Just as a degree of normalcy appeared to glimmer on the horizon, things have begun to spin out of control once again. The offices have re-closed; talk of shutdowns has restarted. What concerns me deeply right now is the future of our school-going children.
After two years of missed classes, there is uncertainty afresh over when our kids will go back to school. Over the past few months, after multiple conversations with experts, I now believe schools should be the last to close and first to reopen (with the caveat of course that this must be done safely and post-vaccination).
My belief has partly to do with evidence cited by the World Health Organization that school shutdowns can contribute to emotional distress and developmental problems in children.
But it’s time we began to consider other aspects too. The first relates to the longer-term future that these children must contend with. There is the pandemic but there is also the climate crisis, a world in constant flux, new challenges in fields ranging from health to disrupted supply chains to a rising incidence of “natural disasters”.
All evidence has it that today’s school-going children will have life expectancies that far exceed ours. Living to over 100 will, supposedly, be routine. Among other challenges, this generation will have to figure out ways to support themselves over those additional decades; they will have to reorder their societies so as to accommodate these new demographics. Amid it all, they will have to navigate the climate crisis; navigate and reimagine the troubled economies they inherit.
Surely the least we can do is find ways to safely and adequately equip them for these uncertain futures.
In his 2016 book Deep Work, speaking of the future economy, Cal Newport says: “…three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital. If you can join any of these groups, therefore, you’ll do well. If you cannot, you might still do well, but your position is more precarious.”
But what does that really mean? I know from personal experience, for instance, that it takes many years of very hard work to get to be the best at what you do. What I also know about my present is that there is much unlearning and relearning I am compelled to do because there are youngsters entering the workforce, some of whom are already nipping at my heels.
I see them working better and more creatively with technology. I’m a technophile and still, in some respects, it is hard to keep abreast. Between keeping pace with the exigencies of life, tackling brutal deadlines and much else, I find that I must work harder to stay in the same place.
As my children, now in their teens and pre-teens, proceed up the career ladder, how many times will they have to reinvent themselves? And how will they do it ably if our leaders dither today and deprive them of a vital foundation-building period?
It’s a tired cliché that it takes a village… tired partly because in these times, there is no village. It’s been too long. Opening up the classroom is not about the convenience it affords to the exhausted two-income family or about a physical space acting as a catalyst for learning. Though it is all those things, what the classroom is above all is a working design model of the real world. Our children cannot spend these vital years locked in a box and then be expected to excel when dropped into an ever-changing labyrinth.
It’s going to be a far more brutal world that they inherit. Let’s at least not send them into it unarmed.
(The writer is the co-founder of Founding Fuel and co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)