As we pass the sombre figure of 100,000 deaths in the UK from the Covid-19 pandemic, we are – not unnaturally – asking what if anything we have learned that might lessen the risks we face in the future. But if we are asking about learning, we should be asking some quite literal and targeted questions about what is for most people the most visible kind of learning – what goes on in schools and colleges.
It is true that educational issues have been a lightning rod throughout the pandemic. They have been a vehicle for anxieties about national priorities, social disadvantage, mental health, the calculation of risk and a good deal more. The reproach of “letting our children down” has been flung around the political arena in a startling variety of ways. But where does the real betrayal of our children lie? Education at every level is still seen predominantly in terms of providing employable skills, and its effectiveness is routinely measured by its success in securing jobs. But what if we are now at a point in the history of our culture where this is not just inadequate but actively disabling?
This is a concern at the most practical level. We may or may not be looking at a long-term shift in our attitude to work, as some have argued. But, in the short term, the rising generation faces an even higher measure of insecurity than we have grown used to in the past couple of decades. The job market will be fraught and uncertain, the gig economy will be both more pervasive and more risky, and the correlation between education and purchasing power is not going to improve in a hurry. Continuing to parrot bromides about education and the world of employment won’t be helpful or honest. If education truly prepares the young for their future, it must help them better understand this uncertainty, and find the resources of mental well-being that will enable them to live with it.
This opens up a much larger issue. We are used to plaintive cries that not enough students opt for scientific subjects, and related worries about the supposed drift of our culture towards an anti-scientific relativism or, ultimately, a post-truth mentality. But one of the things we have learnt in the past ten months is that we set ourselves up for profound confusion if we talk about “science” as a source of self-evidently clear and effective solutions, as if narratives and values played no role. Bland claims to be “following the science” have acquired an unhappily hollow sound.
Working scientists will almost always say that the bridge between evidence and action is a tough one to construct, and needs a breadth of awareness about social and individual variables for it to be durable. Any regular reader of Phil Whitaker’s superb contributions to this magazine will recognise the complex fusion of technical skill, intuition, values, psychological alertness and sensitivity to social or economic environment that is needed for effective and humane medical intervention.
The application of scientific research requires judgement and responsible risk-taking, applied across boundaries and disciplines. We must understand this if we are not to load science with impossible expectations – and so breed a dangerous cynicism when it fails to deliver the solutions we’ve been promised. Yes, encourage students to take scientific subjects; and help them see those subjects within the complexities of human history and interaction.
In the next half-century we will face dramatically increased risks of climate crisis as well as of the medical crises that go with it. The Covid pandemic should have intensified tenfold the urgency of reckoning with the dangers we already face because of a ravaged environment and multiple new varieties of global mobility and interconnection.
We need to see this situation clearly, and to develop the habits of mind and body that will resist despair, equip realistic response and also enable a clear-sighted acceptance of the limits to what we can solve or master in a lifetime. But what is our present educational philosophy doing to nurture such ways of thinking and feeling? Does a good education have anything at all to do with learning to face mortality?
The head of a famous Catholic school many years ago shocked his secular colleagues by saying that he regarded his school’s job as teaching his pupils how to die. I doubt whether what he meant was a constant explicit insistence on the imminence of the great leveller. But he saw that any education that simply offers students evasions and half-truths – about who and what they are, what the world is and what the limits of human power and resource may be – is failing in its purpose.
What does it mean to “fail our children” in this broader context? It means backing away from the scale of change that we face, and from the job of resourcing young people to respond with intelligence, imagination and honesty. It would be ridiculous to pretend that there are a few simple restructurings that will achieve this. We need a courageous rethinking of our ingrained assumptions about education. We need to pay some critical and sympathetic attention to those despised and frequently attacked parallel worlds of the Montessori and Steiner systems. We need the issue of resources for the human spirit to be at the heart of educational vision – including craft, drama, sport, exposure to the raw natural world, community service. And anyone who thinks this is somehow in tension with responsible scientific training has not understood either sciences or humanities.
The New Statesman’s weekly back-page Q&A always ends with the question: “Are we all doomed?” There is a simple sense in which the answer is “yes”. There is nothing we love or value that we shall not eventually have to give up, there is no life-project that does not have an expiry date .
The more interesting question is whether we can imagine not just giving up but “giving over” – finding the energy to hand on what we love and value, to enhance lives that will outlast ours. And for this to happen we have to have space and skills to explore what those things are, to love what “we must leave ere long”, as Shakespeare’s sonnet puts it. It is time for us to think again about all our educational institutions and practices in that light.
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost