THE pandemic has created havoc in all aspects of our personal and social-economic life. Lives have been lost, businesses destroyed, economies in recession.
The uncertainty seems to grow and hope for a better time seems far away. But one of the most invaluable lessons from all this is the insight about ourselves in relation to others and the world around us.
With this sudden shock, we have learnt to ask deep and difficult existential questions.
As we start to understand some of these issues, many are still begging for clarity and should be addressed in classrooms, schools and universities.
Using a Socratic approach, the pandemic can serve as powerful lessons for students to understand, analyse, evaluate and apply within the framework and standards of critical thinking. The outcome should be an emancipatory education that liberates the mind of doubts and fears so that we can continue to live meaningfully, purposefully and with confidence.
Here are some issues that can be discussed in the classroom:
There are many quality videos about the Covid-19 and other zoonotic diseases on the Internet that can be used for teaching purposes.
What are these diseases? How are they spread and transmitted? How do epidemiologists detect the cause of an outbreak? How are they controlled? What are vaccines and what is the role of modern medicine in disease prevention? What is the role of data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) in understanding and controlling pandemics and safeguarding public health?
The philosophical dimension of the pandemic must be understood.
Students must learn that humans, despite the progress of science and technology and our dominance over other creatures, are just a little component in the larger scheme of life.
We exist in a world with zoonotic diseases. This does not mean we are helpless. It just means that with the acceptance of this reality, we have calmness in our mind to live without fear.
We then understand that death is not something to be feared, that everything is impermanent, and the now is ever more important.
We thus value our relationship with other human beings, developing compassion and care. Suffering under all circumstances is a reality.
What is suffering under the pandemic crisis? How do we explain this? How do we cope with emotional pain? How do we use philosophy and psychology to improve our mental health?
So, some vital existential questions for students to ponder are: Who are we? Who should we become? How do we become that?
Leadership and values
In coping with the Covid-19 crisis, the question of leadership and responsibility is given practical priority. The pandemic has demonstrated how crucial the value of collective and social responsibility are.
We have to trust and rely on each other to resolve diverse problems, which during normal times were mundane matters, like having a social gathering or attending a class. Now, we have to exercise personal and social discipline so that we do not act irresponsibly and spread Covid-19.
Students now appreciate the value of personal accountability and social responsibility, with good discipline being developed by such understanding.
The teacher can further explain that such new habits have moral and ethical overtones. To perpetuate our human species vis-à-vis viruses we must learn to care deeply for each other in a spiritual way.
In this context, the teacher can introduce various interpretations of such experiences from literature. ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus is an obvious choice.
The list of plague literature is a history of nature’s senselessness.
Students need to review the concept and practice of leadership.
To phase into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a disruptive type of leadership is needed. As teachers, we must mentor the students for them to prevail over this crisis. They must learn how to develop insights of the present with a hindsight of the past to gain foresight of the future.
New leadership skills, with the help of statistical reasoning and AI, will be used to understand the present complexity and the future ambiguity. Students will be future-ready if they learn to adapt now.
Economics and inequality
There is not a single family that has not been impacted by the pandemic’s economic effects in some way or another.
Economic thinking can be used to analyse how the pandemic creates the cycle of multiplier effects – from the loss of demand, to business losses and unemployment, and the accelerator effect from declining investment to the shrinking of the economy.
The role of governments in using macro-economic interventions, a la Keynesian style, can be a case study on the choice of policy decisions.
Is the use of monetary policy in manipulating money supply and interest rates effective? Is currency depreciation helpful?
What about the trade war between the United States of America (USA) and China, and the disruption of the global supply chain? How does this relate to the aggravation of the pandemic’s impact?
At the micro level, the student’s attention can be directed to the reaction, response, recovery and reinvention of business enterprises.
How do companies re-frame their vision, re-energise their human talents, reinvent their organisations and redefine their markets and product platform?
How do small medium enterprises (SMEs) respond in comparison to the larger corporations?
These are real issues that everyone faces as we are all involved in the economics of production, consumption, and employment.
A reality that hits families hard is the pandemic’s impact on the distribution of income and wealth. Students share in their family’s suffering from the growing inequality of wealth as budgets shrink.
Explaining this in the context of distributive justice would help them to understand what and how policies impact their socio-economic welfare.
This will help them understand the rising wave of protests among poorer masses, and their cry for more efficient governments and effective leadership that can deliver what the populaces want.
As students would soon become voters and responsible citizens, now is the time to raise these issues in the classroom as a way to evolve towards the realities of life. This understanding helps them to vote wisely.
What would the views of students be with regard to balancing individual freedom of movement while conducting business that benefits collective health?
This would be an engaging debate using the pandemic to frame such fundamental questions about policy decision and personal choice.
Here, one can extend the debate to the choice of development modes and the interventionist role of the state. The obvious debate is about how China and other Western countries approach this differently. Which model would the students prefer and why?
The above are just some ideas on how the pandemic can be used as classroom lessons. It is important that such discussions are guided by a clear teaching and learning pedagogy. Thus, the framework to be used must have a thinking structure that includes having a point of view, assumptions, being evidence-based, causation and inferences, and valid and reliable conclusions.
There must be high standards applied to this system of thinking, which includes clarity, accuracy, depth, logic, and significance.
There must also be high standards applied to our personal thinking approach with us being objective, fair-minded, humble and empathetic so that students can discern what are a truths and what are fakes, lies, specious arguments or propaganda.
Prof Datuk Dr Paul Chan is the co-founder, vice-chancellor and president of HELP University (Malaysia). The views expressed here are the writer’s own.
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