Whatever Happened to the Former Love of Ideas? – Positivism vs. the Humanities in the 21st Century: Brain vs. Mind – one should ask…
When I was still in college in the mid-sixties books and ideas were considered very serious things, something to be passionate about; a sort of higher form of existence residing in the Platonic world of the intelligible. Dialogues and debates on ideas were considered a sine qua non of an education worth its salt. And this was true not only for philosophy majors, such as myself, but also for those liberal arts students who majored in history or the arts, or literature. Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of fiction, poetry, history and philosophy was not a mere tool useful for analytical procedures but, more importantly, it testified to one’s moral view of the world. Which is to say, ideas mattered. They mattered a lot. They had power over one’s life. They determined one’s intellectual and spiritual destiny. In some strange way one became the books one read.
Those ideas were found not only in the canon of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, but in great novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Mann, Kafka, Gide, Camus, Orwell, or the poetry of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Coleridge, Eliot. Philosophy and Literature was in fact understood to underpin all great historical epochs.
This leads to the question: which are the great philosophical ideas that still exert great influence and inspire the current artists? I for one would be hard put to answer the question. Obviously there has been a decline in the appreciation for the grand philosophical and aesthetic credos of the past. It began with the unmooring of metaphysics from philosophy by language philosophers. Then came the Annales’ school of historical thinking (Bloch and Febvre come to mind) which asserted that it was not world-historical individuals who shaped events (as Hegel and Emerson believed), but merely economic, social, geographical factors. They, and only they determined events and the fate of nations and people. This was positivism applied to history. There were more subtle forces at work within history, beyond the wars and revolutions instigated by emperors and generals. They could be extrapolated from the available historical data. This led to deconstruction which elevates the social-semiotic conditions of language over the authors who transformed them into literary art. Enter Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva who insisted that one had to pay attention to what was previously beyond our notice. One did that by phenomenology which looks at what is in front of our noses.
Warhol brought the Campbell soup, or the obvious, to our attention. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became the focus of aesthetic expression. The interest was not so much in art but in the conceit that anything at all could be art. With this went the expulsion of all those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic canon to create meaning in verbal, plastic and aural mediums. The task now was to unmask Western civilization’s hidden agenda and its doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex and race as embedded in linguistic and social codes. For those critics, the Enlightenment has generated ideas about the world that were simply naive about their own implications. Enter Barth with his “Death of the Author” and Foucault with his idea that man is nothing but the invention of the Enlightenment, while Paul de Man at Yale university argued that there is no such thing as the human. All this made for some unruly times in the humanities and produced eventually the end of ideas as still alive in mid twentieth century. There are presently no schools of thought in the humanities. One can indeed still study the tenets of the Frankfurt school and the Prague school and study the works of the neo-Marxists (such as Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Lyotard, Marcuse) or the deconstructionist writings of Derrida and de Man but the enthusiasm for ideas and the intellectual energy it generated is gone. It only exists as historical memory. This debunking movement went by the name of post-modern and it was essentially an anti-humanistic stance, even if it arose from within the humanities.
Literature nowadays is often taught without any longer drawing attention to form, imagery, character, metaphor, genre and the relationship between books and society. What has happened is that post-modernism has opened the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience which pretends to explain how we think and express ourselves and affirms that the stuff of consciousness is nothing but a byproduct of the brain’s activity. To understand anything, and indeed everything, all that one needs to do is to map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons. Reduced to those terms, every academic discipline becomes a neuro-discipline. We are back to phrenology which we thought had been superseded. This includes ethics, aesthetics, theology, literature, you name it. All this leads to the crucial question: if all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral–is an individual responsible for his actions? If the structures of the brain structures the person, in what sense we can say that there is such a thing as free will? In other words, is a person reducible to his or her physiological components? Is this not sheer reductionism or worse, a literally “mind-less” neuroscience?
