I have skulked around the sidelines of the academy all my life. Occasionally I have ventured into its alluring orbit only to beat a hasty retreat as I apprehended, again and again, how unaffected by its own product [that is learning] educational officialdom can be.

Educational establishments in many countries actually resist acquiring information of any kind that could imply the need for structural change of the institution itself. By that I mean information that challenges how and why things are done, explicitly using that knowledge to effect internal transformation, in alignment with alternative external conditions, is as a general rule considered unwarranted, and subsequently either avoided or ignored.

Conservatism of this kind is not always a bad thing. Pedagogical continuity, for example, can help preserve exotic languages, wisdom traditions and ecological knowledge that might otherwise be discarded.

But the question of what education is for changes from one era to another. Is it to facilitate the development of a moral compass to guide an individual through life, or to generate a society capable of doing new things, rather than just repeating what other generations have done? Is it to show us how to love beauty? To impart the power of critical thinking? Or is education simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the next, as the English poet G. K. Chesterton would have us believe? There is no correct answer.

Most people would probably respond yes to all of these — and more — depending on the social context. Initially, schooling was aimed at imparting basic literacies, such as reading and writing. Later it evolved into a means for the developing of minds within an explicit moral framework. Very soon it became a critical factor for participating in the community — a medium for inducting young people into civic society. More recently it developed two quite discrete functions — one vocational, focused on equipping students with the practical skills needed to pursue a trade, the other dedicated to a career in the professions.

The question concerning what education is for remains particularly pertinent in a world beset by wicked problems, quite a few of them existential in nature. Can we get closer to an answer by studying it from within the emergent context of the human condition? What should education be for in a post-COVID-19 world?

A feature of the current pandemic is the way apparently impregnable institutions — banks, universities, airports, the USA — have been shaken to their core. This disease, particularly the universal panic it has caused, signifies not just a mere blip, from which we can return to normal, but a portent of a new fragility, especially in terms of globalised infrastructures and supply chains, and our total reliance on digital networks.

It is worth noting that previous pandemics have exposed fault lines in society, which then ushered in substantial socio-economic changes. It was only after the Black Death that the ruling elite realised the world would be a much safer place if everyone could read and write. Likewise the novel concept of a welfare safety net for under-privileged citizens was introduced following the Spanish Flu of 1918. It is highly probable that a post-COVID-19 world will lead to equally transformative changes. These will inevitably impact education.

So in a post-COVID-19 world what is education for? What role should education play in creating a healthier, adaptive, and empathic society? And is that a different role to that which it played in the past?

Most of my children were homeschooled, for no other reason than we were constantly on the move and it seemed like the most effective way to achieve some kind of continuity in the face of such a peripetetic existence. At various times I have been a tutor, a lecturer, the Dean of School, and a professor — working with pedagogical approaches from the radical to the mainstream. I have also advised various institutions, within the context of the future, in terms of curriculum design, branding, governance and organisational development. So to suggest that I am reasonably au fait with major issues confronting education would be an understatement.

To those outside of the industry it might appear to be an easy way to earn a living, given the lengthy vacations and relatively small number of hours actually spent with, or in front of, students. That is an illusion. Teaching is one of the most demanding professions there is. Yet we place muted value on the contribution education plays in shaping the future of our society.

Because of that, together with the tsunami of exponential change that is sweeping away centuries of defunct praxis today, we stand to miss the opportunity of stepping into new epistemologies, or of approaching human evolution from alternative design ontologies. Both are essential today as we stare the possibility of extinction in the face.

That might be considered a melodramatic statement. But at no time during my various stints in the education industry has anyone asked me to seriously consider what education is for. In fact there is much confusion and heated disagreement regarding that deceptively simple contextual problem.

In order to comprehend the profound nature of this matter, and its importance to us in 2020, it is instructive to examine the issues from within the dynamic of an expanded now. I should also make it clear that I am setting aside, purely for pragmatic reasons, significant learning traditions that have germinated in other cultures, and at other times, by focusing my attention purely on modern Western practices.

Even from within this narrow frame of reference it is clear that the fundamental rationale for learning shifts, sometimes considerably, according to the prevailing societal narrative. In turn, the educational product responds by reinforcing explicit tenets relative to that society’s perceived needs and stage of development. This mutual benefit is vital for any deep understanding of the role learning can play in creating an abundant future for the next generation.

There are three interconnected social ecosystems that warrant our scrutiny — work and the workplace, higher education, and schooling. The ontological thread connecting these is a window onto underlying assumptions regarding the purpose of education.

Possibly since the genesis of the industrial revolution, and at least since the early years of the 20th century, the espoused purpose of education has been most commonly expressed as the way individuals can acquire sufficient knowledge and skills to compete with others in getting a job. Work in our modern society, after all, is both the motive and the means whereby individuals are able to trade their labour for money — which can then be used to purchase goods and services in what I refer to as the never-ending cycle of desire and consumption. But for this system to function, we must believe (i) that hard work is good for us, in a moral sense, as well as for our mental health and wellbeing, and trust that (ii) there will always be an endless supply of work for us to do.

These hypotheses have been central in directing the attention of educators on preparing students for the world of work — even resulting in the specific structural, pedagogical, and curricula delineations that separate specialist technical training and university education today.

