COVID-19: Rehumanizing education and lifelong learning

The current crisis need not result in a further erosion of social and economic rights and the widening of inequalities – it also represents an opportunity to appeal to global solidarity and rehumanize lifelong learning, writes Maren Elfert

© UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Educators around the world are alarmed about the consequences of the COVIID-19 crisis. A lively debate has emerged on what the world might look like in the aftermath of the crisis in relation to education and more broadly. I would like to add my voice to those who emphasize that our perspective must be bigger than COVID-19 and that we should take the crisis as an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and rethink our approach to education. As a recent article argued in relation to schools, ‘When the Covid crisis finally ends, schools must never return to normal’ (Sweeney, 2020), referring to the need to abandon harmful practices such as deprofessionalizing teachers, excessive testing and the culture of rankings. This discussion, of course, is related to how we organize our society and how we deal with the larger environmental, economic, social and political crisis of which COVID-19 is a symptom.

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, there is potential in this crisis for the best of times or the worst of times. The crisis could offer us an opportunity to rethink and innovate our societies or to move further down the path of dehumanization of education in terms of ‘one size fits all teaching’ in schools and lifelong learning as a market commodity. Among the questions and issues that are raised in the current debates are: In light of the public health and ensuing economic crisis, will global inequalities in access to education widen, disrupting progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) (UNESCO/IIEP, 2020)? Distance education is being pushed by corporate interests (Williamson, 2020), but it bears the risk of further marginalizing disadvantaged students who do not have access to technology and who depend on teacher-student relationships (Srivastava, 2020; Parramore, 2020). For many students, school represents a place to socialize and often get the only meal of the day (UNICEF, 2020). Higher education institutions around the world are preparing for significant drops of international students, and quite a number of them will probably not survive. Will this lead to a reconsideration of education as a market model, or just to even more tightened competition? Some thinkers, such as the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (2020a; 2020b), are concerned about the de-humanization of human beings as a consequence of ‘social distancing’. Arjun Appadurai, in a recent keynote panel of UNESCO’s ‘Futures of Education’ initiative, warned of the risk that education might be considered unimportant in these times of crisis (UNESCO, 2020). This might translate into cuts to education.

To reflect on these questions, it might be worthwhile to look back to how the previous generation thought about the role of education in the aftermath of the Second World War when many of the issues discussed were amazingly similar. The post-war period saw the formation of somewhat contrasting agendas for the reconstruction of education: the idealistic-humanistic perspective of lifelong learning, which was pursued by UNESCO, and a utilitarian counter-approach that emphasized the role of education for the economy. The pioneers of lifelong learning in the 1960s envisaged lifelong learning as a social response to a society in which citizens would have more leisure time due to the use of technology and the democratization of societies (UIE, 1962). They dreamt of a learning society as the basis of peace, solidarity and ‘international understanding’. Adult education was considered a priority (Elfert, 2019). This vision, which was formulated at the second International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA II), convened by UNESCO in Montreal in 1960, reads as surprisingly up-to-date:

Our first problem is to survive. It is not a question of the survival of the fittest; either we survive together or we perish together. Survival requires that the countries of the world must learn to live together in peace. ‘Learn’ is the operative word. Mutual respect, understanding, sympathy are qualities that are destroyed by ignorance, and fostered by knowledge. In the field of international understanding, adult education in today’s divided world takes on a new importance (cited in Elfert, 2018, p. 86).

This was one of the first instances of lifelong learning on the international stage. ‘Learning’ was seen as key to achieving a better future based on international understanding, solidarity and peace. The economic side of learning was not a priority. Adult education was emphasized as particularly important, which resonates today, as the anticipated wave of unemployment and erosion of skills could be an opportunity to make greater investments in education rather than to cut education budgets, as envisioned by the lifelong learning pioneers. Learning, in this quote, is related to respect, understanding and sympathy, fostered by knowledge, which is contrasted to ignorance. In the Futures of Education panel, Appadurai also emphasized the importance of knowledge in the current crisis, in which we need to build ‘knowledge capacities’ to be able to process and analyse the flood of – often false and misguided – information with which we are confronted every day. He also pointed out that COVID-19 reminds us of our common humanity. This humanistic vision of lifelong learning, which was later reinforced by UNESCO’s Faure report (1972) and Delors report (1996), can inspire us to rehumanize education and the notion of lifelong learning, which is so prominently featured in SDG 4, in these difficult times.

In the times ahead, economic crisis and growing unemployment will likely entail a further co-opting of lifelong learning in terms of employability. We might witness a further erosion of social and economic rights in a society in which inequalities are even more visible than today. This moment presents an opportunity to appeal to global solidarity and rehumanize education and lifelong learning and remember that education is relational. If we continue on the path of touting learning for the sake of economic growth, profit-making and marketability, we will miss the opportunity to learn from this crisis, which is part of the consequences of these paradigms. In this time, we must insist on the right of people to learn in order to imagine their future, rather than allowing lifelong learning to be reduced to a tool of survival. In these difficult times, UNESCO could draw on its rich intellectual history and act as a rehumanizing force. CONFINTEA VII, which will be held in 2022, will represent an opportunity to revisit previous thinking on education and lifelong learning in times of crisis as a basis for a global dialogue on the challenges ahead.

Maren Elfert is Lecturer in Education and Society at King’s College London. She is co-editing, with David Atchoarena and Paul Stanistreet, a special issue of the International Review of Education – Journal of Lifelong Learning on ‘Education in the age of COVID-19’

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