Does history matter?

Whitehead Park

A few years ago, in my previous position in the Office of the Vice Provost at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I spoke to a group of students at High School Affiliated to Xi’an Jiaotong University (西安交通大学附属中学) about a new pre-college summer program we were launching. Following the assembly, Principal Wang Peidong did something unexpected—she gave me a tour of a new museum inside the school, where behind polished Plexiglas frames highlighted by interactive video displays, I learned that the school was actually founded by the Business and Telegraphs Office in Shanghai way back in 1896, as part of Nanyang Public School (南洋公學), which encompassed this institution and three others. Some half-century later, the high school was re-named and re-located as a result of the restructuring of the education system in the late 1950’s.

For those familiar with visiting Chinese high schools, it is much more common to be presented with a list of high-flying gaokao scores and college placements than black and white photos of well-loved teachers and the first graduating class. But, talking with a colleague about this experience on my return, he quoted Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” When I asked what he meant, he reminded me that every educational institution, high school or university, is, at its core, a collection of people who share a common purpose centered around learning and excellence.

Another example. If you haven’t met John Zachariah, the principal of the legendary Bishop Cotton Boys’ School in Bangalore, grab your notebook, and prepare for a history lesson. A gracious host, Principal Zachariah’s office is located in one of the oldest buildings on campus.

He will tell you that outside his window is a green grass field, where for the past 130 years students representing local schools have fought for the prized “Cottonian Shield,” in an interschool cricket tournament. He will tell you that Bishop Cotton Boys’ School was the first school in Asia where the house system, a feature common to public schools in England, was introduced. Or that, although founded by clergy affiliated with the Church of England, today the school is governed by the Church of South India. Or that the school’s alumni, known as “Old Cottonians,” are actively involved in preserving its legacy and its future. In fact, I would guess that if you have enough time, everything about Bishop Cotton Boys’ School would have a story that connects its mission, quality, and values.

Why does this matter? Because history matters. Founded a few dozen years after Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, but still a really long time ago, of course the High School Affiliated with Xi’an Jiaotong University has a story. And stories that connect to tradition are important to everyone involved, even if they present them differently. And as we visit these amazing institutions, let’s remember taking the time to reflect on these stories that help us understand each school’s unique culture of learning and excellence. And for that purpose, history does matter. A lot.

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