What those not trained in philosophy or the humanities fail to perceive is that the focus has subtly changed from the meaning and the interpretation of ideas to the means (the MRI and the brain scan) by which they’re produced. Hence the classical questions that have always intrigued us: What is justice? What is the good life? What is morally valid? What is free will,” have taken a back seat to the biases embedded in our neural circuitry.
Many misguided academic humanists believe that there is no better way for the humanities and liberal arts to save themselves from oblivion than to borrow liberally from the sciences. They claim that the more “scientific” the approach to the arts, the more seriously they are regarded. Several universities now have so called neuroscience centers with specialties in humanities hybrids. The message is this: cognition is literally the tissue that connects all sorts of humanistic endeavors.
And yet there are dissenting voices such as that of Thomas Nagel’s controversial book Mind and Cosmos wherein Nagel has the courage to question the neo-Darwinian belief that consciousness, like any aspect of adaptability, is evolutionary in nature. To the contrary, Nagel affirms that it is highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. Rather, he believes in a teleological universe with nature predisposed to give rise to consciousness, given that no mechanistic explanation seems commensurate with the miracle of subjective experience and the ability to reason. Bit his, alas, is the voice crying in the desert.
To be sure, other scientists have hypothesized that human life is inevitable and that biochemistry is wired into the universe. Stuart Kauffman, for one, believes that all molecules must sooner or later catalyze themselves in self-sustaining reactions or “autocatalytic networks,” crossing the boundary between inanimate and animate. But the more common view among academic scientists is that evolution has no direction, no goals, no set outcomes; our preferences and bias are due to our oversized brains. There are precious few professors who today continue to defend objective values. The zeal for ideas is fast declining. What deeply concerned intellectuals two or three decades ago is now considered anachronistic. Where are today’s Paul de Man, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Hilton Kramer, Isahia Berlin, Susan Sontag, Annah Arendt? Nowhere to be found I am afraid. The liberal arts is no longer where the action is. In 2010 only 7.6 of bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities. The ideas that engage us and seem essential today are primarily scientific.
The passionate issues that galvanized intellectuals thirty or forty years ago seem now far removed from our daily lives. Those ideas engendered by the Enlightenment as regards epistemology, government, aesthetics, alas, no longer engage our best minds, except when we speak of the brain or the meaning of consciousness. We seem to have lost the appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature as metaphysics too continues to decline in academic worth and estimation. Will somebody arrive on the scene with the transformative power of a Descartes, Vico, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kant, Wittengestein, Kuhn or Derrida? As the song goes “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”
There seems to be at work in the humanities nowadays a troubling skepticism, almost a desperation of not being on the right track, of not being able to go anywhere. That in turn leads many humanists to rely on the old-fashioned methods of hard data and the empirical certainty of scientific research. Yet the questions of art, beauty, ethics, our innate capacity for wonder at existence, persist. The question “why is there something rather than nothing” still fascinates a few traditional philosophers. Perhaps it lies in our very genes and will never be suppressed. But overall, for the moment we have yielded those philosophical questions to biological and cognitive science and we have thereby achieved a certain amount of peace. Intellectuals no longer indignantly reach for their pens to debunk materialism and positivism, but it is a pseudo-peace, it is the peace of the cemetery and quite desperation. It is a peace which has put too much trust (or faith if you will) in the human brain, and in doing so it may have given up on the idea that only the mind, and not the brain, will some day be able to fathom the human condition.
How do I know that the neo-positivists of the 21st century are on the wrong track and just as misguided as those of the 19th and 20th century? It is actually quite simple: whenever I inquire of a neurosurgeon if he believes that ideas exist and cannot be denied as existing, the answer is always a resounding yes. But whenever I follow-up and ask if he has ever seen ideas floating around some place in the brain when he operates on it, or reflected in his brain scanner, a perplexed look seems to appear and there is usually no answer to the question. At best one gets an ambiguous: “give us some more time and eventually we’ll find them.” My reply to that statement is: good luck!
