A few years ago I pitched a proposal to a couple of publishers for a book on ‘Education in the face of existential threat’. In the book I hoped to consider how educational contexts might be configured if we took as our first principle – in terms of ordering curriculum and other priorities – the greatest threats that faced us as human beings.
The publishers weren’t interested then. I imagine now that quite a few such books might end up being commissioned in the not too distant future.
At the time I proposed the book I was interested in the work of the (Oxford based) Future of Humanity Institute and the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. I was amused by their mission statements, which went something like this: the really ‘big’ possible threats to human existence (meteor strike, mutually assured destruction, global pandemic, terrorisation by an artificially intelligent singularity etc.) receive little academic attention (not to mention research funding) because they are so unlikely. However, since these threats promise extinction-level crisis, they merit significantly more attention than they are receiving. This was the justification for gathering a highly select and somewhat eccentric groups of statisticians, modellers and philosophers to predict what kind of hitherto unimagined catastrophes might in the future befall the human species and how we might reasonably respond to them.
The justification offered by those research centres was a utilitarian sort of quantification of certainty multiplied by extent. And of course it is the utilitarianism of that calculation that is ultimately disturbing. A certain quality to human existence might well be overlooked by those concerned only with calculative measures to maximise survival. One could even imagine not too distant scenarios in which the two priorities come into conflict. Even now, we find ourselves weighing the spiritual cost of the reduction of social life against the more immediate need to minise the effects of the global pandemic. I should point out that I am not at all criticising the general policy of social distancing, only that we would perhaps miss some of the human costs of such a policy if we were only concerned with modelling distribution of resources, economic implications and rates of survival.
I should also point out that neither centre named above was particularly interested in global pandemic on the grounds that it is very hard indeed for a disease of any sort to wipe out a whole species. They preferred to concern themselves with catastrophes such as extinction at the hands of a rogue ‘artificial superintelligence’, which – although far more outlandish – promised in their view to be more effective at wiping us all out.
At the present time we are not concerned with existential threat in the sense that we are worried that the existence of the whole human species might come to an end. But an existential concern of another sort has been foregrounded for us by recent global events, and that is the sense that some element of what it is to be human might be threatened by the very measures we may have to take from now on to ensure our survival. That is, some important element of a human existence might be under threat.
Some educators might be hoping that we return to normal as soon as possible and wondering if we ever will. Others, however, might be wondering whether we ought to want to return to educational normality. My contention is that it is vital to have this discussion and to have it explicitly. Like it or not, we have been given a chance to take stock. Do we want the schools and universities to which we eventually return to be the same as they ever were? What will be our educational priorities in the months and years to come? In the face of what we are learning about the threats that are going to transform our lives and how we live them, what kind of education do we need? What kind of education do we want?
These are the questions I and others will be debating on this new blog. Please get in touch if you are interested: firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Aldridge (@zudensachen) is an educational philosopher, writer and editor.