Month: January 2014

The World’s Most Awesome Schools

It happens more often than one would think.  In the course of one’s globetrotting life, the question – when arriving in a strange country – eventually stops being “where do they make good caipiroskas?” and becomes “where can we send the children to school?”

If you are moving to the US, the question often revolves around moving to a neighborhood which has a good school system assigned to it.  Very often, that means a high-income area with some kind of top-ten public school which is hugely amazing on the academic side, and has none of the social issues that you might encounter if you happen to get an inner-city district assigned to you.

To many, that is the elegant solution: classless (as in class-blind, not lacking in class) and free.  But to really be considered awesome, I think we have to eliminate public schools from consideration.  They lack a certain style and a lot of panache.

So, apart from being a private school, what does make a school awesome?

I have a little bucket list that I use:

1.  No matter where it is located, English must be the official language or at the very least equally important to the local tongue.  English is the world’s lingua franca, and if you’re lacking here, all your graduates are really good for is the French Foreign Legion (*waves at the angry Frenchmen in back*).

2. It needs to have academic standards that are higher than the schools around them.  One way to measure this is to see which international exams are on offer.  Cambridge and Oxford in the name of the examinations are usually a good sign… lesser institutions get you left off the list.

3. It needs to mix modern progressive teaching methods with quirky traditions brought in by the founder.  This is harder than it sounds, but some places manage it really well.

4. People need to look at you funny if you send your kids there.  They need to say stuff like: “Why would you spend so much money on that?  The Generic School for Boys is nearly as good, and costsa third of what you’re paying”, or “Oh, I could never send little Timmy to a school like that one, he’s a special snowflake, and that school is too structured and traditional for him!”  If you’re getting both, then you’re doing something right!

5. It needs to be co-ed.  Single sex schools are cannot, by definition, be awesome.  Just ask any of the students.  Trust me, I waffled on this one as arguably the world’s most awesome school, Eton College, is boys only.  If this list had been compiled in 1914, and not 2014, it would have headed the list.  I almost removed this criteria just because of Eton… but I didn’t, and we need to live with the consequences.

6. Needs to have an international student body.  Well, just because cosmopolitan and awesome are synonymous on this blog.

7. Arts and extra-curricular activities are an important complement to the academic side.  And by extra-curricular, I am not necessarily linking it to #5…

8. There needs to be a sense of belonging – if there is no sense that people who went to other schools are somehow suspect, no need to apply here.

So how does one go about identifying the very best of the very best?  Easy: research, scientific method, school chauvinism, preconceptions, opinion and if all else fails, a coin to break any ties.

Without further ado, the world’s five most awesome schools:

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#5 Zurich International School.  This one loses a few positions by not being British in inspiration (it’s a former American International School), but regains them by virtue of being in Switzerland, having its kindergarden on the shores of the Zürichsee and being the Zurich repository for expat kids.  It also teaches German– but only as a second language.  Also contributing here are the fact that you’re never more than half an hour from a decent ski slope (nor more than a couple of hours from really world-class hills).  Now, if anyone suspects a bit of a chauvinism factor at work here, because, just maybe, I might have received part of my primary school education here, I will leave that question open.

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#4.  Harare International School.  We mentioned panache, right?  Well, a second cousin, twice removed of panache is suicidal insanity, which is my definition of putting a prestigious school in the country that Cracked.com ranked #2 in the list of the worst places to be (we had a hard time finding a school that met the checklist in North Korea, so we settled for Zimbabwe).  But you might end up here someday, so if it falls to you, you need to know that this institution has been an International Baccalaureate partner since 2004, and has a beautiful theater in a beautiful setting.  So, setting + bravery + perseverance means awesome.

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#3 St. Andrews School Bahamas.  It has Sir Richard Brandsen on the website and it’s in the Bahamas.  I really shouldn’t need to go any further, but I will, just to rub it in: remember when you played hooky and smoked behind the gym?  Well, odds are that hookies from this school are smoking on the beach which is a comfortable walking distance from the campus – of course, I would never speculate on what, exactly they are smoking.  Whatever it is, it has to be awesome.

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#2 Tanglin Trust School. Location, Location, Location.  When you combine the fact that Singapore has one of the world’s highest standards of living with the further fact that Buzzfeed tells us that it contains the some of the world’s happiest children, you are probably already well placed by being here.  When you combine that with a British curriculum, lengthy waiting lists and a bias towards British and Commonwealth students on the waiting lists, you almost don’t even need to take into account that it was closed during WWII because of Japanese occupation and British internment in camps. The fact that this school is still with us after that?  Awesome.

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#1 Eton College.  What the hell, Eton is Eton, so screw the rules.  This is the one that established the template for awesomeness the world over, and has been referenced in literature and in culture since its founding in 1440.  It would have gotten onto the list just on the merit of being founded as “The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor” by an actual king, but mainly appears here because it’s been teaching the western world how a gentleman should behave since then.

