“Shetland has always looked outwards to build inwards.” A wise observation this week from Stewart Hay, the Anderson High depute head and organiser of the Global Classroom Conference 2009 here in Shetland which has attracted 52 students and 14 staff from schools in New Zealand, the USA, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden.
Geography has never impeded the strong desire of Shetlanders to seek and give counsel outside these islands. Whatever centrifugal force there is towards insularity, it has mostly been resisted throughout our long history. Now, in an age of instant worldwide communications, the practice is as instinctive as it is widespread. But, as conference attendee Denis Goldberg, a stalwart of the anti-apartheid cause who was jailed with Nelson Mandela in the 1960s, pointed out, it helps being together from time to time; in essence, that is the goal of the conference and the time students and staff will spend living with people over the next few days. What could be better for children and adults alike from different cultures in fostering understanding, respect and appreciation than conversation, a much under-valued art in this fast 21st century world?
Although professor Goldberg’s talk on leadership won him a standing ovation and left some listeners in tears, it was another speaker, the technology professor Stephen Heppell, who made perhaps the most complimentary statement about Shetland. While evidently not that impressed with plans for the new Anderson High School (he has been involved in building more than 500 around the world), he highlighted two characteristics often held up as weaknesses in the Shetland character, to the extent that there is such a thing: modesty and diffidence.
“If you weren’t modest you wouldn’t succeed,” he said.
The Global Classroom has been a remarkable success story for Shetland. In our own modest way, we should acknowledge that and look forward to the continuing links it allows us to forge with people around the world not just for learning, but for living.