Women’s Plight During Natural Calamities: A Case Study of Recent Floods in Pakistan
Recently, at the United Nations general assembly, the Prime minister of Pakistan’s speech started with the challenge of climate change, which is bringing havoc into the country through floods. This shows Pakistan’s serious concern about drastic climate change in the world which is impacting Pakistan. It is estimated that around 1/3 of Pakistan is under water, which has affected 33 million people. Above 1500 deaths are recorded. The infrastructure of about $10 billion has been destroyed. The PM Shehbaz Sharif in the UN specifically highlighted women’s plight and mentioned children’s deaths. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the eighth most affected country by climate change. While, Pakistan has less than 1% share in global greenhouse gas emissions, it is more on the receiving end of the devastation of climate change. After a decade, Pakistan is standing in the position it has witnessed in 2010 but, more horrific.
Natural calamities like floods not only bring devastation with them, rather they also bring other illnesses such as waterborne diseases. It also brings more hardships for women and children. There is a general understanding that natural calamities do not make any difference in gender. It impacts all members of society equally. The United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Asaka Okai, said that whenever a disaster strikes, women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men. Women are experiencing more impact from the devastation caused by the flood. Women are victims because, during floods, natural cycles don’t stop, which occur in the body of a female, such as menstruation, and pregnancy. Similarly, women are the target of harassment, rape, insecurity, and diseases.
According to statistics, about 650,000 women are pregnant and 73,000 are about to give birth. In Pakistan, most women give birth to their children in homes, but due to flooding, their houses are destroyed. They are not left in safe shelters. Due to floods, they are shifted to camps where all family members live together and the privacy of females has decreased. According to estimates, about 1000 health facilities are partially or fully destroyed in Sindh and 198 health facilities are destroyed in Balochistan, which also decreases access to health care. Destruction of infrastructures such as roads and bridges has increased difficulty in reaching clinics and hospitals. Women are not receiving proper medical facilities and care, which increases the mortality rate. Women go through natural cycles of menstruation for which they need sanitary materials. As per media reports, women living in flood-affected areas are using tree leaves. Living in a conservative society, it is considered taboo to talk about these things. When NGOs started to collect sanitary materials for women, they faced a lot of criticism from the conservative faction of society, saying that instead of collecting unnecessary things, they should gather food for them.
During this disaster, people become homeless, due to which they are shifted to camps where access to toilets and clean drinking water becomes difficult for women. This also increases the chances of getting diseases. Living in camps, women face security issues. Male members of their families go in search of food while women and children are alone in camps. Harassment cases are reported from these areas. Recently, a case of a teenage girl was reported in Shahdadpur. The victim was raped by two rickshaw drivers who are familiar with her. They told her that there is ration distribution for flood-hit areas. If she agrees to accompany them, then you can give her access to that.
In Pakistan, women are responsible for performing house chores. Due to flooding, there is standing water everywhere. Women have to move in those waters to perform their tasks. Stagnant water is the breeding place for water-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, and typhoid. In Sindh, the percentage of malnourished kids is 41.6% (National Nutrition survey of 2018). Malnourished women and children are more prone to these diseases. The National Disaster Management Authority has reported the deaths of 536 children and 308 women. Widows and orphans face food and security issues. In Sindh and Balochistan, it is not acceptable for a female to go out of the house. NGOs should keep this in mind while distributing rations to the public. These sufferings during disasters pose deep imprints on the psychosocial and mental health of females. Their suffering will not end here in the camps but, when they move to their homes, standing water from flooding is waiting for them. There will be no home to live in for them, which gives rise to the same issues they are facing in camps.
