Lessons from Lockdown

Predicting the Future

I find myself slightly irritated by those who argue that lockdown has taught us so many valuable lessons about sustainability, localism, flexible working and the environment. My cousin who was, until recently, Head of Education at London Zoo, wryly observed that, if some higher being had felt so strongly about all of these issues, then a passive-aggressive note left on the fridge would have more than sufficed. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any supposed upsides to a global pandemic that has infected almost 10 million people and killed just under half a million, yet there is no denying that, much like 9/11, it constitutes a seminal moment in world history.

The inherent contradiction in the phrase ‘returning to a new normal’ is an explicit acknowledgement that the world has changed irrevocably. It is our responsibility to build something beautiful out of the detritus left in the wake of this dreadful virus. For some, prolonged absence from work has served to provide an opportunity for a degree of serious reflection. It is understandable that many will reevaluate their lives and try to jump off the hedonistic treadmill that characterises so many of our lives in the modern world.

Unless you are Nostradamus, (and even he had his off-days) then predicting the future is a fool’s game. After all, few of us could have predicted that 2020 would bring such challenges. However, it is clear that lockdown provided an adrenaline shot in the arm in terms of our use of digital technology for communication and educational purposes. Similarly, conferencing apps have freed many from the tyranny and banality of office life. It certainly provides the potential for many to blend work more effectively with family life. It is difficult to imagine that people will ever go back to sitting in an office when they could be working from home. It makes no commercial or environmental sense to maintain such buildings and companies will be reluctant to do so. The trend towards working from home will most likely accelerate and it is perhaps erroneous to imagine that our children will be ‘going to work’ in a manner which is recognisable to us. This might sound great but it risks leaving people feeling isolated and slightly rudderless. John Donne famously said that ‘no man is an island’ but if our working lives become bound by bedroom walls, then many will doubtless feel disconnected and isolated. In a world where even personal relationships are conducted via technology, it is perfectly possible that societies will become more fragmented as people socially retreat.

Schools will need to place even greater emphasis upon emotional well-being and they will need to recognise that our children might view life very differently because their experiences during childhood have not served as a ringing endorsement of consumerism or globalisation. This does not mean we should abandon our commitment to internationalism. Rather, we should work even harder to promote universal values that serve to promote understanding between nations. ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the ‘Me too’ movement will have played an important role in challenging racism and sexism but we should draw some comfort from the fact that young people are now politically engaged on an unprecedented level. Greta Thunberg is perhaps more an expression of this new found political engagement than the true source of it.

Our children will question our custodianship of the planet though they might look more favourably upon our embracement of digital technology. The sinister algorithms of Google and Facebook have served to reinforce our prejudices and created a media space within which charlatans can successfully bend reality to resonate with self-serving narratives. It will be the job of schools to place more emphasis upon critical thinking and evaluative skills. One thing that Covid-19 has also shown us is that those who flourish are those who are strategically agile.

Undeniably, we are going through a period of immense change. If globalisation is on the wane and national self-interest on the rise, then we need to ensure that our own values serve to support the development of internationally minded young people who are resourceful and open-minded enough to tackle contemporary issues with creative and new ways of thinking. Hegel opined that, ‘all we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history’. This is perhaps not true, though human nature is remarkably constant through the ages.

There is a danger that we become more inward looking during this period. Fault lines in society may well become exposed and there are those who will push their own agendas with puritanical zealotry. There is a historical precedent for societal upheaval in the aftermath of such events. In liberal democracies, governments have been compelled to take authoritarian measures which are counter-cultural and serve to provide a context within which protest and resistance seem enticing. A rejection of globalisation has been accompanied by an increased level of tribalism in national life and whilst localism has served our communities well during this time, national unity has not come to pass.

I feel optimistic about the future because we see a young generation emerging who are committed to making a difference to the societies within which they live. Schools like Rossall that embrace a liberal and progressive philosophy are ideally placed to meet the challenges of the future. Schools which plod a traditional path and react sluggishly to a rapidly changing world will be found lacking. Our ethos and values are eternal but they are also unashamedly modern. Concern for the environment, a desire to embrace internationalism and a strong focus on engendering creativity, resilience and resourcefulness will serve all of our children very well. Most importantly though, children at Rossall grow up in a community that is kind and a community that places incredible value upon each and every individual member.