At the tipping point: Education in the age of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic could come to be seen either as an important turning point for humanity or a huge missed opportunity, a landmark in the decline of human civilization. The choice, in the end, is ours, writes Paul Stanistreet.

As the 51st World Economic Forum (WEF) meets virtually to discuss rebuilding trust, making ‘crucial’ choices and reforming systems in the context of the agenda WEF founder Klaus Schwab describes as the ‘great reset’, it is clear that we are living through times of profound change and challenge, in some respects unprecedented in human history.

And whether you welcome this for reasons of social justice and the promotion of equity and equality, or see as it a threat to entrenched systems of advantage that must be carefully, and, if necessary, coercively, managed, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a rare moment in the human story when we have an opportunity to read the map, change direction and do things differently.

As Arundhati Roy wrote in April last year, ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.’

It was in recognition of this moment, the potential we and others see for human development and the creation of a better world, as well as the danger of entrenching inequality and injustice, that my colleagues Maren Elfert and David Atchoarena and I issued a call for papers, back in March 2020, for a special issue of the International Review of Education – Journal of Lifelong Learning (IRE) on ‘Education in the age of COVID-19’.

The response to the call was remarkable. We received more than 150 abstracts from countries across all continents. The breadth of concern and the quality and variety of the proposals was impressive. It was inspiring to find so many education scholars responding to the challenge of COVID-19 by attempting to deepen our understanding both of what was happening and how we might begin to think through and beyond it. But it was also somewhat troubling to find, as the articles came in, how negatively the global lockdown was impacting on teachers and learners. Although clearly disheartening, we should recognize too, as many authors did, in the white heat of this crisis, a fleeting opportunity to forge something better, fairer and more sustainable.

Such was the quality of the proposals, we decided to publish two special issues. The first has just been published, with the second expected in April. Subtitled ‘Understanding the consequences’, the first special issue aims to assess the impact of the pandemic on education, and to provide insights which can help in setting the course for strategic and constructive action. Insight is provided as to the response in Canada, Cameroon, Catalonia, China, the Republic of Korea and the United States, while types of provision considered include school, university, adult education, family literacy, intergenerational learning, and indigenous health. One important article offers a wonderfully compelling account of how a major international conference was successfully moved online at short notice.

Taken together, the articles of this issue (as well as the forthcoming second volume), largely written in the summer and autumn of 2020, comprise a wealth of insights, experiences, reflections, warnings and visions for the future that can help us cope with, make sense of and move beyond this crisis. The pandemic and its implications for education will be written about a great deal in the coming months and years, but this issue offers an indispensable snapshot of a world coming to terms, for the first time, with a difficult new reality.

It is possible already to see patterns of global inequality reflected in the distribution of vaccine, which, in defiance of the need for genuinely global solutions, is disproportionately favouring the rich and powerful. One of the questions we must ask is whether the same global order that has overseen catastrophic climate change and widening inequality, while doing pathetically little to address global challenges around literacy and access to school, for example, are really the right people to lead us to the sunlit uplands of sustainability and a fairer, more equal planet.

We have reached a tipping point. We can continue on our current course, leading, as it would appear, to increasingly brutal, authoritarian and inequitable forms of capitalism, or we recognise the profound dysfunction at the heart of our socio-economic arrangements and, through bold interventions across a range of fronts, education included, try to make something better.

Choosing the latter demands a radical rethink of education, what it is for, how we do it and who gets it and when. It also means revitalizing the link between education – and especially adult education – and social and civic change. The choice in the end is ours – only we, through our joint actions and learning, can bring about the required shift in political will. We can go back to the old normal, or we can resist its siren song and build a new one based not on the values of economic growth, competition and global inequality, but on those of fairness, democratic citizenship, solidarity and cooperation, within and across borders – the core values, in fact, of the historic adult education movement.

Paul Stanistreet is the Executive Editor of International Review of Education and Head of Knowledge Management and Communications for the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

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