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Coronavirus shows us it’s time to rethink everything. Let's start with education

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12.05.2020

Imagine mentioning William Shakespeare to a university graduate and discovering they had never heard of him. You would be incredulous. But it’s common and acceptable not to know what an arthropod is, or a vertebrate, or to be unable to explain the difference between an insect and spider. No one is embarrassed when a “well-educated” person cannot provide even a rough explanation of the greenhouse effect, the carbon cycle or the water cycle, or of how soils form.

All this is knowledge as basic as being aware that Shakespeare was a playwright. Yet ignorance of such earthy matters sometimes seems to be worn as a badge of sophistication. I love Shakespeare, and I believe the world would be a poorer and a sadder place without him. But we would survive. The issues about which most people live in ignorance are, by contrast, matters of life and death.

I don’t blame anyone for not knowing. This is a collective failure: a crashing lapse in education, that is designed for a world in which we no longer live. The way we are taught misleads us about who we are and where we stand. In mainstream economics, for example, humankind is at the centre of the universe, and the constraints of the natural world are either invisible or marginal to the models.

In an age in which we urgently need to cooperate, we are educated for individual success in competition with others. Governments tell us that the purpose of education is to get ahead of other people or, collectively, of other nations. The success of universities is measured partly by the starting salaries of their graduates. But nobody wins the........

© The Guardian