Post-coronavirus times, education and the Ship of Theseus

Rammohan Khanapurkar

The coronavirus crisis has been a tumultuous one for India and its heterogeneous education sector. Although there has been a rush to go online, can this be construed as a thoughtful response to the crisis or was it a hurried reaction to save the upcoming academic year? Any new and paradigm-shifting response in education winds its way into debates like de-schooling or unschooling. There are islands of excellence around these ideas, but masses often visit these islands as ‘Edu-tourists’ rather than dwelling on them. So, in the post-coronavirus times, what do we expect from education, which is hinged to the hook of curriculum and remains fixated with ‘learning outcomes’? The newfound understanding must begin by having a consensus on the term ‘post-coronavirus world’ for education. This world must carry a new understanding of life with more care, sensitivity and responsibility towards disadvantaged communities, ecology, non-human species and natural resources. How can we dovetail this post-coronavirus plank to revive the education ship in the real sense? Will it become the paradox of the Ship of Theseus – in other words, can the ‘new approach’ of revival be fundamentally different from the pre-coronavirus education?

Allowing the child to grow physically without any external support of cognitive enhancement carries no wisdom in conventional education. This entrenched thought results in a child being preoccupied with external inputs given by schools. Thus, her involvement with the community remains peripheral. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to change this insular understanding of communities. Our cities and villages are a mélange of communities. The interdependence for trade and commerce often obliterates the ingrained community markers of people in real life. Still, inter-community mingling and cooperation beyond transactional relations remain bookish for many. The pandemic has given a real-life edge to inter-community cooperation and coexistence. The lockdown period underscored this aspect as everyone witnessed how the providers of essential services went beyond the call of duty to keep life going. For the first time in the 21st century, the pandemic had 7.8 billion people on the planet united in grief as a ‘global community’. The coronavirus did not give a fig for human-made nation-state boundaries. Education can build upon this newfound solidarity, community sharing and global unity. Can this lead in some ways and encourage youngsters to not see the communities as ‘us’ versus ‘them’?

Farming Maths

The pandemic in India unravelled various social fault-lines. Consider the desperation of migrant workers to reach their far-away homes as the lockdown threw them in despair. The nation watched with shock and disbelief as migrant workers walked hundreds of kilometres on the hot surface of highways in the sweltering summer of India. Imagine this tragic episode ‘escaping’ the collective conscience of youngsters as they continue to get swayed by grades for an individualized future. We often raise poignant sighs for missing values in education. Can we have a serious space in the curriculum to nurture the value of community cooperation? Let’s take an example to understand this. No school in an Indian city can physically distance itself from the cheek-by-jowl existence of informal settlements around it. The socioeconomic fabric of these settlements is strained with the coronavirus crisis. Issues like the loss of livelihoods and impossibility of maintaining social distance due to congested habitation have compounded the concerns of its inhabitants. These are the same people whose collective efforts and services in doing menial tasks allow more privileged people to live a comfortable life. Our schools cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the community needs of these multitudes of hard-working but undermined people. Be it math, geometry, geography, history, sociology or even language, each subject can have practical application to build community cooperation in the post-coronavirus period. Just a subject of community toilets can open a Pandora’s box. Several issues revolve around community toilets, such as its structure, national and international best practices in building community toilets, new technology, sewerage system, gender angle, schemes floated for its ‘repairs’ along with disbursement of funds, remuneration given to its cleaners and their socioeconomic background, health issues faced by inhabitants of the settlements, especially children and senior citizens, public health communication related to hygiene aspects. All these issues can be analyzed and documented by students with the new lens of community cooperation while learning subjects. Many such real-life needs of the communities can be part of the curriculum to instill an inclusive sense of community involvement. The curriculum should also accommodate regional and cultural variations of a child’s surroundings. A child in rural areas will not come across the vast sprawl of an informal settlement. But she may have to deal with the loss of livelihoods of her parents returning from the cities and now struggling with subsistence farming. As a response to this, a significant component of agriculture in the curriculum can encourage rural youngsters to root themselves in their soil. Its long-term effect may result in these young ones rejecting the precarious future as a migrant worker in cities. Can the curriculum be flexible to accommodate such context-specific needs?

Sprouts of Education

We have several well-endowed schools in the cities which carry a tremendous advantage of resources. Youngsters studying in such schools do not have the pressure of first-generation school-goers or under-resourced children. Propelled by the abundance of resources and parental support, their imagination follows no orbital contours. Students from such schools can put their minds to rebuilding the less privileged schools including rural areas and even learn from each other. Those who are privileged can also learn a thing or two about how the food they eat grows in hinterlands and reaches their homes in cities. Thus, the inter-community ethos can begin within the school community itself. Encouraging this process may also lead to students getting a real-life exposure to different forms of inequalities. Some may even go a step further and decide to raise their voice against it. Imagine youngsters who, during such inter-school bonding, come across a school for children displaced due to a large-scale infrastructure project in the hinterland. One of the youngsters appeals to the school to address the educational concerns of these children at a policy level until it is resolved. The school can support such a youngster by collectively learning, about something they had not known of until that moment.

Irrigating Lives

In reality, the post-coronavirus phase may push schools to prioritize the ‘learning lag’ due to the lockdown and sideline other things. This may reduce the deep impact of the coronavirus crisis as a narrow sidetrack of school projects. So, what could be a teacher’s role here with support from the school? The pandemic has been a deeply felt emotional experience for many. It has also been an unprecedented experience for the teacher community. Schools can tap into the core emotions felt by teachers due to the pandemic. We can consider one more example here. For the last two decades, the rising demand for private English medium schools has created a wave of affordable private schools. These are low-cost schools, serving the burgeoning need for English education among low-income communities. The quality of education has been a long-time concern of these schools. The pandemic was a turbulent phase for the teachers working in thousands of such schools across the country. The teachers in these schools must have introspected hard about the rote learning education they proffer with little autonomy. Their transformation as human beings can lead the school authorities to collaboratively revisit the eternal question, ‘Why do we teach?’ Can the serious personal reflections of teachers get respect and consideration for a more humane curriculum in post-coronavirus times?

If liberation from schools is unviable, then at least liberation from the inward-looking curriculum should become a ‘new normal’. The coronavirus phase will pass, but schools should not treat it as an aberrational phase. That it pulled down the rigid walls of ‘gated living’ and put us in a giant ship of ‘global community’ needs a constant reminder. This thought can keep ringing if the curriculum is powered with the real-life needs of communities around us. The Ship of Theseus can find its way out.

The author is a public policy researcher, educator and writes on education, history and collective memories in South Asia. He has an MA in Education and International Development from University College London. He can be reached at [email protected].

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