COVID-19: ‘Every crisis is an opportunity’

As the world marks the defeat of Nazism and the end of the Second World War, Paul Stanistreet asks what lessons we can learn in our current crisis from the mass programmes of social reconstruction that followed the war

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The end of the Second World War was marked around Europe by national programmes of social and economic reconstruction, as nation states sought both to rebuild and to address long-standing inequalities.

In France, the De Gaulle government put in place a massive programme of nationalization and social reform, granting women the right to vote and laying the foundations of the modern French welfare state. In the UK, fees for state secondary education were scrapped (through the 1944 Education Act) and a progressive Labour government was elected with ambitious plans to transform social security, including universal free healthcare for all (the National Health Service). Moreover, in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), following the period of occupation, a programme of economic reconstruction ensued, followed by the creation of the German ‘social state’.

The solidarity and sense of shared responsibility and sacrifice engendered in the war appears to have spurred the people who survived these cataclysmic events to reject the way things had been done before and to demand a world that was better – not just for a few but for everyone. There was a desire to recognize sacrifice by humanizing social policy, including in education, and extending people’s rights. Furthermore, there was a new appreciation of the power of the state to act for the common good. What is remarkable about this is that it was achieved at a moment when most of the countries of Europe were in economic disarray, poverty was rife and food rationing common, and governments were loaded with huge amounts of debt.

Internationally, of course, the post-war period also saw the creation of the United Nations and UNESCO. UNESCO’s mission – to construct the ‘defences of peace’ in the minds of women and men – was shaped by a desire to promote international cooperation, to ensure the horrors of the war were not repeated and to sow hope in places which had lately been torn apart by hate and violence. Education was recognized as crucial to this process, with UNESCO advocating a vision of education with intrinsic as opposed to instrumentalist value. Education was a human right and human beings an end rather than a means of the educational process.

For many countries, the COVID-19 crisis represents the first time since the war that citizens have been required to remain in their homes, and to restrict their travel and consumption. The economic impact of the pandemic is likely to be comparable to the shock of the 2008 financial crisis. Some say it will be considerably worse. However, as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari notes in an interview with the UNESCO Courier, ‘Every crisis is also an opportunity’. While there is a danger that the current crisis will result in an entrenchment of inequalities and the intensified persecution of minorities, the social solidarity and sense of common purpose – not to mention the sacrifice of frontline workers – we have seen represent an opportunity to resist the desire to go back to business as usual and to build, instead, fairer, more equal and greener societies.

As UNESCO’s founding mothers and fathers realized, education must be central to this process of reconstruction. A fairer world, characterized by greater international cooperation, renewed democratic structures, and greener, most sustainable economies, will demand a revaluing of education, as well as a recognition that people, not profit, must be at the heart of education policy. This is why UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative is critical. We need to start thinking about the future now, or else it will elude us and our good intentions will be overtaken by events. In Britain, the shape of the new welfare state was set out in William Beveridge’s report of 1942 and had been widely debated by the time the war ended (it was first set out in Picture Post’s famous ‘Plan for Britain’ special issue in 1941). If we want something better, we had better start planning for it now. These plans are our bridges to the future.

History since the war could be described as a struggle between remembering and forgetting, with UNESCO’s humanistic vision of education strongly challenged by more instrumentalist understandings of education and lifelong learning, and democratic values under increasing threat. As the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said today, remembering is not a burden but is essential to freeing ourselves from hatred and xenophobia and contempt for democracy – ‘the old evil spirits in a new guise’.

We owe it to those who today are making the ultimate sacrifice to secure the greater good to build a post-pandemic world that is better, fairer and more socially just than the one that preceded it.

Paul Stanistreet is Head of Knowledge Management and Communications at UIL and Executive Editor of the international Review of Education.

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