The media has always played a major role in highlighting issues that are of major concern. It should highlight the issues faced by women during this situation by sending female journalists who can cover flood-hit areas. So, they can bring these issues to the public to make people aware of the issues faced by women. This will help in sensitizing the public that the issues which are faced by females are a matter of serious concern and importance. It will assist the government authorities to make policies that will also cater to the issues of Pakistan’s 48.5% population of females, which makes up a major chunk of the population. NGOs and government institutions that provide relief equipment to these areas should also keep in mind teenage girls and pregnant women. NGOs who distribute rations should make two counters so that widows and orphans can also get access to food easily without complication. To control harassment and rape issues, law-enforcing institutions should deal with these criminals seriously so, no other person thinks about committing these types of offences. Nonetheless, it is yet to be witnessed whether the concerned authorities be able to cater to the plight of the women during catastrophic floods in Pakistan or whether the women will be left in despair and self-help.
Anatomy of right-wing populism
Twenty-five years ago, Fareed Zakaria introduced the concept of illiberal democracy: he revealed how some legitimately elected governments undermine liberal democratic principles by eroding the rule of law and the protection of fundamental freedoms. He predicted that this new form of regime would significantly damage the status of our democracies if not appropriately challenged. After almost two decades, the 2014 speech of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán marked the official birth of illiberal democracy in modern Europe, with a discourse that echoes the 1997 article. Except that it is the exact opposite of what Zakaria hoped to hear.
Orbán’s rhetoric and attitude are supported and endorsed by several populist leaders across Europe and beyond. What the Hungarian PM represents is the result of a long democratic recession that Larry Diamond estimated to start in the early 2000s in continents such as Asia and Africa. It appears that it is now the turn of Europe, as we can deduct from the rising popularity of multiple anti-establishment and nationalist parties across the continent. Despite populism not being exclusively a right-wing phenomenon, most of its support in the EU is represented by radical right parties that are often Eurosceptic.
This aspect is also confirmed by the outcome of the last European Parliament election in 2019. The results indicate a nationalist trend and a shift from the centre-right to the far-right within the populist vote: the relative populist electoral strength was highest in two European parliament groups, namely Identity and Democracy (ID) (including Salvini’s League and Le Pen’s National Rally) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) (including Brothers of Italy and Law and Justice in Poland), which are both very critical of the union and formed exclusively by right-wing (or even far-right in some cases) populist and nationalist parties. These two groups, albeit not achieving the brilliant results they were expecting, have won 135 seats in the European Parliament, and their main parties happened to be very strong nationally. Considering that the historic European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) have lost 65 seats combined from the previous election, it is not a bad outcome overall for right-wing populism.
In 2017, Bridgewater’s populism index in developed countries revealed that this phenomenon was at its highest rate since 1930s. In addition, the think tank Timbro estimated that more than a quarter of European electors vote for authoritarian populist parties, with Poland and Hungary among the four countries with most support. Political scientist Cas Mudde observed instead that the average support for these political forces is the highest since 1940s, with over 20% since 2010. Slightly different estimations are calculated but nevertheless this shows to what extent have these parties grown in recent years. One might consider these factors as alarming, since many scholars claim the expansion of populism and nationalism could eventually topple liberal democracies and favour authoritarian regimes, as already occurred in history.
What do we mean by right-wing populism?
First and foremost, before getting into the details of right-wing populism, an overall definition and brief explanation of populism must be provided. Mudde defines populism as an “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’”. Populists also believe that all members of the ‘pure’ group have the same aims and abide by the same principles, hence they do not accept a pluralist society consisting of diverse needs and concerns. Some of them also claim that this perceived faction of ‘the people’ comprises only of one ethnicity, class and religion.
Populist parties no longer seek out compromise and consensus through tolerant and democratic practices, but instead try to overthrow what they believe is a corrupt and broken system. In this way they undermine democratic institutions such as courtrooms and media, while attacking any aspect of society that opposes the common will of ‘the people’. They also refuse the search for a balance between the needs of the majority and the minority, as they claim that disregarding the interests of the majority is a violation of democracy, thus supporting “a form of democratic extremism or, better said, of illiberal democracy”.
Moreover, the cult of the leader is crucial in the populist world. This may sound obvious because a charismatic figure is always needed in politics in order to move masses and influence opinions, regardless of the political party. However, populist leaders declare they embody the will of the people and often appeal to the worst instincts of the population, manipulating fears and anxiety to increase their support. As politics is not only made of rational thinking, but also emotions and sentiments, they interpretate fear and desperation with (sometimes false) claims and simplistic solutions to contrast complex issues.
