COVID-19, the Struggle for Social Justice, and the Future of Education
The COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and the massive, peaceful “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations have moved inequality and injustice front and centre in public debate. They provide an opportunity for change; an opportunity that must not be lost. As our US member organisations, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association wrote in a joint letter to students:
“You, our students, give us reason to hope. Even during some of the darkest days, young people have shown that they are willing to take a stand and fight for what is righteous and just. You are demonstrating the power of collective action. As educators, we are learning a timeless lesson from you that, together, we can change the world.”
Already before the school shutdowns, students gave us hope by going to the streets to save our planet from climate change. Once again, they are taking the lead.
The demonstrations in recent weeks, which have also become global, were set off by the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, the latest of many victims. His crime was to be black. This movement is about far more than police violence and abuse, however.
That outrage and other killings by agents of the State demonstrate such profound injustice that even the value of people’s lives may be judged based on race by those in authority. That must be fixed, but so must the other gaping inequalities that multiple, concurrent crises have underscored.
EI and our member organisations want to ensure that re-opening, which is already well underway in many countries, is safe for education staff and students. We are anxious about both physical and mental health as the lockdown, the threat of illness, but also re-opening, are stressful. But we are also concerned about the gaping inequalities that we are witnessing and are determined that education contribute to eliminate discrimination and produce greater equality.
At our recent International Summit on the Teaching Profession with Education Ministers and organised with the OECD, held virtually, inequalities were high on the agenda. On behalf of EI, I stressed the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on vulnerable students.
It was not just the digital divide that disadvantaged many students during distance learning, but a myriad of other factors. In fact, many inequalities were already present, but teaching conditions made them worse. We proposed that governments and the teaching profession work together to conduct an equity audit in schools to identify those students who were most affected, evaluate their needs, and provide appropriate support.
All inequalities have been deepened by the pandemic and its economic consequences, but they have also become more visible and can no longer be ignored. There is a heightened awareness of inequalities of gender, of national origin and status, of ethnicity, for persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples (who have suffered enormously), and many others. This is the time to act, to right wrongs and level the playing field.
Universal, free public education was created to build equality. It was a way for the children of working people and the poor to get a fair break in life; to enjoy opportunities that had been denied by economic class and the unfair distribution of wealth and privilege. That fundamental mission is still central. Young people are mobilising because black lives matter, for action on climate change, and on other issues. They seek to become actors, not victims. And, they do not aspire to be docile servants of the economic machine that puts shareholder returns over people.
The right to education was enshrined in the UN Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In these challenging times, full of opportunities and dangers, it is worth recalling the description of its purpose:
“…education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. …education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.”
In the world today, there is a crying need for understanding, tolerance, friendship, and peace. That need will not be met by education alone. A commitment of societies, especially, leaders, is required. As long as destructive polarisation and hate politics are still parts of winning electoral strategies, the environment will be hostile to discussion, civilised debate, and consensus.
However, education can help prepare a better future. It can help young people understand that their humanity is shared with everybody else. It can help them develop critical thinking and become active citizens shaping their own lives rather than being determined by others.
When I see the diverse black lives matter demonstrations with black, white, Asian, and other ethnic groups, I sometimes think that education needs to catch up with young people. They are articulating the human values around which decent societies are built.
Students and their needs are at the centre of good education. They need to develop not just the competencies, but the confidence to make the world a better place. One would hope that many motivated, committed young people will see education as a place to do that, to make their contribution as part of a special, valued, and essential profession.
If that is to happen, we need to learn the lessons of the pandemic. Human life is more precious than profits. Community is more important than cutting deals or collecting dividends. Identity should be defined by what one is for and not what one is against. An integrated world needs rules, massive solidarity, and credible institutions. Public services are invaluable and, when the crunch comes, central to our very lives.
All of this points to greater public investment, including for education. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are more, not less important than before the pandemic. It means that workers and their trade unions, including education unions, matter and should be respected and be able to make their vital contribution to democracy and social progress. They should be around the table, not just to negotiate wages, hours, and working conditions, but to help construct policies and that will serve public interest.
Initiatives for change that have been launched by young people need support. Leaders need to respect them and listen. Their legitimate demands need better responses than life-long debt, or tear gas and pepper bombs. Education, with a renewed mission and in all its forms, inside and beyond the school community, is fundamental to the transformation of hopes into accomplishments. Now is the moment to create a better tomorrow out of the crises of today.