Social Status or Social Conscience: Mission Statements at International Schools

In the park below the Foshan orphanage

How do we move students from the pursuit of self-interest, which seems endemic to modern educational systems, towards the vision of service to society, evident in nearly all mission statements of international schools? The primary path is providing students with profound experiences with “the Other” during formative periods of their adolescence, which can accomplished through service learning. 

The mission statement of Hong Kong International School states that our students will “dedicate their hearts to compassion, their lives to service and global understanding” (HKIS).  On our website our head of school calls these descriptions the “best descriptors of the nature and character of our learning and teaching.”

Last week I decided to see how this idealism plays out with my students.

So, I showed them the champagne glass analogy (Kinsler & Kinsler, 1999), which displays the disparity between rich and poor in our world.  In this diagram, the world’s richest people – certainly my students and myself  – own 83% of the world’s resources, while the bottom 60% possess only 6% of the world’s resources.  I asked them two questions.  First, do you think our graduates on the whole will make the gap between rich and poor greater or smaller? Their answer was that our graduates will maintain the status quo or make the gap larger.  The second question was, in general, will our students make the world a better or worse place?   Their answers were almost perfectly split between those that said better, neutral, or worse.  So, there seems to be a gap between the idealism of our mission statement and the doubtful response of our students about our graduates’ impact upon the world.

I would suggest that this same tension – between what we would like to say we will do and what we probably will end up doing – exists within international education as a whole.  Jones (1998) expresses the tension as one between globalization and internationalism.  “Globalisation is seen as economic integration, achieved in particular through the establishment of a global marketplace marked by free trade and a minimum of regulation.  In contrast, internationalism refers to the promotion of global peace and well-being through the development and application of international structures”  (143).  The contrast is between a market logic in which the goal is to maximize shareholder profit morally accountable only to consumers, and the democratic logic of human and communal enhancement, which requires social conscience among all people.

While my students are generally agreeable and cooperative people, they seem unsure if their collective impact on the world will be a positive one.  To understand international students’ values, I find Pasternak’s (1998) conceptual framework helpful.   He proposes that three different value systems act on students in international communities.  The first is the informal international value system, a world of affluence, mobility, and consumption, with its emphasis on fulfilling the personal desires of our students.

The second influence is the home values system, which certainly run the gamut depending on the parents’ values; however, to afford the tuition of a school like HKIS means it is likely that our parents are winners in the globalized world and to some degree accept its value system.  While the home value system is frequently one that evidences honorable personal values, our families seem to have an underdeveloped understanding of and concern for social justice.  The many charity events at our schools illustrates this misunderstanding.  As Myers (1992) says, “The affluent are forever involved in charity causes, which, while helpful, refuse to raise the systemic issues to the public eye.”

The third value system, according to Pasternak, is the formal education sector, which is where we educators step in.  Pasternak believes that international schools need to challenge the personal desires of the informal value system with the balancing perspective of education for a social conscience.   I agree with Pasternak that the only force strong enough to help students think and act reflectively about the impact of the global elite are curricula that explore life-and-death contemporary global issues.

I have adopted many of these ideas into my own teaching.  At HKIS, I have created a course called “Humanities I in Action” in which my colleagues and I select what we think are the current issues that our students most need to explore.  This year we have studied genocide, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, globalization, and global warming.  But these conflicts are a manifestation of issues that lie within the human heart, so we also study human nature and human behavior.  We read books such as Lord of the Flies (Golding, 1962) and Ishmael (Quinn, 1995), we borrow from psychology like the Milgram and Stanford experiments, and we look at positive psychology and the concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998 ).

But I have found that many students learn most from experiences, so we also work with refugees in Hong Kong on Saturdays, do a Refugee Run simulation at Crossroads, doing flag days, and – the highlight of the year – visit an orphanage in China for a weekend.  Through in-class study and out-of-class experiences I hope that students find the motivation to move from moral reasoning to moral action – a motivation, it has been recently suggested, that can be found in the experience of beauty – the beauty of acting in accord with one’s best intentions (Diessner, et al, 2006).  Through this class I hope that students will gain social conscience citizenship which means that students understand – both intellectually and experientially – three ideas.  First, the world is structured in ways that favor those that have wealth and power.  Second, an accurate understanding of the world can only come from comprehending the suffering of others.  Third, informed action can begin to make a difference in the world.

In the end, I am not optimistic at this point about the sum total of our graduates’ impact on the world – I do think we contribute more to globalization than internationalism.  However, I do think it’s possible to structure curricular and extra-curricular programs in such a way as to make the vision of internationalism accessible and attractive to students.

A couple of weeks ago I asked my senior-level students who have chosen an elective course on community service to identity the seeds of service in their own life.  I was surprised and gratified to find that for 5 or 6 students that seed was the Humanities I in Action course they took as 9th graders.  What this tells me is that if we open students’ eyes to both the suffering of the world as well as its beauty, some will respond in ways that are consonant with the internationalist vision of peace and justice.

I’d like to end with a quote from one of those students, Anna, whom I had in Humanities I in Action three years ago.  Last year she went on a service trip with me to Calcutta.  In response to the question, “What do you think is the one thing that your soul needs for you to find long-term happiness?”, Anna wrote about the importance of finding profound love:

From my own experience I have found that service can provide direct contact to this genuine love.  It is almost as if caring for a person in need unlocks an overwhelming sense of compassion and love for all of humanity within me.

Anna seems to match the idealism of the HKIS mission statement.  I believe that the best step in moving students from globalization to internationalism, from personal desires to a desire to be a benefit to the planet, is to provide them with service experiences in the context of the study of the most important issues of our time.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Basic Books.

Diessner, R., Rust, T., Solom, R., Frost, N. & Parsons, L. (2006). Beauty and hope: A moral beauty intervention. Journal of Moral Education, 35, 3, pp. 319-333.

Golding, W. (1960). Lord of the Flies. London: Faber and Faber.

Jones, P. (1998). Globalisation and internationalism: Democratic prospects for world education. Comparative Education, 34, 2, pp. 143-155.

Hayden, M. & J. Thompson (Eds.), International Education (pp. 253-275). London, England: Kogan Page.

Kinsler, R. & Kinsler, G. (1999). The biblical jubilee and the struggle for life: An invitation to personal, ecclesial, and social transformation.  Mary Knoll, NY: Orbis.

Myers, C. (1992).

Quinn, D. (1995). Ishmael. New York: Bantam/Turner Book.

Pasternak, M. (1998). Is international education a pipe dream? A question of values.  In M. Hayden & J. Thompson (Eds.), International Education (pp. 253-275). London, England: Kogan Page.

Note: This paper was presented on March 20, 2007 at the Symposium on International Teaching at Hong Kong University. This presentation was developed into a chapter, and collected with other symposium papers in a book, International Education and the Chinese Learner (2010), edited by Janette Ryan and Gordon Slethaug.  The chapter related to this post is entitled, “Educating Chinese Learners for Social Conscience in Hong Kong: An International School Perspective.”


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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2 Responses to Social Status or Social Conscience: Mission Statements at International Schools

  1. Pingback: Globalization and Education | TRAVELITERATURE

  2. Pingback: Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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