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International Advisory Committee

The following are the full transcripts of interviews with four Teachers College Trustees -- Antonia Grumbach, Jan Krukowski, Abby O'Neill and Bill Rueckert -- who serve on the College's new International Advisory Committee. A story that quotes from these interviews appears in the spring 2009 special international issue of TC Today magazine.
The following are the full transcripts of interviews with four Teachers College Trustees – Antonia Grumbach, Jan Krukowski, Abby O’Neill and Bill Rueckert – who serve on the College’s new International Advisory Committee. A story that quotes from these interviews appears in the spring 2009 special international issue of TC Today magazine

Antonia Grumbach

My reasons for joining TC’s new international advisory committee go back to why I have anything to do with TC in the first place. I believe education is essential, and that it’s the way people get out of very restrictive situations.

For 35 years, I have worked with an American university in the Middle East. I’ve seen the difference that American-style education can make -- a liberal arts education in which people learn to listen, to respect each other’s points of view, and debate ideas on their merits. Democracy, I suppose you could call it.

My hope for TC is to really focus our efforts and, to the greatest extent possible, leverage what TC can do in terms of graduate education for educators – the development of curriculum, the training of teachers, the teaching of pedagogy.

I’ve done a lot traveling and worked with other education institutions in other parts of the world and with foundations supporting education in other parts of the world. TC has such a scattershot approach, as many education institutions do, because they ride on the interests of the faculty. So we need to be more strategic. I think that’s what Susan is trying to do -- get beyond one professor’s program, work at the government or private level, creating institutions like TC that can address the real societal problems through the education of people and through training – learning how to educate people.

It seems the starting point is to figure out what we do in different places and make them more coherent. Bring them together so they are more effective, and decide what is our most effective approach.

It’s been about letting 100 flowers bloom, and you would never want to lose that. But the question I think we need to answer is, how can we use everything we have in the most efficient way to help other countries develop their education systems so they reach the greatest number of people?

Jan Krukowski

My parents, my three-year old sister and I came to the U.S. from Japan, just before Pearl Harbor, as war refugees.  We were able to make that two-year journey from Poland to America, across Russia and the Pacific, in large measure because three people chose to behave humanely, ignoring national divisions, cultural differences, and even their personal best interest.

The first was a young officer in the prison camp in Russian-occupied Poland where we were held for several months. When the names were read of prisoners who were to board a train bound for Siberia, including that of my father’s law partner, he skipped over Krukowski.  My father spoke Russian fluently. He asked the officer why he had done that.  The officer pointed to my sister, a severely under nourished two-year old, and said: “The baby would die on the train.  Leave.  Two of my soldiers will take you to the Lithuanian border tonight, and just leave.”

The second was the Lithuanian border guard captain whose men had arrested us almost immediately after we crossed the border.  He and my father had made contact, found common ground. They recited to each other alternate verses of an epic poem by a great Polish-Lithuanian poet. Instead of transporting us to another point on the border and sending us back to the Russians, as he was instructed to do, he told two of his men to “lose” us along the way.

The third man was Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul-General in Lithuania, who decided, against the instructions of his government, to issue visas to refugees before either Hitler or Stalin massacred them. He was responsible for saving the lives of 6,000 people and in 1985 was recognized by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations”. In Japan a Chiune Sugihara Memorial was built in Yaotsu by the people of the town where he was born.

What does this have to do with my interest in TC’s international work?  It seems to me a central issue of our time is to make “the other” familiar and understandable – whether, for example, “the other” is America as perceived by Pakistanis, or India as perceived by Americans.  The work of illuminating the humanity of “the other” has to be done largely in classrooms. Have you seen the French movie, “The Classroom”? It’s a controversial film.  Not everyone sees the teacher, the central figure, in the positive light in which I see him.  His students in the Paris school are as multi-ethnic and multicultural as any group you could find anywhere in America. Their life experiences have made them cynical and hostile to the prevailing culture.  The teacher is understanding and empathetic, but he will not lose sight of his goal in teaching literature.  He wants the students to come to recognize the depth and value of French literature, of the humanity they can discover in the culture in which they now live.  For him, bitterness and nihilism are not acceptable life options.

I have a very particular interest in TC’s international activities and in being on the advisory committee. My own feeling is that education must help build a foundation for democratic citizenship.  And by that, I do not mean that we should be creating advocates for the U.S.  Ronald Dworkin wrote a book about three years ago entitled Is Democracy Possible Here?, and he argues that democracy requires that there be room for enormous variety and range of values– but that we all have to agree to accept certain fundamental ground rules. The first of these is that we must all recognize the intrinsic value of a human life, that all human life is of equal importance. And it seems to me that this is our fundamental task – to strengthen schools that teach that all life is equally important. In the Middle East, there is no recognition of that – no recognition that so many Palestinian lives are the equivalent of so many Jewish lives and vice versa.

Dworkin’s second principle is that each of us is responsible for our own life and the direction we want it to take. In “The Classroom,” the teacher is teaching French literature, but what he’s really teaching is precisely that.