Populist groups are usually considered ‘catch-all’ movements, meaning that they follow the popular support rather than choosing a specific side. However, it could be discussed that this wide definition of populism is reductive. In fact, French economist Thomas Piketty deems it as a generalisation and refrains from using this word since there is a variety within that group: any party criticizing the current establishment is labelled as ‘populist’ without differentiating the diverse forms of this phenomenon. For instance, right-wing populists are usually hostile to immigration and minority rights, whereas left-wing populists are often culturally inclusive.
It could be further discussed that the argument about the people versus the elite tends to be overused as we have cases in which the political system is widely corrupt, and thus brings to legitimate concern and popular discontent to demand for more transparency and equality, such as in Greece, Spain and Italy. The movements that have emerged in these countries (Syriza, Podemos and 5 Star Movement respectively) showed a different approach to politics in comparison to prominent right-wing populist parties, as they have not undermined or taken over democratic institutions when elected to govern their respective countries.
Nonetheless, the majority of European populist parties have right-wing tendencies. This type of nationalist populism (also defined as ‘national populism’ by British academics Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin) is mainly based on xenophobic and protectionist sentiments, in addition to be against the neo-liberal establishment. Right-wing populist parties tend to regard nationality as a rigid and unmodifiable homogenous identity (mistakenly connected only to ethnicity), and they are therefore against any form of pluralism, whether it is based on culture or sexual orientation. Although some national populists consider themselves patriots defending their sovereignty, it could be argued otherwise. Italian scholar Maurizio Viroli observes in his book that the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ are often misused: while the former mostly reflects a protectionist and isolationist approach (rather than sovereignty), the latter is also based on the respect of other cultures.
Furthermore, most right-wing populist parties are willing to live in a democratic context, but they are against the liberal values of present-day democracies, such as media freedom and minority rights. As a matter of fact, they believe they represent the true nature of democracy, which focuses on the needs and interests of the majority that felt excluded and neglected by the ‘corrupt elite’ in recent years. Nevertheless, by emphasising the importance of the majority at all costs, they end up discriminating who is not part of ‘the people’, hence appearing to be a regressive and undemocratic response to a legitimate concern.
What are the causes of the global rise of populism?
Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggest that the rise of populism is mainly due to economic inequality, which was partly caused by phenomena such as globalisation and austerity. The shift from the industrial age to what Piketty describes as a “globalised era of hypercapitalism and digital technology” has created high levels of inequity around the world. Piketty also argues that the concentration of wealth is disproportionate because the ratio of economic growth is lower than the so-called ‘return on invested capital’, hence much of the resources end up in the hands of a microscopic part of the population. Indeed, the latest Credit Suisse report indicates a great disparity in the world, with 1.1% of the population owning almost half of the global wealth (45.8%), and the bottom 55% of the population possessing only 1.3% of the total resources.
While globalisation had its own advantages (such as giving work to millions of people in emerging economies), it has also displaced many low skilled jobs and produced economic stagnation in developed countries. This has resulted in an ever-increasing wealth gap; this disparity, in turn, has created underserved communities who began to distrust the global system. Already twenty years ago economist Joseph Stiglitz (in his book Globalization and Its Discontents) warned us that rising inequality would pave the way for the rise of anti-establishment parties, such as nationalists and populists.
The 2008 financial crash further deepened the economic gap: the main consequences of the so-called ‘Great Recession’ have been high levels of unemployment, growing inequality and impoverishment of the working and lower middle classes. Moreover, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the austerity policies implemented by the European Union, including tax raises and spending cuts, exacerbated the situation. The austere measures were in fact not combined with effective social protection systems, hence degrading the conditions of workers as well. This circumstance thus led the EU into an identity crisis, which we are still experiencing today with the rise of several Eurosceptic parties.
