I See No Academic Zombies Slouching Across the Schoolyard

by Jeppe Damberg, UWCM
March 20th, 2018

His shoulders are rolled back confidently, and fast-paced hand gestures shoot knowledge claims in every direction, much to the fascination of surrounding students. To maintain the suspense of his story, he chooses his words carefully. He gives his audience a lofty viewpoint by letting them know that UWC Maastricht is on a collision course with nothing other than absolute disaster. Next, he applies pressure by accentuating that the very mission of the movement is at stake. Then, slightly raising his voice, he stresses that the threat comes from within the residential buildings. “Who could be so cruel?” a student eagerly asks. “The students who study too much”, he says. And as the crown of his head rises slowly to an all-seeing 45 degrees, he reveals that if they do not act quickly, “we’ll become just another international school.” A heavy sigh fills the room. Breaking the silence, he proceeds to quote Kurt Hahn, word-by-word, and without doubt in his mind that he wields our founder’s purest intentions in his hands. He is going to save this school.
This is a slightly overdramatic take on a conversation that seems to prove popular at UWCM. Most of us have heard a student worryingly exclaim
“we’ll become just another international school” when discussing the effects of academic pressure on student life. As a United World College we are an incredible school with many impactful student initiatives, but now, amidst dwindling participation levels of some community events, we fear, rationally, that this is coming to an end. We react by claiming that academic pressure is undermining community events. But has academic pressure really increased the past years?
With a constant amount of IB assignments and CAS responsibilities over the past few years, it seems that it isn’t an organizational change that has caused students to feel a heavier academic burden. Instead, some argue that it must be the student body that’s changed over the years. The blame then often lands on those who study
too much. These are the students who choose to keep their books open on a Friday night instead of interacting with the rest of “us”. They are the students who stay in their room every Monday afternoon to study instead of participating in Community Time. They are the sorts of students who could care less about attending conference workshops. Indeed, in many ways, they have become “enemies of the state” to UWCM.
But is it really this black and white? Do these academic zombies really wander around in numbers so great that it threatens the very mission of UWC? Or is it rather that students who do not always participate in community events are all sorts of colours. There definitely exists the student who likes to take a nap after a long school day Monday afternoon. And there are also many students who’d simply rather socialize with their floormates in their common room. So why is it, if not due to academic pressures, that fewer students go to Conferences and Community Time? I believe that the product these two events are selling has simply become too dull. This may seem like a somewhat arrogant statement, but it becomes more evident when assessing whether there is, in fact, a trend of diminishing interest in the community from the student body, or whether it is only Community Time and Conferences that are experiencing decreasing popularity.
If you look at the past year, you will see that there has been many new, and indeed very successful, projects launched. The Vagina Monologues received massive support from students and was a milestone for the community. The MENA organizing group said they were more than positively surprised with the turnout at their activities. This paper has grown immensely during times where some students have argued that there persists “a lack of interest from students in community projects”. Indeed, Community Time and Conferences’ struggle with participation is not enough evidence for a larger trend of students’ decreasing interest in the UWC community. Conferences have, as argued in last issue’s article “Let Us Reinvent the Conference”, rested on safe bets, become repetitive and are now seeing the consequences in participation levels. This is even more evident in the positive feedback the ToK Conference received from their changing some of the all too familiar structure of conferences by adding “ventures” and “experiences” and moving away from solely focusing on workshops. Community Time has, like Global Café did before it, fought an almost impossible battle against the cruelty of Monday afternoon and has generally found it difficult to grab students attention with its content.
It seems to me that students have not lost interest in our community – as the success of other community projects reflect this not to be the case – but that students’ interest in specific projects, such as Community Time and some rather repetitive conferences, have faded. Though some may argue that there exists a large group of merely academically driven students undermining the sense of community that our school proudly embodies, I am yet to see any academic zombies slouching across the schoolyard in the morning.