Recently we moved from California to the Czech Republic. Some of our friends, baffled by this big change, wondered why.
Here’s the short answer: we committed to this major, bi-continental transformation because we believed it would offer our two girls a better opportunity for living an impactful life.
They just started attending Townshend International School in Hluboka in the Czech Republic, a small town of about 5,000 people two hours south of Prague. So we now have a home in the Czech Republic, but we have not fully left the United States, either. I’ll go back and forth every few weeks to attend to business and other obligations in the place I love and the country that gave me refuge after I had to escape religious persecutions in Iran. The U.S. will always be our permanent home.
But let me explain a little further, so you can understand why we decided on such a drastic, around-the-world move. Townshend, and its whole Baha’i-inspired educational philosophy, focuses on turning away from self and doing what we can to love all humanity and make the world a better place:
Every imperfect soul is self-centred and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. He will then be the well-wisher of all men and the seeker of the weal and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 68.
The school and its entire model of learning emphasizes human nobility – how character and deeds matter far more than grades, how each of us needs to investigate the truth on our own and turn away from recycled prejudices that plague us in the form of racism, nationalism, and fundamentalism.
That educational philosophy is based on a powerful foundational principle drawn directly from the Baha’i teachings – that we should consider the Earth as one country and all humanity as its citizens:
We work and pray for the unity of mankind, that all the races of the earth may become one race, all the countries one country, and that all hearts may beat as one heart, working together for perfect unity and brotherhood. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 101.
Before we made our decision to move there and educate our daughters at Townshend, I attended the school’s graduation ceremony last June. It featured younger students from the earlier grades getting on the stage, thanking the graduating class and offering them well wishes. The student of the year award – given for living a life of service to others – accompanied awards based on accomplishments like showing extraordinary interest and capacity in math. While I watched the graduation, I felt that these young adults were being launched into a rewarding, impactful life of dedicated service to humanity.
How does a school develop that level of altruism and spiritual awareness in its students? In his speech to the graduating class, the school’s headmaster, spoke about that subject by identifying what he called “the benchmark capacity of our graduates:”
It is the ability to consciously re-shape identity. The ability to shape ones own identity is a fundamental, ongoing and life-long endeavour. Like reading, it is learned, but then needs to be practiced and refined. Its ultimate outcome:
Then Dr. Williams quoted the Baha’i writings again, pointing out that “True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self.” – Ibid., p. 156. He continued by saying:
In their life at Townshend, I believe that our graduates have developed this key capacity – the ability to respond to difficult questions by their volition to think beyond the immediate self, to be introspective, to reflect, and to act. To sense that this capacity is well and truly established and well on its way to be practiced and refined you only need to listen to your heart.
One of the greatest fallacies is for a person to believe their single action does nothing to change the world. These graduates each have in their hands the ability to cause profound change in the destiny of our planet – to glory not in that they love just their country but that they love all humankind.
I truly believe that the future world could potentially look like what I witnessed and what Townshend offers. While sitting there I couldn’t help but wish that every student and every parent everywhere could experience that kind of education and graduation.
But the experience also made me reflect on some of the schools back home and their focus. In stark contrast, my kids’ previous school in California seemed to be obsessed not with service but rather with self, especially as it relates to sexuality.
That school, like many schools in the western world, subscribes to a narrow definition of being progressive that makes everything about the self, satisfying the self, loving the self. At our daughters’ former school in California a large portion of the focus seemed to be getting the kids to explore the “spectrum” of their sexuality – before they even reached puberty. A significant number of kids as young as 11 at this school identify themselves as bisexual.
I found the purposeful ambiguity created in the minds of the kids about who they are simply unnecessary, especially for ten- and eleven-year-olds. I wished the school would simply teach love and tolerance towards all, and focus the kids much more on their academics and even more importantly on living a selfless life of service, and let their sexuality develop outside of their academic pursuits. Perhaps this relentless focus on the self explains one of the reasons why my kids repeatedly witnessed major racist attitudes towards some of the black students. The school, with all its progressiveness, would not make race unity and racial healing an area of emphasis.
The school gave hardly any focus to serving the world and helping the students understand that true revolutionary and progressive thinking would cause us think a lot less about “me” and making myself happy, but rather making others happy, knowing very well that true happiness is achieved when we help others. Along those lines, at the end of his inspiring talk, Dr. Williams quoted Abdu’l-Baha on the loving Baha’i model of selfless service to humanity:
Should any come to blows with you, seek to be friends with him; should any stab you to the heart, be ye a healing salve unto his sores; should any taunt and mock at you, meet him with love. Should any heap his blame upon you, praise ye him; should he offer you a deadly poison, give him the choicest honey in exchange; and should he threaten your life, grant him a remedy that will heal him evermore. Should he be pain itself, be ye his medicine; should he be thorns, be ye his roses and sweet herbs. Perchance such ways and words from you will make this darksome world turn bright at last; will make this dusty earth turn heavenly …. so that war and strife will pass and be no more, and love and trust will pitch their tents on the summits of the world. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 34.
Who knows if our family’s move and the self-imposed challenges we have committed to will better prepare our kids for living an impactful life? Time will tell. For now, I can say that I’m in love with the noble goal Townshend International School stands for – achieving the oneness of humanity, one selfless student at a time and we are eternally grateful to Reza and Ramona Reyhani for having so selflessly founded and established this wonderful school.