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20 Mar 2024
Audrey Bryan

Re-claiming ‘the Conscience of Humanity’: UNESCO, the Futures of Education and the Threat to Democracy

In this cross-posted blogpost, Audrey Bryan critically examines UNESCO’s engagement with social-emotional learning, happiness, and the figure of the ideal learning citizen.

Tomorrow’s world: The ideal learner of the future

Imagining and predicting what the future holds has become an increasingly important aspect of the global educational governance landscape in the 21st century, not least because phenomena such as global pandemics, ecological crises, the digital revolution and artificial intelligence all have profound implications for education.  As the United Nations’ specialised agency for education – and as the lead coordinator of the Education 2030 Agenda – UNESCO plays an important role as a ‘guardian of education futures’ (Robertson, 2022).

This blog post considers some of the wider forces, logics and actors shaping transformative education initiatives related to the futures of education, with a particular emphasis on the figure of the ideal learning citizen envisioned in UNESCO’s future-making endeavours. This figure – imbued with specific ‘human-centric’ capacities, character traits and skills – looms large in UNESCO’s reimagining of education for an unscripted future.

‘#Kindness Matters’: Transforming education through happiness, kindness and social-emotional learning

This figure of the ideal learning citizen has evolved amid a growing emphasis on ‘happiness’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘kindness’ as important characteristics of schools and learners of the future (UNESCO, 2022).  Interest in these ‘non-cognitive’ aspects of learning has arisen partly in response to declining levels of mental health among children and young people since the beginning of the 21st century (Gray et. al. 2023). With many students identifying their schooling experiences as a major cause of psychological distress, international organisations (IOs) have shifted their attention to the cultivation of positive emotions such as kindness, empathy, compassion and resilience. The need to ‘robot-proof’ employees in an AI-augmented world by equipping them with ‘human-centric’ skills further helps to explain the emergence of a consensus about the importance of ‘transversal,’ ‘21st century’ or ‘social-emotional skills’ (SES) such as empathy, compassion, optimism, resilience, a growth mindset, and ‘grit’ (Bryan, 2022).

As a large organisation representing different sectors and comprising different divisions, research institutes, centres and offices, UNESCO does not speak with one voice and can struggle to reconcile divergent perspectives (Elfert & Ydesen, 2023).  When it comes to its advocacy of 21st century skills, however, the organisation is overwhelmingly consistent in its enthusiasm for SEL. Among the initiatives that UNESCO has implemented to promote the social-emotional dimensions of learning is the Kindness Matters campaign – a global youth campaign run by the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) aimed at mobilising the world’s youth to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through ‘transformative acts of kindness’ (Mochizuki, 2023). This forms part of a wider suite of MGIEP initiatives which seek to ‘build kinder brains’ and develop ‘neural networks for peace’ via digital technology (Singh and Duraiappah, 2020, p. 1). UNESCO MGIEP – the agency’s only research institute devoted to the issues encompassed by SDG 4.7 – prioritises SES such as empathy, compassion, mindfulness and critical thinking as having a major role to play in reducing major social, environmental, geo-political and economic problems and injustices, such as global warming and environmental degradation, conflict and violent extremism and economic hardship.

The UNESCO Happy Schools initiative is another global intervention premised on SEL (UNESCO, 2022). Designed to ‘promote happiness in and for learning’, it provides ‘a framework for transforming schools into stimulating places to learn, to be, and to live together in an increasingly divided, digitized, disaster-prone world’ (UNESCO, 2023). The framework identifies a range of characteristics that school communities should address to promote happiness in and for learning, including: ‘collaboration and creativity’, ‘learner-centeredness’, ‘personalized learning’, and a ‘growth mindset’.  SEL and its neuroscientific ‘evidence base’ are also identified as key elements of the ‘renewal’ and ‘reimagining’ of education laid out in UNESCO’s landmark Futures of Education Report, as schools of the future equip students ‘to collaborate with others’ and develop ‘their agency, responsibility, empathy, critical and creative thinking, alongside a full range of social and emotional skills’ (p. 47).

