Gradual learning, the urgency of knowledge, and the connectivity of humanity

Arjun Appadurai — 2 April 2020

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It is difficult now to speak about any topic entirely outside of this moment of global health pandemic since we're all dealing with a challenge for which we are not very well equipped.  Nonetheless, we will pass through this time and learn a lot from it.  What we learn from the current crisis will apply to our longer-term concerns, many of which have been sharpened by this current lens.

Slow and cumulative learning vs. quick production of reliable knowledge

In times of crisis there are increasing demands to produce reliable knowledge quickly.  The coronavirus crisis is the most recent of these crises. It has driven a need for knowledge production, learning and teaching. The urgency of these demands runs against the natural rhythm of most educational processes, whether for very young children, for mature young adults or for all people continuing education.

At all levels the general rhythm of teaching and learning is gradual. One might even say that it is slow. Learning is slow and cumulative in two ways: (1) in a human life-cycle nobody learns everything they need to know in one day, one hour or one week; and (2) to become responsible adults capable of acting intelligently we must both keep learning and unlearning.  Thus, there is a tension between speed and the slowness of learning in the human life cycle. Historically, there are topics in which human beings have been trying to understand things and teach things and learn things for millennia. In some cases our progress is depressingly slow. In other cases it is faster, but it never happens overnight.

How do we continue to value teaching, learning, education,
and the necessary slowness of that set of processes
while also recognizing that we have some urgency?

This presents us with a dilemma.  In times of crises such as the present one—or in previous ones like the 2008 financial crises, other health/ political crises, major wars, etc.—there is a tendency for education to seem somehow irrelevant or unimportant. The question then is how do we continue to value teaching, learning, education, and the necessary slowness of that set of processes while also recognizing that we have some urgency?

Tangible common humanity

Hannah Arendt observed that when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima, we arrived at the realization that humanity could actually be entirely destroyed.  As a result, people realized that there was such a thing as humanity. The paradox is that in moments of potential global destruction of all of humankind, the idea of humanity becomes tangible.

Nowadays, the Covid-19 crisis makes us rediscover yet again our humanity. But this time the difference is that we are discovering our humanity while also being aware of non-human forces and beings, plants, animals. In other words, we have a new idea of the planet. We are not so narrowly human anymore.  We certainly are recognizing our common humanity, but there are also voices reminding us that the relation between humans and animals, viruses and so on is very complex. We can't separate humanity from the rest of the planet.

We are a species that has a great deal in common. And one thing we have in common is the capacity/potential to disappear. However, I hope that is not the only thing we are learning about humanity. Perhaps one lesson we can keep in mind is our common humanity—something which is very hard to do in a situation where nation states have their interests, various groups have their interests, ethnicities have their interests, religions have interests. Having a sense of a common humanity is not a simple thing to bear in mind. But we need to do just that.

Building knowledge capacities

This crisis reminds us again of the difference and relationship between knowledge and information. In my view knowledge is something gained that helps us process information. Knowledge is not the same as information.  And, of course, we now deal in a world suspicious about all kinds of information (e.g fake news, social media etc). We are swamped with information, much of which we are in no position to assess. As such, I would say one of the single biggest goals I can imagine for education at all levels is to build the knowledge capacities among people (e.g young children, young adults, all of us) which allow us to handle the overflow of information.

These are the tools that let us tell if somebody is doing a good scientific analysis, or if a neighbor is well-informed. In our current world knowledge, information, news, rumor, fakes are all crowding each other. We need to tackle this problem by bringing into education and into our societies tools to interpret, analyze and debate the terrific amounts of data out there.

Connectivity gone viral

It used to be common turn of phrase to say that an idea had “gone viral”.  How we will look at this after COVID-19 I do not know, but this idea used to be straightforward and addressed the globality of our age, with the idea that people move across borders and are out of touch with other traditional ways. The vision is that we are highly connected and there is no way to turn that back.

On one hand we live in a world of super connectivity. One might even say saturation by connectivity. Everybody's somehow in touch with everybody, one way or the other. However, our response structures for addressing the COVID-19 crisis are entirely from the platform of the nation-state. Borders are closing.  But we have to ask how long the approach of closing borders can work. We still need to figure out how, in a world of connectivity, we can work together. Can we simply have national lenses for solving problems?  These are the biggest tensions we face—not just world leaders but all human beings, communities and societies.


Arjun Appadurai is Professor at New York University and the Hertie School (Berlin), as well as a member of the International Commission on the Futures of Education.  This article was adapted from remarks delivered by Professor Appadurai at the 2020 vCIES conference.


Cite this article (APA format)
Appadurai, A. (2 April 2020) Gradual learning, the urgency of knowledge and the connectivity of humanity" UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from

Cite this article (MLA format)
Appadurai, Arjun. "Gradual learning, the urgency of knowledge and the connectivity of humanity". UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 2 April 2020,


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