Into the Future

What lessons, if any, should we learn from our present pandemic? And what can we do to make amends for the past? The answer to this second question is – nothing. The past cannot be erased as if it had never happened. But we can, and must, learn from its effects upon the present.

I have been reading an interesting article (The Times, Trevor Philips, 19.9.20): When you erase a nation’s past, you threaten its future. Phillips bemoans people’s attempts to erase Britain’s colonial past: notably by pulling down statues of individuals linked to slavery. He is right to remind us that present is built upon past. Therefore, any attempts to dismantle the lower, thus earlier, bricks in the human wall – can only cause it to tumble down around us.

Having recently read Nelson Mandela’s memoir (Long Walk to Freedom), the disturbing conflict between the shame of colonialism – and the greatness of empire – has been brought home to me more than ever. The more I have learned about Britain’s past the more I despise Britain’s connections with racism in its worst and most vile form. However, we cannot pretend it did not happen. We must instead learn from it. Attempts at erasure do nothing to help our troubled world to move towards a future in which individuals of every race or colour have equal opportunities to succeed and meet their personal aspirations.

Nor does mere posturing such as ‘taking the knee’ achieve any real change. So what will? Change can happen only when policies at the highest levels are made to work for the benefit of every citizen and child – and all organisations and schools made to abide by them. But if only everything could be that simple. Change surely starts with belief. So all we need is for every person to believe in the same philosophy: for example, that all human beings have been equally blessed with such qualities as intelligence, compassion or kindness. Or that positive moral values are equally spread amongst every citizen. Or that black or Asian people are no more likely to commit crimes than white people, and therefore the figures for Tasering by the police, should be no higher for black people than white (unfortunately, they are). Or the basic belief that white people are NOT superior to non-white people. Not going to happen is it? There will always be those who do not believe in equality at the starting block of the race. But has such colour-based prejudice been taught, dredged along from the past – or is it innate in all of us? Do we, from babyhood, inherit feelings and views, and grow up to make judgements of people based on race? I would like to think not.

Oh well, we can dream…and hope. What stands between past and future is the present. During these months of lockdown have any serious efforts been made to address the racist issues that have bubbled to the surface? Life as we know it has become dormant for many of us. I am tempted to think that this is because the world needed a few moments to stop and work out what had gone wrong and how to put it right. This pandemic is therefore an opportunity to reflect as we have never reflected before on what aspects of modern life need to change.

What must we do? Firstly, I think we must overhaul the school curriculum to include the skills of problem solving. The world’s future depends on our younger generation. But do they know what the problems to be resolved actually are? How aware are students in our secondary schools of The Black Lives Matter movement? Or global warming issues? Or the imminent extinction of many species of wildlife that we have taken for granted – and on which we depend?

Now, starting from this temporarily halted present, it is time to look more seriously towards the future by learning lessons from the past. As further restrictions threaten to limit normal life, here is our chance to grasp hold of time and slow it down. Here is our chance to think and reflect on where we have come from and the mistakes our ancestors have made. More importantly, a moment for all of us, together with the younger generation, to debate where humanity is going next.

This is problem-solving at its most challenging – confined to our human planet – and surely, far more important than wasting time and resources on trying to establish where life might exist elsewhere. I hope for all our sakes, that for the first time in history, we might use this slowed down present to plan a future that can leave the past behind.

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