As the push for economic growth developed, and science, engineering and technology became more and more vital to producing the goods and services needed in a globalised world, a further fracturing occurred. Institutions in the higher education sector began to dedicate their resources to teaching and scholarship, vocational training, or advanced research — with relationships and funding tied to those choices. Less utilitarian programs, in the arts, classics and humanities for example, became inconsequential in the public mind.

Schools and schooling, meanwhile, became the one-size-fits-all device for attenuating any sign of imagination and individual creativity, while reinforcing the established order, so as to certify an abundant supply of disciplined, compliant individuals, into the trades and armed forces, or fields like the law and medicine which demanded further study.

This explains why we are facing an existential dilemma in education today. Particularly relevant is the fact that our two central hypotheses are no longer valid. Work, especially when so much of it is unnecessary, pointless, or can be done by a machine, is no longer the motivating force it once was. For most individuals, identity and purpose are tied up with the love of family and friends, and being free to enjoy activities other than work. So, once again, we are left with the same question: what is education for now?

With the advent of machine intelligence, drones, virtual and augmented reality, and autonomous vehicles, we are witnessing a massive exodus of routine tasks from humans to machines. A more forensic inquiry of underlying patterns reveals a future in which full automation and robots dominate the traditional workplace. Even white collar professions will not be immune as the work available for humans shifts from the mechanical and the routine to roles requiring care, creativity, critical thinking and compassion.

At this stage it is impossible to know precisely how many jobs will be lost to AI or new jobs created as a result. An educated guess is that possibly 60 percent of today’s office and factory work will be done by machines over the coming decade, leaving many of us with the dual problem of what to do with our time, and how to earn money. This is going to be a massive headache for governments as we grapple with levels of unemployment, and a subsequent lack of social cohesion, that are unprecedented in the modern era.

These problems are bound to disrupt a higher education sector already struggling to retain relevance. Today many academics have become little more than itinerant workers and their students customers facing years of indebtedness. Lower entry requirements, pay cuts for teachers or job losses, and high fees for an education that disappears like candy floss before you swallow it, is leaving many institutions fighting to survive.

Nor is the current pandemic doing them any favours. With courses increasingly online, and students working remotely from home, even Cambridge University, the ultimate in physical branding with its ancient colleges and manicured lawns, is having to pivot to a different reality. Content has become irrelevant. Credentials are all that matters.

If so much upheaval is dislocating established norms in both the workplace and higher education, the role of schools and the nature of schooling must inevitably respond.

The days of teachers passing on information to students who sit passively in classrooms has long gone. The most informed schools have already embraced pedagogical shifts. From discipline-based subjects taught in 45 minute compartments, to phenomenon-based exploration of topics that actually matter to the next generation — topics such as climate change, food security, and cooperative ventures, for example — the learning landscape is utterly different today from what it was just a decade ago. The need for basic skills has shifted too. Who needs to be able to write, or speak another language, when almost every interface is voice-activated and translation is instantly available?

While I have few doubts that more traditional schools will continue to exist for the time being, their importance will diminish along with their physical infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us rare opportunities to experience life differently. We have tried home-schooling and are appreciating the benefits that expanded parental relationship can bring. We have avoided the daily commute to the office, and see no reason to return to a daily commute to school.

If schools are to have any relevance in this future they will need to adapt quickly. Children will still need to learn skills, but these will mostly be to do with life-long learning, curiosity, creativity, designing and making. They will also need to get along with each other and solve wicked problems together in a world that seems to be charging headlong into a variety of crises.

In this environment we could see a complete reconceptualisation of schools together with the elimination of schooling. Virtual classrooms will become commonplace. Corporations, charities, industries, and community enterprises will offer on-the-job mentoring. It is even possible, when kids see the most successful entrepreneurs either did not attend university or dropped out before completing their degree, that a university education will become immaterial, or a more leisurely activity to be undertaken later in life.

It could extend much further of course. Given the disruptions that are occurring in the world today, with billions of people around the world awakening to alternatives previously considered unlikely or impossible, we seem to be on the edge of a paradigm change. As new socio-economic theories embed, work will become an option rather than a necessity. Institutions of learning could respond by becoming the hybrid societal connective tissue.

The wealthy have the money, relationships, networks and influence to take advantage of the numerous internships, private tutoring, online courses, concierge services, and travel experiences, already for sale but not yet marketed within the context of learning. The best education they could give their children is not by way of a traditional school — and at some stage they will wake up to this opportunity.

The flaws in our society exposed by the current pandemic also suggest that the education industry may well realise a new role — the emotional, cognitive and collective development of society as a whole. If that is the case, we will probably see the education system turn away from a focus on individual career trajectories, returning to the creative shaping of cultures and communities more relevant for a new reality. When that happens it will not be a shock.

The wild card could well be the voices of the unheeded and the dispossessed joining us in fresh dialogues of possibility. When we find value from freely offering a free education to the under-privileged, bringing them together in multicultural meshworks, facilitating their exploration of real-world problems from entirely new perspectives, and turning their discoveries into action, we will have found what education is really for. A wiser evolution of the human family and its reimagined presence on this Earth.

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future