As a new academic year gets into full swing, there is no doubt that the prevailing narrative of school is now framed by the current Covid-19 pandemic. What was, only six months ago, an inconvenient disruption in learning-as-usual, has evolved into a seismic shift that, for many of us, has already started to alter the DNA of school and the way we think about learning in general. In short, the what, where, how - even the why - of learning is currently being recalibrated on a global scale.
Never before have we seen this level of disruption and there is no getting around the fact that it brings, in its wake, a wave of anxiety that strikes us individually and collectively at a number of levels. Today, we are not just washing our hands. We are washing our hands of everything that we have become accustomed to and entered a new era of deep uncertainty - where our ability to successfully predict the future - even in the short term - is significantly limited.
Faced with such momentous moments in time, the history of philosophy offers us two types of response: pessimism or optimism.
For the philosophical pessimist, the dramatic events of 2020 are just a timely reminder of the senseless absurdity of the human condition. Our inability to predict that future or make sense of everything that is happening around us, says the pessimist, is not to be regarded as anything except a brief insight into how life really is behind our futile attempts to be masters of our world.
And then there is the optimist. When confronted by difficulty, the optimist chooses hope in a better future rather than despair. As Noam Chomsky famously put it, ‘Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so.’
As a new school year gets into full swing, there is no doubt that the level of disruption that we encounter this year may be unprecedented. The recalibration of learning will deliver questions about the future of our schools that we may feel ill-prepared, even unable, to answer.
My point, though, is this: nothing could have prepared us for this moment. We just have to choose what happens next.
The call for optimism, to borrow Chomsky’s words, is a call to step up with some skin in the game, and take responsibility, even when the answers appear to have vanished from view. It’s a call to turn up, every day, with a determined sense of hope that the future will be better; that our schools will be better; and that our students will, in the end, be well.