The Covid-19 pandemic arrived when we were on the threshold of a fourth industrial revolution, based on artificial intelligence. After successful completion of the first industrial revolution (18th-19th century, essentially a factory system) and the second one (1870-1914, essentially ‘assembly line production’), we are now passing through the third revolution based on increasingly advanced digital technology. The spread and quality of knowledge have been the foundation of all three revolutions, but even more so for the fourth revolution.

The evolution of knowledge stands on the foundation of its strong backward and forward linkages. However, one of the pitfalls of the education system that has evolved during the last century is narrow specialisation, both in the natural and social sciences. It’s said, albeit jokingly, that a specialist doctor of the left hand doesn’t know about the right hand.

Further, there is an erroneous understanding that the spread of digital applications will transport one to a ‘knowledge society’. Rather, for banishing narrow specialisation and moving to a multifaceted agenda, a renaissance like movement has to be started again. Be it Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, multi-specialisation geniuses provided the basis for the first renaissance movement.

Apart from the pedestal of knowledge internalised with renaissance, equity should also be a built-in part of the societal architecture for the fourth industrial revolution. Only then will we be able to contain any societal challenge, including the present one of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The state of knowledge in a society is difficult to measure, but is certainly highly related to investment in science and technology. By expanding the cognitive world of knowledge, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) on October 4, 1957. The immediate US response was to free itself from its technological complacency. US Congress established NASA, and the US National Defense Education Act poured billions of dollars into science education, providing low interest loans to students pursuing higher studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Thus President Donald Trump, despite his fulminations against immigration, has strengthened the policy under which highly qualified STEM professionals from across the world are allowed to join US universities and the corporate sector. Similarly, in Britain, the Tory government created eight new universities to close the gap in scientific knowledge.

The developed world is fully aware that the forward (higher education) linkages of education rest on the edifice of its backward (school) linkages. Thus the public school system in the developed world, including the US, is extremely good. Indeed, budget outlay on education is often an election agenda in those countries.

In the late 90s Tony Blair fought the national election on the agenda of strengthening school education. Immediately after his election for the second term, he declared in May 2001 “our top priority will be education, education, education … to make Britain a learning society”. He further said “schoolchildren … ought to learn the joy of life, exhilaration of music, excitement of sports, the beauty of art, the magic of science”.

The objective was to groom children essentially with a renaissance foundation, avoiding narrow specialisation. Graduation ceremonies in Western universities always stress the societal commitment to education. For individual students, it’s indeed a memorable event where parents, friends and relatives celebrate. In India, over and above those broad educational goals, children should also be exposed to the glorious tradition of the country. That will ensure that the Indian variant of renaissance is ingrained in its history.

To indicate how committed a society is towards children’s education, take two instances. In Japan, for years there used to be just one passenger every day waiting at the Kya-Shirataki station on the island of Hokkaido – a high school girl on her way to class. Recently, in Kottayam, Kerala, a government-owned 70-seater boat on successive days ferried a girl alone from the waterlogged stretch of Alappuzha to Kanjiram, just to ensure that she wouldn’t miss her Class XI examination.

The countries of North America, Europe and China are at the apex today not only on the basis of their ‘hard (military) power’, but also on the basis of their ‘soft power’ based on knowledge. That ‘soft power’, apart from knowledge endowment, also embraces culture, art, music, film etc. Bismarck could not ensure a German hegemony through only ‘coal and iron’, he also had the ‘soft power’ of Marx, Freud, Max Weber, Beethoven or Einstein. In the Indian context, one can mention the names of Homi Bhabha, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Amartya Sen, Ravi Shankar, Satyajit Ray, and Zubin Mehta and others who have raised the esteem of India as a ‘soft’ knowledge power.

In the context of a knowledge society, it’s also necessary to revisit Jacques Delors who authored the 1996 Unesco Report on Education. It identified a number of tensions for the people, generated by technological, economic, and social change – between “global and local; the universal and the particular; tradition and modernity; the spiritual and the material; the need for competition and the ideal of equality of opportunity”. The critical challenge here, the report suggests, is the capacity to assimilate expanded knowledge. For a holistic approach to education, the report suggests the innovative concept of ‘learning throughout life’: (a) learning to know; (b) learning to do; (c) learning to be; and (d) learning to live together.

These testaments of the Delors committee are a strategy to ensure an ideal knowledge society, which is capable of ensuring the existence and progress of human civilisation, defeating all adversities, including the present one of Covid-19.

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