Hemmingway picked up the theme of islands and developed it spectacularly in his 1940 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. You might well ask what I’m twittering on about now? The novel is set in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and plays out a political ideology of resistance to fascism at a time when through Europe another fascist threat was looming large and seeming impossible to resist.

Hemmingway takes his title from the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne’s Meditation XVII on life, suffering and purpose. It is not a poem but a thoughtful explanation of the Elizabethan understanding of illness as an external expression of an internal sinfulness. ‘What has this to do with islands?’ The Meditation goes on:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
 is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

Donne’s contention is that the human enterprise is a single connected whole and that whatever affects one of us affects us all. Hemmingway is suggesting that the concerns of mid-20th century Spain and indeed Europe are everyone’s concerns.

Over the course of this past week, I have had the opportunity to reflect on this concept and to consider how it plays out in the life of the school. Last week we bid farewell to our Thai colleagues and the 15 children who were with us for a few weeks. Before they left, we all met in the Drawing Room and shared some of the events of their time, their hopes and aspirations and thoughts about their families. Some of their parents came to visit us during their stay and, as parents, we talked about what they hoped for their children as they grow and engage with the world. Refreshingly and endearingly it is the same story I hear from our local parents, nothing new under the sun.

This commonality of purpose for children and their futures is not the only common theme. The children themselves played and worked collaboratively, shared stories and ideas. They laughed at the same jokes…well eventually and often from politeness, but I take what I can get. Our Senior School international boarders do this routinely, both within our boarding family and the wider school family, and they open our minds to both the exotic and the mundane. The exotic meaning their personal circumstances, food, culture and climate and the mundane being the routines we all inherit.

The glory of being a boarding school is the accessibility of the global in a local context. The associations and friendships formed last a lifetime and while at school and beyond our students unite in a fellowship that extends beyond the ‘national’. Much of my early career was in international education. I quickly effected one change to school routine. Instead of an international day we had a cultural day. Nation states can divide by focusing on barriers or borders whereas cultures encourage the sharing of stories and traditions; they are invitational and open to understanding.

I make no political statements here, just an ideological one. In a world made smaller and more immediate by technology, travel and opportunity, we are all neighbours. Our international university roadshows illustrate how accessible study is beyond Heathrow or Dover. It opens the minds of our children to the art of the possible and the reality that in their lifetime they are unlikely to be islanders for long. One can read medicine in English at Prague or Engineering at the Benz institute in Karlsruhe, Economics at Maastricht or Veterinary Medicine at Trinity in Dublin and all of North America and Canada.

Beyond the career minded our international mindedness stretches to development work in Ghana and future collaborations with communities in Peru and Sri Lanka. These are not borne out of a tourist mindset where, cosseted in air-conditioned coaches, students stare through glass at communities unlike their own. They are opportunities to engage, to be known and to know others.

Our pupils return from these adventures changed, they have experienced something that cannot be taught and cannot be found in books. They are deeply personal experiences where students find that they are all part of the continent of human experience and that they know better than to ask for whom the bell tolls.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS


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