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Don’t stand by

The following reflection by Mary Cooper is part of a series of blog posts written by THINK Global School faculty members to showcase their thoughts and experiences from a recent weXplore trip to Washington, D.C. To view the entire conversation, visit us on Spot.

THE SCENE HAD BEEN set in a graphic presentation of the plight of the Jews during The Holocaust of World War II. We listened to the petite and gentle woman as she unfolded her childhood story and the horror of the events that chased her and her family through the Netherlands and France. The terror and trauma she, as a young child with her sister and her parents, endured was shaming. She said their family was lucky and as she spoke to us, their survival did seem to depend on luck. Luck to be surrounded by human beings who did not take sides, and even risked being punished as perceived of as taking sides; individuals who looked further than themselves for the greater good and reached out to help a young family trying to survive and live in a time of war and genocide. I asked her at the end of her talk to us how it was possible for her family to find ‘normality’ and ‘belief in the human race’ after the war. She said that her mother never did recover. For the gentlewoman, while not laying blame on the next generation, it was not possible for her to forgive and forget.

The belief in the human race, the belief in humanity not taking sides, was shared with us again with the words of Ai Weiwei showcased in his exhibition at the Hirshhorn:

“Extending a hand to those in trouble, rescuing the dying, and helping the injured is a form of humanitarianism, unrelated to love of country or people. Do not demean the value of life; it commands a broader more equal dignity.”

Yet in the city of sirens under the air-traffic filled sky, there seemed little evidence of our humanitarianism. Rows and rows of headstones lie in geometrical precision rest in hallowed peace lest we forget their sacrifice for freedom. Monuments and statues honouring the heroes of war; names upon names of the fallen and lost etched on the memorial granite slabs. Further recordings of our warring history were displayed in paintings and portraits, newsreels and newspapers even, amazingly, an exhibit of a German newsbook, dating back to 1588 hailing England’s naval victory over the Spanish Armada. Sir Francis Drake, whose image is engraved on the cover, repelled the famous Spanish fleet as it tried to invade England. Half of Spain’s ships were lost in the fighting with a consequent death toll.

Such records of war featured in Greg Simon’s lecture. Greg Simon is a politician, who explained to us the role of history in the making of our future. He caused us to question the saying, “the facts speak for themselves” by suggesting that facts do not actually speak for themselves. How do we really know what anyone is thinking? We might, if we are able to ask a better question, obtain a greater understanding of how and why things happen and to thus imagine how those people in history and who have determined our future may have been thinking.

We may believe that we know what we are thinking and witnessing, but Nils Olsen, a socio-economic behavioural expert, demonstrated through a short film clip how easy it is to miss something we are not looking for. In this case, we were asked to count the number of times a ball was passed during a ball game. We were so intent on counting that none of us saw a dancing bear make his way through the game from one side of the screen to the other!

So what if we were to start looking for the dancing bear? What if we were to ask a better question? What if we were to look for the humanitarianism in humans? What if we stop taking sides and look further. Would, then, our children be free? Would our planet rid itself of war? Should we, then, stand up and not stand by?

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