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Teaching Humanities and the virus

Teaching Humanities and the virus

‘The pestilence is at once blight and revelation, it brings the hidden truth of a corrupt world to the surface’ : Albert Camus ‘The Plague’

Coronavirus Mona Lisa

The Coronavirus pandemic is a planet changing event which will have profound effects on both our immediate and long term futures. With the end of the pandemic not yet in sight and with an already staggering UK death rate, likely to be one of the highest in the world, it may seem premature and even painful to talk about life in a post pandemic world. What is clear however is that, despite the positive messages accompanying the easing of the lockdown, our lives are not simply going to restart from the point at which they were frozen last March. The virus will continue its destructive course for the foreseeable future and we will need to learn how to change our lives to negotiate the very real risk it presents. The scars already inflicted by the impact of the virus will stay with us and the unprecedented disruption and fracturing of the economy and the dislocation of social behaviour and attitudes will mean that our world will be a very different place. It is also becoming clear that even if we could return to our old pre March world few of us would want to, ( a poll reported in the Observer of 12 July reported that only 12% wanted a return to the old ‘normal’ way of life).In this context of a fundamentally changed social environment it becomes imperative to talk about how we can be prepared for the new world and as teachers and educators we need to initiate a conversation about what that means for our children and young people.

The vast majority of pupils are likely to have received, by the time they return to school, no formal schooling for over 6 months. Discussion has focused on when and how children can safely return to school, there has been less attention paid to what schooling will be like when pupils do return and what they should be taught. Schools will not be the same places they were before the lockdown. What happened to schools and education during the lockdown may provide us with new starting points to think about reconstructing schooling. So the forced absence of external examinations may lead us to reconsider the UKs addiction to the massive over testing our children? Will the way parents and schools have tried to cope with the shutdown encourage us to make full use of technology for home support for all our children? Will the way we have managed schools during and in our emergence from the lockdown mean that we look again at how we organise the school day and group children?

The virus and our response to it may have created opportunities for change in the management and organisation of schooling but the magnitude of what has happened and the extent to which our world has changed raises more fundamental questions about what we need to teach children to equip them for the new post lockdown world. Although It is probably to early to understanding the effects on young people of the pandemic it is likely that the isolation, disruption and uncertainty of the last few months has led to a heightened anxiety amongst young people and a profound and pervasive impact on their mental health. There will be, therefore, an immediate need to support, through the curriculum, children’s well-being and their understanding and management of risk. There will also be a need for the curriculum to address the wider aspects of post pandemic change. How, for example, can a curriculum support young people growing up in a prolonged recession, what skills and knowledge bases will be important and how can we help our children and young people make sense of what is happening to their lives and society and why.

The curriculum should also reflect how the virus has changed our values and our perception of the world. Our new world is one in which we have to finally accept that British exceptionalism is dead and that disasters and social dislocation don’t only happen to people in far away places. Our world will be hopefully one in which we share a heightened awareness of the importance of community and cooperation and the importance of investment in welfare provision. A world in which we will all have to, for some time at least, explore different forms of social interaction. History suggests that periods of severe disruption and suffering are usually followed by a deep and profound questioning of how our lives and our society could be better and this invites an examination of our implicit theories and understanding of the nature of society. . As the French economist Thomas Piketty has said ‘powerful shocks like pandemics, wars or financial crashes have an impact on society, but the nature of that impact depends on the theories people hold about history, society, the balance of power – in a word, ideology – which varies from place to place’. The questioning of attitudes and institutionalised patterns of prejudiced behaviour we are seeing in the rapid international growth of the Black Lives Matter movement may indicate that this process has already started. It is a process which young people will engage with and which needs to be reflected in the curriculum.

When schools finally restart it will not be appropriate to return to a curriculum as if nothing had happened. Neither will it be acceptable to try to teach to cram a missed curriculum content into limited available time or to narrow the curriculum to concentrate on what is considered to be higher status knowledge. We need to continue to teach a broad curriculum and in the tasks which will confront us in the new reality the humanities subjects will have a key role to play.