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The utopia of lifelong learning : an intellectual history of UNESCO's humanistic approach to education, 1945-2015. Elfert, Maren


The scholarly literature has emphasized the strong humanistic tradition that characterizes the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This study, which draws on archival research and interviews, traces the origins, features and shifts of UNESCO’s educational humanism from the creation of the organization in 1945 to the present day, with a particular focus on the concept of lifelong learning. I argue that the tensions between the humanistic worldview and the pressures placed on the organization by multifaceted changes in the political economy and the landscape of global governance in education have forced UNESCO to depart from its comprehensive lifelong learning approach, while still maintaining a claim of continuity. Employing Gadamer’s (1975) concept of tradition and Bevir’s (1999; 2003) concepts of tradition and dilemma and neo-institutional theories that emphasize the role of ideology and social meanings in explaining changes in organizations, the study examines the shifts that UNESCO’s educational concepts and programs have undergone as changing actors continually renegotiated and reclaimed its humanistic tradition as a reaction to the dilemmas they faced. I argue that UNESCO’s humanistic tradition has been challenged by competing ideas, in particular the concept of human capital, which presented a dilemma for the organization, contributing to internal and external tensions. Each of the symbolic documents that are at the centre of this study – UNESCO’s constitution, Learning to be (aka the Faure report, 1972) and Learning: The treasure within (aka the Delors report, 1996) – are windows into the ideological struggles carried out at their time. They tell us a great deal not only about the beliefs and ideologies of the actors involved, but also about the “competing” ideologies with which they interacted. They further shed light on the shifting position of UNESCO in the system of international organizations and multilateral development. At a time when the humanistic perspective of education has been crowded out by the increasing marketization of education and UNESCO faces a severe existential crisis, this study contributes to the understanding not only of the intellectual history of lifelong learning, but more broadly of the changes in educational multilateralism over the past 70 years.

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