As came out in our first meeting, TC – both right now and perhaps historically – is a rich resource that various countries reach for.  If we feel we can respond appropriately, we do it. We might go in because they want to be better at teaching English.  Our willingness to go into other countries and work with them is what appeals to me greatly about our efforts, our recognition that we have a responsibility to the wider world. But we’re not just a consulting firm. My own professional life has been as a consultant, first in politics and then to educational, cultural and medical institutions.  Although I have always worked for institutions I believe in, I am nevertheless a gun for hire.  TC is not that. But we don’t seem to have a clear sense yet of how to be proactive and reach out to do what most needs to be done. I realize that there is no single answer to the question of what needs to be done and that there are various views on that. My hope is that our committee will engage the question and explore the various views. We need to establish our priorities and a clear sense of TC’s mission in international work. 

Abby O’Neill

My interest comes from traveling and finding out that it’s very important and rewarding to learn about different people and cultures. We did that with our children extensively when they were younger.

In 1926, my grandfather helped the Chinese build the Peking Union Medical College. The teachers and students were often at his dinner table. He was also interested in developing black colleges, women’s colleges – his interest was in different people from around the world, and many got to be close friends.

When our kids were young, we traveled with them to France, England, Italy, China and Japan. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund became involved in Poland’s early struggles to help develop a democracy. The first step to becoming an open civil society is to develop a legal system, which they were slow to enact.

In 1977, we went over with the full board of the RBF and spent two weeks in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. That trip, in particular, lead to the challenges of becoming a democratic society, which requires building civil institutions that allow for education, open conversation, newspapers and a legal system, which was slow to develop. In my view, education is the secret to it all.

In 1981, we took the kids with us to China. That was only the second year they allowed foreigners to visit.

When we went to Japan – my uncle John had started the Japan Society. He was asked by the President Eisenhower to help the Japanese set up institutions for the arts and education. In an effort to rebuild our prewar relationships the arts provided a non-threatening way to communicate.

Later, the Empress gave him a lifetime gift of a guesthouse within the Imperial Palace grounds. He was greatly responsible for exchanges with the Asian world.

Nelson and David did the same thing in the Philippines. They backed the efforts of the first democratic elected President Raymond Magsaysay, to start institutions that could help start a democratic society.

Nelson went to South America, at the request of the President Eisenhower, to help rebuild our relationships damaged by World War II. He took Walt Disney with him and that’s when Disney came up with Joe Carioca, a cartoon character parrot, who spoke to South America for us.

So, I’ve traveled not only as a tourist, but also with international organizations trying to create ways toward long-term peace. It was done, in those days, by training medical doctors and building hospitals. You couldn’t talk about schools then, though often there were very good small schools, teaching by rote, with the children learning their characters and drawings with those very fine brushes.

Next door to Teacher’s College is International House. It has always been part of the building of international relationships.  I was on the board for 27 years. It’s a superb organization -- having students live together, have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. All in an effort to create one world -- living in peace!

Bill Rueckert

My family has been involved in education for generations, not only in the U.S., but also internationally.

A couple of my ancestors helped found four major universities in the Middle East -- Robert College in Turkey, American University in Beirut, Anatolia College in Greece, and one other.

This was a confederation of schools founded in the late 1800s. And various members of my family have been involved in running them for almost 100 years.

We’ve been able to watch these organizations grow and prosper, and see the tremendous value that education brings to once-remote parts of the world.  

American University in Beirut has been a presence for 100 years in what’s become a pivotal part of the world in international politics. And I believe that, to a degree, the presence of an American-style university there kept the U.S. and the world involved in a way that wouldn’t have been the case without it.

Education is an international commodity – every individual in the world benefits from education. To the extent that TC and the U.S. can promote education, it helps everyone. Education often is the only foothold we have in some societies, and it’s always a diplomatic instrument for bridging differences.

Historically, the work of TC has been really groundbreaking. We’ve established education programs in countries that didn’t have formal ones. We now see an pportunity once again to increase our focus on these opportunities.

I give Susan Fuhrman total credit for refocusing some of our resources on international programs. She really recognizes the value TC can bring to people in other parts of the world.

In some respects we have a responsibility to do so. We have the resources and expertise. We’re approached constantly by other countries to train their teachers and support their education programs.

It’s exciting that we’ve found ways to respond.

The other organization I’m involved with is International House. I’ve been a trustee for going on 24 years. Abby’s been one for 52 years.

It’s a residence for graduate students from around the world from 100 different countries, attending 100 different institutions here in New York City. They live and work together and get to understand the differences among their cultures, economies and religions. They learn understanding, tolerance and collaboration. And it’s all through their educational opportunities while they’re here.

From an emotional standpoint there’s a gratification of improving lives. That’s invaluable and that’s a big part of the return.

 What’s really exciting, though, is to look back at our history – the legacy of helping other countries create education programs – and now we have the opportunity to refocus in that area.

Published Tuesday, May. 5, 2009