By Dr. Scott H. Bennett, History Department
[Scott H. Bennett taught at Copenhagen International School from 1986 to 1991. In addition to teaching social studies, he served stints as chair of the teachers’ council (representing the faculty on the board) and as middle school coordinator. This article originally appeared in Copenhagen International School: Our First 50 Years (Copenhagen: CIS, June 2013), pp 22-23.]
Image credit: CIS
From 1986 to 1991, I taught social studies in Copenhagen, after stints in American / International schools in El Salvador and Italy. CIS was by far the most diverse and international of these schools. Students from more than 50 nationalities created a vibrant, cosmopolitan, and cooperative atmosphere. It was common to teach classes with 18 to 20 students from a dozen nations or national backgrounds and half a dozen religions. Indeed, CIS and the wider CIS community demonstrated the primacy of our common humanity.
CIS offered a warm, safe, nurturing environment for students. In part, CIS’s small size fostered this intimate environment. Students were individuals, not bodies in a seat. Before Copenhagen, I had tried to apply classroom policies consistently and without favoritism—and with few exceptions. At CIS, I learned that exceptions did not have to mean inconsistency and favoritism. I learned that making exceptions to serve the best interests of individual students did not undermine but rules but rather humanized policies.
The CIS students were amazing. In addition to superior individual performance, students demonstrated great enthusiasm and creativity on group projects: Conversations With History, Walls-As-Newspapers (Graffiti), Nations (politics/society/culture), Copenhagen Immigrants, and other projects. Thanks to arrangements made by a CIS parent, I published an account of the immigration project in a Danish magazine: “Internationalizing the ‘Business’ of Learning: The Ethnic Kiosk, Shop, and Grill as a Classroom.” With research culled from the students’ projects, this article was a nice example of student-teacher collaboration.
In particular, the 9th grade course on Asian Civilizations broadened my horizons. Enriching the course were the large number of Danish-Indian, Danish-Pakistani, and Danish-Hong Kong Chinese students, along with students from other Asian nations and nationalities. The Indian-Danish students spiritedly debated the respective merits of New Delhi and Bombay (Mumbai), as the Pakistani-Danish students looked on with bemusement. With fondness, I remember class-related trips to Asian restaurants and a yoga studio. As part of CIS’ summer reading program, one year I assigned Shogun a 1,000 page novel by James Clavell; in August, when school resumed, we discussed the book in class. I’ll never forget one Japanese student, new to CIS and just beginning to learn English, who read the entire novel with the assistance of a English-Japanese dictionary! In the lingo of my daughter’s generation, that commitment and desire to excel is “awesome”—and it typified CIS students.
I recall the annual class trips. Destinations included Venice, Prague, and Dubrovnik (then part of Yugoslavia and soon to become associated with ethnic-cleansing and civil war). In addition, there were trips to Paris with the French class, and a trip to the former Soviet Union that I organized. For most of the class trips, Lorraine Wykes was my co-chaperone—and we had lots of fun. One year, after arriving in Venice, we checked the students into their rooms before having coffee with the owner in the hotel’s ground-level “bar” (coffee shop). We could hear the excited students on their balconies above. Suddenly a balcony collapsed, crashing down on the restaurant roof. Fortunately, the students were able to exit the balcony before the fall.
Never was I more proud of my students than during a trip to the Danish Resistance Museum. In class, we had studied Nazi Germany, the holocaust, and World War II, and the museum visit was the capstone experience for this unit. At the museum, the students broke into groups and went through the exhibits that document Danish resistance to the German occupation during World War II. After their tours, the students begin to gather at our meeting place. A couple of students told me about a German, also visiting the museum, who warned them that the exhibits were propaganda. At that moment the German walked by, and I asked the students to call him over. It turned out that he spoke little English. However, with an Austrian student interpreting, we waged an impromptu debate on the holocaust right there in the museum. The German denied the holocaust occurred; and the students, to my delight, challenged his denial with evidence and questions that dismantled his claims. That 10 or 15 minute debate was a highlight in my teaching career. (Of course, this German tourist, a holocaust-denier, did not reflect mainstream German thought, any more than neo-Nazis who I met in Europe represented the people of their nations.)
My time at CIS coincided with the end of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika. In 1989, people’s power movements in Eastern Europe overthrew repressive regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. For months, I awoke to news reports of revolution, liberation, transformation, and hope. During the Thanksgiving 1989 weekend, just two weeks after the Berlin Wall “fell,” I visited this symbol of Cold War conflict—now a site of excitement and festiveness. Two years later, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the Cold War moved from current politics to contemporary history.
Danish taxes were a perennial topic of conversation. Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t complain about high taxes. I defended taxes, even though I paid 70% of my modest salary in income taxes and VAT. Indeed, I often quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a U.S. Supreme Court justice, who declared that taxes are the price that we pay for civilization. To me, Denmark’s highly developed “welfare state” undergirds a humane and civilized society that effectively advances the common good—a real bargain for our taxes.
To remain fit in middle age, I no longer eat Danish pastries—however, I do drive a Volvo; I still consider Scandinavia the most human place on earth to live; and I continuously recall my five wonderful years at CIS.
Since 2001, I have taught history at Georgian Court University, a small Catholic university in New Jersey, USA. My research focuses on peace history, nonviolence, pacifism, and conscientious objectors.
Photo credit: CIS