Worlds of Education

“Optimism of the Will”, by Dennis Shirley.

published 23 April 2020 updated 23 April 2020
written by:

Covid-19 has changed everything. Like it or not, our world is just at the beginning of a historically unprecedented shift to new ways of being, thinking, and doing. The international educational professional will need to respond with its full ingenuity and expertise to this unprecedented challenge.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” is a saying bequeathed to us by Romain Rolland. It seems particularly apt for our troubled times. While too many leaders have dithered and trivialized the threat of covid-19, the virus spread with lightning speed around the globe and thousands will pay with their lives for their folly. It’s time for a complete rethinking of how we educate in light of this world-historical failure of leadership.

In a just and rational world, everyone would appreciate one of the great achievements of the 20th century, which was to create public schools to teach millions of children around the world essential life skills so that they can be productive citizens. The human condition has improved in astonishingly unprecedented ways as a result of unsung educators’ labors, extending life expectancy and improving living conditions in almost every country over the past decades. Yet this progress always has been fragile. In many cases inequalities haven’t just persisted; they’ve severely worsened. Even before covid-19, climate change threatened to undermine everything. Vulnerable publics sought salvation in demagogues, who quickly betrayed them.

We can’t do everything as educators, but we can be alert to what is going on, how we have gotten to where we are now, and what we need to do next.  Here are 3 strategic shifts we all can play a role in advancing in our schools:

  1. S top marginalizing science and the social studies and referring to reading and math alone as the “basics.” Testing regimes that have pushed literacy and numeracy as the core subject areas and everything else as secondary and dispensable, never had a shred of integrity about them. Now that we see clearly what ignorance of science and lack of critical civic engagement have wrought, it’s time to bury the bad old paradigm of curriculum narrowing once and for all.
  2. Stop pretending that nationalism and bigotry are going to save us and double down on improving the human condition for everyone, from the inner cities of the developed world to the struggling favelas of the global South. Populist leaders from the US to the Philippines and from Brazil to the UK have exploited our fears and resentments of one another to build walls and to spread fear and mistrust.  Our schools’ curricula need to counteract this reign of fallacies and falsehoods and to teach students around the world to build bridges of unshakeable international solidarity with one another.
  3. Stop worshipping technology and create the right blend of on-line and off-line opportunities. For-profit companies are salivating at the opportunity to rake in big profits when schools are closed and anxious parents want their children to keep up with their learning. Parents’ fears are understandable, but the proposed panacea of turning every home into a wonderland of technical toys will miss out on the precious opportunity of thinking through the deeper ramifications of the covid-19 and to understand our shared destinies in the larger human community. Let’s help our students to learn from and appreciate one another not just on-line, but also off-line. There is so much more to life than the glittering, 2-dimensional screen.

“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” means that we boldly confront the magnitude of covid-19 and muster the courage and the discipline to get us all through this crisis. Not all is lost, and a great deal still may be attained. Don’t expect, and don’t desire, to go back to what we used to call normal everyday life.  We can, and must, do much better than that.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.