Yes, I’m missing some of the world’s more expensive boarding schools, (especially, this one – holy crap, that campus!) and I’m also missing my own alma mater (which was awesome by the checklist standards, but is based in a city a bit too boring to count), but that’s what comments are for, especially the ones that call me out for outdated elitist attitudes!  Stand up for your school, and convince me, and maybe we’ll feature it in a future article.

We might not, of course.  We’re easily distracted here…

The Classically Educated Manifesto

I was up last night thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything, and I realized that I’m just not quite satisfied with the traditional answer, 42.  In fact, I already know that I see the world differently from nearly everyone else, and I was wondering whether the rest of the people who see life the way I do would be interested in reading my thoughts.  I guess, we’ll find out here on this blog.

The thing is I see myself as falling into two broad categories, both of which are unpopular with some camps for some reason or another (they are equally popular in other camps, of course, so that’s all right).  I am 1) a global citizen and 2) a generalist.

Let’s start with #2, first.

Being a generalist in your professional life essentially means that the only thing one is good for is people management (or flipping burgers, but I’d rather not flip burgers if I have an option – nothing wrong with flipping burgers, but I try to avoid it due to the lack of money it is often associated with).  Essentially, technical careers are not open to me because I’m wired in such a way that I’m much more interested in the big picture than in dedicating my time to really, really, learning one specific skill at a world-class level.  I respect experts who spend their spare time reading technical journals, but I really don’t understand them.  Obsession and focus is something I have a truly hard time with.

I am much more interested in an ever-changing management role where no two days are the same, where each week brings a different set of problems, and where, with a basic management and analytical toolkit (you DO need to have an understanding of quite a few different systems) you can face up to most issues.  The truth is that management is more about people than about analytics at the end of the day – being highly analytical helps, but won’t make or break a good people manager.

I am the same in my personal life.  If you look at my bookshelves, you will find everything from Dante to classic car magazines, intermixed with a bunch of SF, Austen and Wodehouse.  Plus the Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter.  I spend my time watching the 1001 films to see before you die, except when playing old arcade games on plug in TV stuff.  Except when I’m in an airport.  Or playing some sport or other (living in Argentina means that that sport is usually soccer, but I love surprising my American friends by hitting a decent curveball into the bleachers or tossing a football seventy yards, although admittedly I haven’t been exposed to decent pitching since I moved back from Mexico, so I might not be able to do that anymore).

The first thing I do at a new city is visit art museums.

The interesting bit, at least to me, is that I don’t do any of these things on a superficial level.  I like to get into the subject.  So in almost any given conversation, I will be the foremost expert on Austen, on Matisse and on Asteroids.  I will also be able to converse intelligently on whether Dan Reeves (the coach, not the former owner of the Rams) deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.  I will generally be the only professionally published writer in the group – and definitely the only one who has been paid for having published fiction in genres ranging from historical, to mainstream to erotica to science fiction.  Plus a variety of scholarly articles on everything from literature to traveling in Syria.

This is not always a good thing.

Most people tend to be very good at one single thing.  They love that thing with a passion, and will dedicate their lives to it.  Rock climbing.  Computers and gaming (this is particularly bad because it encompasses both work and private lives: the cliché of the programmer who is also a prolific, passionate gamer, is true more often than not).  They tend not to understand a person who is only reasonably well-versed in a subject and who, when things get truly interesting and detailed will become enamored with the next shiny thing, only to return to the first subject when fancy strikes.

There used to be a name for this: classically educated.  This is now nearly an insult, calling to mind, as it does, images of an aristocracy for whom there was no necessity of specialization.  People specialized to survive, being a competent polymath was seen as an elitist pastime, and to a large degree, it still is.

Which brings us to point #1.

Having been brought up all over the world gives one a very different perspective on nearly everything (which is why the old aristocracy had the Grand Tour as part of the aforementioned classical education).  It brings the big picture into focus and makes the local news seem trite and extremely tangential.  I feel equally at home in Milan as in New York or Buenos Aires.  One of the things I’m most proud of is that, when walking along a street in Damascus, other pedestrians (and sometimes people in cars) would stop me to ask directions.  My ability to explain, in Arabic, that I have no idea how to get anywhere because I’m from Argentina, and then answer basic questions about Argentina was just icing.

The point is, I feel part of a group of people to whom the city they are currently in in just that: the city they are currently in.  There is no real difference in living or spending time in one place or the other, and countries are interchangeable.  Basically, if you feel that nationality is important for something other than ease of entry into the countries you want to go to, then you don’t understand this group.  It used to be that it didn’t matter if you were a prince in Spain or in Ethiopia – the important thing was that you were a prince, and nobility the world over would open its doors for you.  The global fraternity is the same.

We don’t understand Davos protestors because, to us, the world is already one single entity.  Protesting against globalization is like complaining about gravity: a very silly way to waste your time.  This has nothing to do with our politics, income or even  just with our worldview.

So, if you feel like it, hop aboard!