Rethinking Education in the Age of the Coronavirus

Our ‘modern’ universities have burdened us with the packages of specialised knowledge. Yet, we are almost incapable of engaging with the inherent uncertainty of existence.

It is unfortunate that even as educationists and teachers, we refuse to learn any meaningful lesson from the crisis confronting the entire humankind. As the coronavirus pandemic shatters the modernist notion of ‘order’, we ought to contemplate and reexamine what we have taken for granted till now—our ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ skills, or our pride in the ‘intelligence’ that universities cultivate.

However, what is ironic is that even at this puzzling moment, we fail to see beyond techno-managerial solutions; seldom do we go beyond what is popularly known as ‘online’ learning. The assumption is that the lockdown period should not be wasted; and students and teachers must keep their ‘normal’ activities alive, complete the ‘syllabus’ through ‘online’ learning, and get their degrees in due time. Hence, nothing, it is thought, is more important than reading the same texts, completing the same kind of assignments, and listening to the same monologue of the teachers. Use technology, work from home, and continue the ‘academic production’!

I see its absurdity. I feel this is the time for an honest and a rigorous self- reflection; this is the time to understand the deeper layers of our consciousness; and this is the time to examine where we have gone wrong. Yes, this is the time to rethink education. It doesn’t matter even if we do not complete the official syllabus; it makes no difference even if, for instance, sociology students do not write yet another standardised term paper on Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or philosophy students miss a couple of routinised lectures on Spinoza and Descartes. What, I feel, is really important is to unlearn the old baggage of knowledge, and derive a meaning of existence in the period of existential and ontological uncertainty.

From arrogant conquerors to humble wanderers 

I know modernity has given us many things. It has activated our physical and vital energy; it has sharpened the power of the intellect; and it has given us ‘comforts’. Yet, modernity with its triumphant agenda has destroyed the possibility of an organic relationship between the human species and the universe. Instead, its Baconian science has asked us to manipulate and conquer nature; its Cartesian dualism has separated reason from emotion; technocrats and economists have made us believe that we can go on with the gospel of unlimited growth, and reckless exploitation of natural resources; and the spectacular success in bio-medicine makes us think that it is not far away when we can even conquer death.

Also read: Teaching in the Time of Isolation

In a way, we have become arrogant conquerors. The self-perception of being ‘modern’ is to be a conqueror filled with the power of instrumental reason and techno-science, and capable of keeping everything under his or her commands.

But then, the coronavirus has shattered this confidence. No, we are not the masters of the world. And not everything can be fitted into our notion of mathematical precision and engineered order. Not everything can be predicted—the way we predict whether it will rain this afternoon in South Delhi.  In other words, the coronavirus has brought us to the domain of uncertainty and perplexity. And herein lies the importance of what the enthusiastic champions of modernity wanted us to forget: the inherent mystery of existence. To acknowledge this mystery is to redefine ourselves. This is to transform us from arrogant conquerors to humble wanderers.

It is in this context that we have to rethink education. Our ‘modern’ universities have burdened us with the packages of specialised knowledge; we have learned to acquire all sorts of ‘technical skills’; we have cultivated the prosaic intellect. Yet, we are almost incapable of engaging with the inherent uncertainty of existence—or, say the possibility of death knocking our doors at this very moment. Hence, when a crisis of this kind confronts us, we are terribly shaken, we fail to see beyond masks and sanitisers, and yesterday’s conquerors become today’s fearful mortals.

A view of deserted BMC headquarters due to the coronavirus pandemic during a nationwide lockdown, at CSMT in Mumbai, Saturday, March 28, 2020. Photo: PTI/Kunal Patil

And hence at this crucial juncture, as educationists we must ask ourselves whether we should redefine education as a new quest of a wanderer. Should education give us the psychic, spiritual or aesthetic strength to understand our location in this vast universe, cherish a sense of gratitude and humility, and live gracefully even amidst the fragile character of the phenomenal world—the way a tiny blue flower blooms for a couple of days, and then withers away with absolute grace?

And if we do not ask this question, and continue to do what we have been doing for years—say, working in our science labs and publishing papers in journals with high ‘impact factor’, or like a parrot quoting from Derrida and Lacan, or fetching an M.Tech or MBA from ‘top ranking’ universities, we would prove to be utterly callous and insensitive.

From ‘social distancing’ to engaged responsibility 

Think of it. The term ‘social distancing’ can emerge only from the kind of society we moderns have created. Yes, we are used to the pathos of the lonely crowd; anonymity or heartless indifference characterises our urban spaces; new gadgets further take us to our solitary cells, even though we might have thousands of ‘followers’ and ‘subscribers’; and above all, the normalisation of surveillance in our times has erected huge walls of separation and exclusion. Furthermore, the prevalent practice of education has already transformed us into reckless competitors or warriors. We have almost lost the ecstasy of the communion. Is it the reason that even at this moment of crisis we can only think of ‘distancing’?

Also read: We Will Survive the Coronavirus. We Need to Make Sure We Survive Ourselves.

I admit that there is a danger of community transmission, and the spread of the coronavirus can be combated reasonably through physical distancing. However, physical distancing is not social distancing. In fact, through a new mode of education,  we can generate an ethos of socially enriched engaged responsibility and ethics of care, despite the temporality of physical distance.

This is like realizing that while obsessive fear makes us selfish and insulated, it is love that heals the wound. To love is to connect. And hence, all these meaningful gestures—say,  talking to a friend who lives alone in the distant suburb over the telephone, or not hoarding extra grocery material for one’s own family, or, for that matter, persuading the neighbours in the gated community not to be solely preoccupied with the new apps for the undisturbed supply of fish and meat in their 1500 sq.ft apartments, or with their own ‘safety’ (which, anyway, is a myth – in a ‘risk society’ there is no winner, and even Prince Charles can get it) and start a fundraising drive for migrant workers suffering severely because of the lockdown – would matter a great deal.

This is the time for realising the need for sharing and togetherness, and love and therapeutic healing. However, if we do not change ourselves, and, instead, continue to cherish the mantra of ‘distancing’, we would eventually find ourselves in a world where the victims would be more and more stigmatised, a new form of untouchability would emerge (it has already begun as we see the way the doctors dealing with the coronavirus victims have been asked to vacate their houses), and in the name of ‘safety’ the authoritarian state would further dehumanise us through the chains of surveillance. We would enter a frightening dystopian age.

Hence, as educationists and teachers, we are required to make a choice. Should we continue with the kind of education that only makes us ‘logical’, yet ethically and spiritually impoverished self-centric careerists? Or should we learn some deep lessons from the present crisis, and redefine education to undertake a new journey: from the narcissism of modernity to the poetry of connectedness with the rhythm of life and death; from certainty to mystery; or from weapons of destruction to prayers of redemption.

Avijit Pathak is a professor of Sociology at JNU.