Some might discuss that this is connected to the decline of liberal democracy, as the European Union is mainly based on liberal values. Mudde observes that the crisis of democracy results from the failure of the liberal establishment in the political system, and not from several external challengers trying to undermine it. In fact, he also claims that “contemporary populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”. The fact that the liberal system could be or become undemocratic is not unrealistic as it sounds, especially if we consider that in history liberalism was not always applied in democratic contexts, such as in many European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The democratic crisis was also caused by the deterioration of traditional parties that lost touch with the lower middle and working classes, which have stopped trusting a system that has sold them false promises and has not met their needs. As a matter of fact, the level of trust towards parties across the EU has been in a declining trend in the last decade (just over 20% in 2019). This is also demonstrated by factors such as lower electoral turnout and decreasing participation in political activities, but also by the growing interest towards non-traditional parties. This aspect is critical because once you cease to identify in a political movement, you automatically find refuge in national identity, ideology or religion.
Furthermore, the advent of right-wing populism has cultural determinants as well: the 2015 migration crisis has indeed displaced millions of asylum seekers and economic migrants, many of which coming from Muslim countries. Their religion is a key aspect because right-wing populists have increasingly exhibited xenophobic attitudes towards Islam, which is seen as a civilisational threat, particularly after 9/11 and the rise of ISIS. Whereas there is no justification for such discriminatory behaviours, raising a question about EU’s handling of the migrant crisis may be a legitimate concern. According to Article 79 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the union “shall develop a common immigration policy aimed at ensuring, at all stages, the efficient management of migration flows”. It could be discussed whether some member states have not put enough effort and resources to cooperate and find a common solution, but it is also true that the EU could have anticipated the crisis by implementing appropriate immigration controls and reception systems. In fact, Mudde acknowledges that migration policies were often “undemocratic in spirit”, meaning that they were not the outcome of collective discussions and decisions taken together with the population. Hence, right-wing populist parties have exploited this crisis to criticize the EU with improbable scapegoats: for instance, describing migration from Africa and the Middle-East as an invasion or claiming that NGOs and liberal institutions are plotting for an ‘ethnic replacement’ of the European people.
As a result, right-wing populists (or at least most of them) reject liberal democratic values rather than democracy in its entirety: those values that are entrenched in the EU and other international institutions. However, the populist response does not seem to respect EU fundamental goals and values, nor basic democratic principles. The main issue is the approach used to criticize the liberal system. Populist movements tend to appeal to the fears and anxieties of the voters to attack the elites, which are perceived as always corrupt and distant from the population. This cannot be accepted as a fair argument, because, as we cannot generalise that all populists are fascists or xenophobic, then we cannot assert that the so-called elite is all corrupt either. As a result, neither the growing populist sentiment nor the liberal establishment are to be completely eradicated, but rather challenged and improved through collective discussions and decisions.
Moreover, the rise of right-wing populism is not the consequence of a single issue, but it is driven by a combination of mutually reinforcing economic and cultural aspects (from unemployment and wealth inequality to racism and xenophobia). These factors are the result of a series of events that affected our society in the last decades, such as globalisation, the Great Recession, the 2015 migrant crisis and the decline of traditional political parties. It would be thus too simple to only blame the vulnerabilities of the liberal establishment or the opportunism of populist leaders, as both approaches have had negative repercussions on the public.
On the one hand, populists have gained popularity due to genuine issues that liberal institutions have failed to deal with. On the other hand, they have also promoted ‘culturally exclusive’ behaviours (racism, xenophobia etc.) through demagogy and propaganda, often accompanied by the spread of disinformation. Nonetheless, the liberal system has perhaps not effectively dealt with crucial challenges and has showed weaknesses that exacerbated the socio-economic crisis we are witnessing, hence allowing right-wing populist parties to flourish. The more the people have felt left behind by the system, the more they have found refuge in national identity and intolerant ideologies. Therefore, the first step to take in order to explain and fight populism would be to bear responsibility for the inequal policies implemented through the years that have left many communities marginalised and prone to vote for anti-establishment parties. A card that does not seem to have been played well (or at all), since right-wing populist parties are increasingly on the rise in many countries around the world.
