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23 Dec 2015

Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good? UNESCO’s New Humanistic Manifesto? By Maren Elfert

By Maren Elfert, University of British Columbia, Canada.

rethinking edUNESCO’s Education Sector launched Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good? on 4th November 2015 during the 38th session of UNESCO’s General Conference. The report represents the outcome of the deliberations of a Senior Experts’ Group, coordinated by the head of the Education Research and Foresight Unit, Sobhi Tawil, which was entrusted with the task of articulating a vision for the future of education. UNESCO’s most recent “humanistic manifesto” set out to revisit UNESCO’s flagship reports Learning to Be (aka the Faure report, 1972) and Learning: The Treasure Within (aka the Delors report, 1996) and reclaims many of their concepts.

UNESCO is known for launching intellectual documents that have little, if any influence on educational policies but offer a far greater engagement with the philosophical and theoretical dimensions of education than the technocratic reports put forward by the more powerful players in global educational governance such as the OECD and the World Bank. UNESCO’s reports attempt to articulate unifying visions for education that leave room for cultural diversity in contrast to the pragmatic “one size fits all” models exemplified by Education for All (EFA) and the OECD’s performance surveys that dominate some of the global education discourse. Despite their lack of influence, these documents are worth looking at as they present alternative visions to the hegemony of the economic worldview. In what follows, I will briefly outline where I see the difference between Rethinking Education and its predecessors and what I consider its significance.

The Faure report, which proclaimed éducation permanente (lifelong education) as the global educational master concept, blended Enlightenment idealism with the critical and revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s, in which educational reforms constituted an important part of the welfare state and the movement for societal transformation. The report represented a critique of society, a call for democratization of education and a departure from what Freire termed the traditional “banking” model of education, based on a hierarchical teacher-student relationship. The concept of lifelong education was influenced by existentialist philosophy, in terms of its questioning of the established order, the focus on the human condition and the idea that human beings needed to take responsibility for their actions. Although an important aspect of éducation permanente consisted in improving the connections between education and work, the concept did not have a strong economic dimension. In that respect it contrasted with the human capital approach that emerged in the 1960s and subsequently challenged UNESCO’s educational ideology. In the 1990s, Jacques Delors and the Commission that produced the Delors report chose to reiterate and reclaim UNESCO’s humanistic lifelong learning approach as an act of resistance against neoliberalism and the negative features of globalization.

The main shift between the Faure report and the Delors report consisted in the latter’s focus on “learning to live together,” the most important among the “four pillars of education” proclaimed by the Delors report (learning to know; learning to do; learning to live together; and learning to be) (Delors et al., 1996, p. 22; see also Carneiro & Draxler, 2008, p. 150). This formula denoted a new politics of multiculturalism and solidarity, while the Faure report had focused on the individual and the human condition. The Delors report failed to present an effective antidote to the neoliberal pragmatism the World Bank had to offer at the same time with its report Priorities and Strategies for Education (published in 1995), which took a purely economic perspective and recommended educational planning on the basis of cost-benefit considerations. The Delors report marked the end of an era as it represented the last expression of UNESCO’s “maximalist position” of lifelong learning, which involved “a fundamental transformation of society” (Cropley, 1979, p. 105). Since 1990, UNESCO’s work has been dominated by EFA, which brought about a narrowing of its lifelong learning perspective and has forced the organization to depart from its broad and philosophical approach to education, while still maintaining a claim of continuity.

Rethinking Education denotes another shift as its focus is no longer on lifelong learning. Its key idea is the common good, a term that aims “to go beyond the dichotomy of the public and the private” (Tawil & Locatelli, 2015). It designates the contemporary variant of UNESCO’s humanism in the context of the knowledge society. Knowledge and education are tied to each other “as global common goods,” “inspired by the values of solidarity and social justice grounded in our common humanity” (UNESCO, 2015, p. 11). Similar to lifelong learning, the common good is a typical UNESCO concept as it has a long tradition in all cultures. Invoking this concept is timely as private monopolies have reached an unprecedented size (Oxfam, 2014). On the other hand the “sharing economy” has emerged as a new phenomenon, which some commentators ascribe to “post-capitalism”. Rethinking Education distances itself from “scientific humanism,” which constituted one of the guiding principles of the Faure report. In paying tribute to “spiritual dimensions” (p. 38), the document follows the Delors report in placing greater emphasis on “non-scientific” traditions, and it goes further than the Delors report in recognizing alternative visions of development, such as the Quechua’s Sumak Kawsay (UNESCO, 2015, p. 31).

Rethinking Education will likely suffer the same fate as the Faure report and Delors report. It will be debated at panel discussions organized by UNESCO National Commissions around the world by a well inclined audience, but will have next to no impact on education policies and global education frameworks. The OECD is today the organization with the greatest policy-defining influence in the Western world, and the World Bank represents the most important shaper of education in the developing world. Neither of these organizations has been founded with a mandate for education. There are many reasons for this shift of influence from UNESCO to the OECD and the World Bank that are related to geopolitical power struggles and shifts in the political economy. I would argue that UNESCO’s role in educational global governance declined also because the ontology UNESCO stands for, humanism, lost out in the “struggle of ideas.” The rise of the pragmatist-economic worldview has greatly preoccupied individuals associated with UNESCO from the outset. An earlier Director-General, René Maheu (1972), argued that “pragmatism…cannot suffice to sustain an organization whose Constitution proclaims that it is to achieve the purpose of its being in the minds of men” (pp. 283-284). Edgar Faure (1971), the Chairperson of the Faure report, pointed to “the ideological barrier” (p. 214) between the humanistic and economic worldviews. Jacques Delors was out to rescue education from the clutches of the market and rehabilitate the idealistic origins of the United Nations’ system in “a battle of ideas to be fought and won,” as he explained to Henderson (1993). Although UNESCO lost this battle, it has an important role to play as the only organization that still reflects upon issues such as global inequalities, the purpose of education and alternative visions for development.

Maren Elfert is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. She is about to complete a dissertation on the history of UNESCO’s humanistic approach to education. Before taking up PhD studies she was a member of the professional staff of the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) in Hamburg, Germany. Email:


Carneiro, R., & Draxler , A. (2008) Education for the 21st  Century: Lessons and Challenges. European Journal of Education, 43, 149–160.

Faure, E. (1971). Ce que je crois. Paris: Éditions Bernard Grasset.

Henderson, E. (1993, March 12). Unesco Group’s Task is Rehabilitation. The Times Higher. ED/EDC/1. Paris: UNESCO Archives.

Maheu, R. (1972). Serving the Mind as a Force in History. In UNESCO. In the Minds of Men. UNESCO 1946 to 1971 (pp. 281-319). Paris: UNESCO.

Oxfam (2014).Working for the Few. Political Capture and Economic Inequality. 178 Oxfam Briefing Paper.

Further reading:

UNESCO (2015). Rethinking Education: Towards a Global Common Good? Paris: UNESCO.

Related NORRAG publications:


NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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