The liberal education turn

Among the many victims of the pandemic, it will be easy to forget the students who graduated this year. While we focus on the elderly and the vulnerable and try to support those who have lost their jobs or businesses, the graduates - young and relatively less at risk - may appear less worthy of our sympathy. And, yet, the pandemic and the resulting destruction in its wake would mean all carefully laid plans, all the years of toil and dreaming, may fall apart, consigning many to shaky starts and entire lifespans of underachievement.

But a further tragedy is also unfolding in slow motion: Those who will come after, next year and further out still. Corona virus may be tamed with a vaccine, but the pandemic has exposed the inherent weakness of the world we were building: Connected economies with disconnected polities, interdependent lives lived by atomistic individuals, a world faced with long term changes where rewards are all here-and-now. The euphoria of the 1990s, after the fall of Berlin Wall and Anglo-American Capitalism's presumptive victory, is coming to a decisive end. Global economy is decoupling, spheres of influence are emerging again and work is changing. Certain principles, which we held to be self-evident, now appear to be contingent realities and making sense of the world has become increasingly challenging.

Case for new ideas

But this confounds us because we are a pampered generation, nurtured with the false idea that the history has ended and we are on a ride to uninterrupted prosperity. The cruel aberration of 9/11, the meltdown of Great Recession were - to us - exceptions that prove the rule. We did not almost notice the wars on the fringes of the world we cared about: The famine in Yemen, the genocide in Syria, the Libyan civil war were all normalised and factored into our standard middle class existence, no more consequential than Friday evening movie shows. Latest movie releases, video games, cool apps, company valuations, stock markets and house prices mattered more to us than the melting glaciers of the Arctic, burning schools in Palestine or concentration camps in Xinjiang.


This false sense of stability now stands exposed. We have got the tragedy we deserved: A mostly preventable pandemic turned our complacency into a deadly weapon and wrecked havoc. The fragility of our 'civilisation' was instantly and irrevocably exposed: The incompetence of our leaders, the incoherence of our institutions and our collective inability to work with one another are all too plain to see. Many months into the crisis, we still can't figure out what went wrong: As a recent cartoon correctly presented, all our 'superpowers' are currently employed in turning anything incomprehensible into conspiracy theories. And, so we indulge: That is the only way to explain the new reality with old ideas.

But that is precisely the danger to avoid. The vaccine, as we pine for it, will not be the end; nor it will be the beginning of the end. It will merely be the end of the beginning. We would suffer more, as new crisises will emerge, some from the guts of some hitherto harmless animal, some of our own making. The assumptions about the straight-road to prosperity will fall apart; Internet-induced hopes of global cultural convergence will fragment under the technologies of control and digital borders. The globalisation as we knew it is ending; the neoliberal ethos that gave us our goals and our meanings have overreached and now melting away. This is one of those turns in history - only a war, a revolution or a pestilence can bring about a change so big - where new ideas will emerge. The world has to be imagined anew!

A new education

This will mean new ways of doing things, but I am concerned rather narrowly with college education. Right now, this may not be the top priority for the policy-makers, busy as they are with more immediate concerns of public health and economy. But the coming crisis of graduate jobs - and the breakdown of the social contract between the college and its present and future students - would necessitate an urgent and deep transformation of how we educate. The uncertainty is no longer a theory; it is a certainty now. Disruption is no longer a profitable fad; it's now upon us with all its life-transforming ferocity. Soft skills are no longer soft: Our inability to talk to each other clearly and compassionately is no longer the staple of romantic movies; it has led us into this pandemic. Meaning is no longer to be accepted as a given, prosperity can not be achieved by mere striving; the new graduates are being called upon to do something which their predecessors never did - reimagine the world while the world their fathers built falls apart!

It's not surprising that a demand for liberal education has arisen at this turn. Minus the certainty of established economic and social structures, the narrowly technical education - particularly the business education 1990s style - is useless. The assumptions - people as self-interested consumers, leaders as maximisers of shareholder value, etc - do not hold anymore. The idea of commercial society is at risk. The era of multinational companies, and of internet-enabled borderless ideas sphere, are at an end. Republican principles are at war with democratic ones; majorities are claiming the privileges of the universal and public with votes are tearing apart the social contract between the peoples. Making meaning is no longer a idealistic enterprise; being able to transcend self-interest is no longer about climbing Maslow's ladders. It is here and now, a survival need - something must be urgently achieved before the structures come crumbling down.

This urgency is new: This is not about a mythical robot claiming one's future as a book-keeper. This is not about turning our beautiful powerpoint presentations and writing grammatically correct English. This is not about finding an easy route to America and living happily ever after. When dreams end, one must wake up: For new dreams need to be made. This is about making sense, remembering and rediscovering our human essence. It's about the Liberal Education as the pioneers saw it, not one about going back but about going forward with the strength of character and certainty of principles. Then and only then, one can take on the changing world and say - here, let me change you!

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