Education needs a transformation. The same holds true with how we monitor our commitments
Education is the key to unlock our development challenges. Yet, millions of children and young people are left behind, unable to fulfil their potential and prepare themselves for the future. In many countries, the pandemic has struck off the modest gains of the past 20 years for the generation most affected by school closures, with long-term consequences. This week, the Transforming Education Summit comes to an end. The world’s education leaders have gathered over the last few days in New York, invited by the UN Secretary-General as part of Our Common Agenda, to debate solutions to put education back on the right track.
The Summit has come at a time when, according to UNESCO’s latest figures, there are an estimated 244 million children and young people across the world still deprived of any form of formal schooling. Over 600 million children and adolescents are either not completing basic education or do not acquire basic skills that would help them prepare for the future. With only seven years to go until the deadline to reach SDG 4, the global education goal, they are lacking the support to access a high-quality and fulfilling education. Compounding the problem is the fact that governments in the poorer countries appear to be cutting their education budgets.
The Transforming Education Summit marks a key moment. But as leaders declare their determination to improve education in their countries, we must review how to translate these words into the concrete targets, so that these promises do not ring empty, and how to monitor progress towards them. While the Summit has debated solutions to make schools safe, healthy, connected and green, countries should express the level of their ambition through national targets for each of these commitments to spur action from now to 2030.
The issues rising to the surface during the discussions and consultation around the summit are all critical. One in six children live in areas impacted by conflict that also destroys their education opportunities. Schools are being bombed and children and teachers are killed daily. Only last year, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on the protection of education in conflict zones. But more must be done to protect the education of affected children and young people.
The compound effects of COVID-19, a war in Europe that disrupted grain production and exports, rising inflation and a looming economic recession, mean that the world is edging closer towards a food crisis. When schools closed their doors with little to no notice due to the pandemic, millions of students were cut off not only from their education, but also from one of their principal food sources. An estimated 39 billion school meals have been missed since April 2020. It is not only children’s physical development that was impacted. Without food, children simply do not have the energy to concentrate, and their education outcomes are therefore significantly worse.
Another, equally significant impact of the pandemic was bringing learning from classroom to home. Laptops, computers, and iPads replaced pencils, erasers and pens as back-to-school essentials– for the lucky few: because this shift was reliant on all children having access to the technology required to learn from home. Unfortunately, with two-thirds of 3–17-year-olds unable to access the internet at home, this was far from the case. These children were left behind in systems whose efforts to catch up with the times simply failed them. As with many crises, this also predominantly affected children in disadvantaged homes and communities. The pandemic shed light on the foundations of education systems, which fuel exclusion and inequality.
Finally, with almost two billion people affected by floods, droughts and storms every year, these devastatingly real consequences that climate change is unleashing on our planet are already being felt, though not equally by all. Climate change disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Global South, whose education opportunities are also poorer, further compromising their ability to adapt. At the same time, education systems in the Global North and in countries contributing most to global warming are yet to demonstrate how their schools will serve their climate change mitigation efforts.
Agreeing to the actions is one step, monitoring them is crucial to provide accountability and drive ambition. UNESCO has started a process where each country sets their own realistic ‘benchmarks’ in the road to achieving SDG 4. About 90% of countries have heeded this call and established national targets which they reasonably believe can be reached by 2030, in the hopes that this will accelerate progress. We encourage countries to also set national targets for 2025 and 2030 against each of the global initiatives to be tabled at the Summit. These will represent the transformation countries want to see.
The follow-up mechanism after the Summit, based on national target setting, will be critical to convert leaders’ statements into improved education results for children and youth, as this call for action implores countries to do. The solutions to be agreed at the Summit must be appropriately monitored if we are to come out of this global education emergency.
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