By David de Carvalho, CEO of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).
We’ve grown accustomed to hearing that we are ‘living in interesting times’, as things are turned upside down by COVID-19. The saying “may you live in interesting times” was erroneously claimed, in an early and ironic example of fake news, to be a proverb of Chinese origin.
The expression was used in a speech in 1936 by the British statesman, Sir Austen Chamberlain, in which he claimed a member of the Foreign Office had told him that “there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, ‘may you live in interesting times’. There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us,” Chamberlain said. “We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”
As the possibility dawns on us that the COVID war may not be ‘over before Christmas’ – as the optimists in 1914 thought – every sector of society is asking: what will be the ‘new normal’? Questions are being asked about how we build personal, communal, and economic self-reliance and resilience over the long term.
When it comes to school education, the issue of remote learning and ‘lost learning’ dominates discussion. But what of education’s role as a force for social and cultural resilience and revitalisation?
The social role of art is useful to consider. In this most pragmatic of times, what role does art play? One of the first cities in Italy to go into COVID-19 lockdown was Venice. Last year it hosted the 58th International Art Exhibition, with the unintentionally prescient title, May You Live in Interesting Times.
When launching the exhibition, the director, Ralph Rugoff, said that the exhibition would “no doubt include artworks that reflect upon precarious aspects of existence today, including different threats to key traditions, institutions and relationships of the ‘post-war order’”.
COVID-19 has certainly reminded us all of the precariousness of our existence and has proven itself a threat to the pre-pandemic world order. But Rugoff went on to note the limits of art, that it “does not exercise its forces in the domain of politics. Art cannot stem the rise of nationalist movements and authoritarian governments in different parts of the world, for instance, nor can it alleviate the tragic fate of displaced peoples across the globe”.
I take issue with this view. Art can influence the domain of politics, though its impact is often subtle and indirect. Art can promote ideas or accentuate sentiments that then operate at the level of culture and affect the way people perceive their situation. Art can move people to action. Think of the powerful plays of Vaclav Havel, a voice for freedom behind the Iron Curtain, who became the first democratically elected president of the former Czechoslovakia in the midst of ‘interesting times’ after the demise of the Soviet Union.
Education, like art, exercises a powerful social force. Schooling should not have any political or ideological agenda, but its purpose is not simply to prepare young people to find jobs, though that is a basic and vital function. Education should serve a higher social and cultural purpose.
Just as steel and concrete build our physical infrastructure, education builds up the social and cultural capital that enables our community to respond to the challenges of ‘interesting times’ with resilience, compassion, courage and creativity.
So, it is interesting to note the current commentary about how COVID-19 is disrupting school education. Schooling will never be the same again, declare the headlines.
Much of the commentary is about the way technology is being used to ensure students can continue to learn outside the classroom and without the physical presence of a teacher. It’s about the mechanics of schooling, rather than the important role of education in the post-COVID world.
Does the current disruption threaten, in Rugoff’s words, schooling’s “traditions, institutions and relationships”, ushering in a brave new world of digital education?
Regardless of how technology is deployed post-COVID, or how schooling itself might evolve, some aspects of good education are enduring. The ultimate purpose of education will remain. Education enables us to make sense of the world into which we are born and our place in it. But it does more, because ultimately, we are not just products of our physical circumstances or of a deterministic socio-economic or cultural process.
Our family and society influence who we are, but do not determine us.
Importantly, education also helps an individual to critically assess the society and culture that have influenced their development in crucial ways. Thus, education not only shapes the world view and values of each person, but also empowers us to be agents of change. Education therefore paradoxically serves simultaneously the purposes of social and cultural continuity, and social and cultural change.
We may live in interesting times, but the core purpose of education remains unchanged, serving to empower our young people to grow in integrity, authenticity and wisdom. In the words of Vaclav Havel, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility”.