What lessons the Covid-19 pandemic has given for the future

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanJul 16, 2020 | 10:38

What lessons the Covid-19 pandemic has given for the future

Schools should attempt to teach futurology, bringing a new sensitivity about time, a playfulness about prediction and change, and a trusteeship for the rights of future generations.

A few decades back, two great scholars, one a journalist historian of the nuclear era and the other a sociologist of peace, declared that the future was too precious to be left to experts.

As a subject, it must be opened to children. Schools should attempt to teach futurology, bringing a new sensitivity about time, a playfulness about prediction and change, and a trusteeship for the rights of future generations. It is a pity few institutions followed up on the idea. The idea of the future remains the domain of experts and think-tanks, creating a priesthood of predictable futures, maintaining the current theology of power.


Democratic potential

Today, Covid as a crisis, goes back to the questions the two authors, Robert Jungk and Johan Galtung raised. It is clear today that policy has been a pretentious science, more a monopoly of information and expertise. Yet, the expert scenarios have little to offer and even less to suggest for the post-Covid era. It is time every citizen sees themselves as a policymaker and every village and community as a science academy. Knowledge should be part of the trusteeship of the community. In this context, opening futurology to schools gives us a different way of transforming Covid from a crisis, as a dead end, to a set of democratic possibilities.

Childhood and future intertwine at every step. It is time the future invokes a poetic genius in every child. (Photo: Reuters)

The future becomes an opportunity for learning about the art of governance, of converting a dream into possibility, so that the world is a more pluralistic place. Plurality is an urgent necessity for democracy. Development which freezes the future into undemocratic linearity needs to be challenged by creating alternative possibilities. But the nomad, the minority, and other dissenting groups need to be represented at the cognitive and cultural level. The future as an alternative experiment encourages such an exercise. The pedagogic power of such cognitive democracy allows the student to take on the role of myriad others. Justice and rights are understood pluralistically. The future is no longer a unilateral mode of thought, an extrapolation of the present as it is today.


Learn from mistakes

The future allows children to speculate and dream early. Dreaming, theorising, the sense of play and invention must go beyond the currently added models of pedagogy. Problem-solving moves from the standard game-theoretical exercises to a new kind of playfulness. The Homo Ludens, as Huizinga called it, is resurrected again. The current crisis, whether it is a gas leak, a war, a virus epidemic, a locust invasion, or a cyclone, allows children to model disaster economies and see the complexities of it. How many schools would let students do projects on these topics by invoking a new kind of thought? Such projects would show them that cost-benefit models cannot grasp suffering. It will allow children to investigate such models, and see how the worlds of risk, uncertainty, complexity, exist in a lived sense. Vulnerability is read and understood in this context. I remember the scientist C V Seshadri, who left IIT Kanpur to create a laboratory near a slum, telling me, “Imagine if a slum were to re-write the Constitution of India, how would law, livelihood, and economics look?”

A problem like this invites an interdisciplinary approach, and students become dialogic across differences, realising that there is no one answer to any problem. One begins by looking at expertise differently and assigning a different value to cope as an art form. The future is something one must care for. This was beautifully articulated in a court case at The Hague when the Tahitians challenged France’s right to conduct nuclear tests in the Pacific. The Sri Lankan Judge Weeramantry decided for Tahiti, claiming nuclear testing violated the rights of future generations. It was a landmark decision, where the rights of the future were institutionalised. The future, thus, became an open site for protecting all those life forms which were going extinct. Today, schools must become trustees of different futures. Each school must accept the responsibility of protecting one dying language, one dying craft, and one dying species, and in doing so understand what connectivity means. Education merely becomes an innovative way of blending these two concepts together.


The Covid crisis reveals the dangers of fragmented thinking. Ideas of the future allow children to understand how to imagine, experiment, and work around mistakes. I remember a professor of mine once talking of his days at MIT. He scribbled an equation on the board, and he realised he made a mistake. His professor restrained him from rubbing it off, saying, “Wait, Von Neumann, the mathematician, made the same mistake decades ago.” A mistake becomes something to cherish, to own up to, and to re-invent. I remember we were asked to recite our most interesting mistakes while doing research.

Catch them young

Future becomes a way of inventing alternatives, new possibilities for the weak, the defeated, and the marginalised. Imagine a new way of constructing the sea as a part of our constitutional imagination, re-constructing new forms of livelihood, new ways of relating to nature, new ways of inventing food for the future. The future, thus, is a heuristic linking civilisation, constitution, and syllabus, demonstrating that the school is a site for re-inventing new imaginations. Childhood and future intertwine at every step. It was the poet William Blake who gave us an answer to the mediocrity of Covid responses, to policies which seemed like a dead end. He said, “Straight roads lead to predictable improvement, crooked pathways recognise genius.” It is time the future invokes a poetic genius in every child.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: July 16, 2020 | 10:51
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy