peace without people understanding each other and how can this be if they don't know each other?" We hope that the United World Colleges can make education a force to unite nations and peoples in ways suited to the needs of our changing times.

In closing I'd like to invite you to visit us at Pearson College when you are next on the West Coast and see it in action. To understand this unique institution, it is necessary to come and see it through the eyes of our students. I'd also like to add my hope that you in your daily endeavours do all that you can do in your own way to stamp out the bigotry and hatred in this world, and encourage harmony and a concern for others. Remember--each of us can make a difference. This is our mission and I hope you are with us. Thank you very much.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Tony van Straubenzee, President, van Straubenzee Consulting and a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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Pearson College

The United World Colleges: peace and international understanding. How the United World Colleges began and the ideas behind them. The history behind the Pearson College in British Columbia. A description of the programmes offered at Pearson College, and the environment of learning. Some anecdotes and examples of achievement by the students. Aims and operation of the College. The hope that the United World Colleges "can make education a force to unite nations and peoples in ways suited to the needs of our changing times."