Edunomics and the futures of (precision) education

UNESCO’s increasing emphasis on SEL coincides with the proliferation of technologies, digital devices and platforms that can measure and monitor students’ wellbeing and happiness and with the wider datafication of children’s lives, which positions them as objects of digital surveillance (Lupton & Williamson, 2017).  It further coincides with the development of digital technologies that can facilitate hyper-customised, AI-augmented ‘personalised learning’ based on algorithms that filter and select content according to individual students’ needs, interests, preferences, and strengths (Williamson, 2021).  This ‘edunomic’ vision of education is closely aligned with ‘precision learning’ (Brunila and Nehring, 2023; Williamson, 2021) – a mode of governance which views learning as economic currency and seeks to extract value from educational systems by charging individuals or institutions to access personalised digital curricula, materials, assessment tools, extracting personal (digital) data for commercial purposes etc. (Means, 2018).  In other words, it serves economic, corporate and market-based, rather than human and public interests, such as equality, democracy and the betterment of society and humanity.

Whither the ‘conscience of humanity’?

UNESCO’s long-standing advocacy of a rights-based approach to education has helped to bolster its status as the moral and intellectual ‘conscience of humanity’ and to secure its distinctiveness in a global governance context animated by multilateral competitiveness over the ‘framing, shaping and materialising [of] future presents’ (Robertson, 2022, p. 188). As the 21st century progresses, however, it is becoming harder to delineate UNESCO’s vision of the futures of education from those IOs who adopt a more explicitly economistic view of education.  Whereas UNESCO may package its ideal learner somewhat differently by drawing primarily on the rhetoric of ‘kindness, ‘happiness’, ‘empathy’, ‘compassion’ etc., the underlying discourse bears a striking resemblance to the pronouncements by the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, whose vision of the future involves ‘personalizing educational experiences, building instruction from student passions and capacities’ and’ helping students to personalize their learning and assessment in ways that foster [their] engagement and talents’ (Schleicher, 2018, p. 66). Further similarities are evident in Schleicher’s contention that schools need to ‘develop a range of social and emotional skills, such as empathy, compassion, mindfulness, purposefulness, responsibility, collaboration, and self-regulation’ (p. 60).

This vision of the futures of education distorts and undermines UNESCO’s status as the ‘conscience of humanity’ by diverting political energy away from the pursuit of global justice and equality and redirecting it towards biological and neuropsychological explanations for complex global problems (Bryan, 2022). The individualised solutions advanced by the figure of the ideal learning citizen forestalls political dialogue and undermines an appreciation of the material and economic determinants of social and global problems.

Anticipatory discourses and activities, including the discursive construction of the ideal learning citizen undertaken by IOs, do not merely reflect a future that exists ‘out there’; rather, they operate as a performative force with ‘looping effects’ that produce a different world (Nelson et al., 2008). In other words, producing knowledge about the future has the potential to alter the future, ‘much as announcing a psychiatric diagnosis may alter the psychological experience of the patient’ (Ibid, p. 546).  The world that is brought into existence by this edunomic vision of the future of education has major implications for students’ privacy rights.  It also ignores the political, cultural and institutional complexities of schooling and consolidates private sector interests in education (Hartong et al. 2022).  This vision of the future of education poses a significant threat to democracy, not least because corporate and philanthropic involvement in education pre-empts more radical, structural approaches to social change. As Arnove and Pinede (2007, p. 422) put it: ‘Decisions that should be made by publicly elected officials are relegated to a group of institutions and individuals who cannot conceive of changing in any profound way a system from which they derive their profits and power.’

In order for UNESCO to reclaim its status as the ‘conscience of humanity’, it must resist, rather than enable, the consolidation of a corporate takeover of education from a democratically-controlled system to one designed and run by private actors in service of the global economy. One way to achieve this is to advance an alternative version of the figure of the ideal learning citizen, one that is imbued with the capacity and commitment to critique the dominant norms, values, institutions and discourses of society; to contest power inequalities and vested economic interests; to make complex connections between intersecting local and global trends, crises and developments; and to reflect critically on their role as agents in perpetuating and alleviating local and global injustices (Bryan and Mochizuki, 2023).


About the Author:

Audrey Bryan is Associate Professor of Sociology in the School of Human Development at Dublin City University. She can be reached at

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