Learning to be together

April 10, 1998

UNESCO, 50 YEARS FOR EDUCATION. Unesco +33 1 45 68 10 00. 285pp, + 2 Windows/Macintosh CD-Roms US$60.00.

Britain's decision to leave Unesco, sacrificing international influence to solidarity with the United States, was always controversial. Staying out, even when its acknowledged failings as a body were being corrected, was humiliatingly petty. Rejoining Unesco, which we played a major part in creating after the Second World War, was one of the Labour government's first acts in 1997. It was obviously sensible and overdue.

The timeliness of this anniversary multimedia kit on Unesco's work in education may be judged by the zeal with which links are being restored. A speech by Kim Howells, Britain's first minister for lifelong learning, went down well at the 1997 Unesco Fifth International Conference on Adult Education in Hamburg. In Paris in October, Baroness Blackstone will lead a session at Unesco's World Higher Education Conference. The government has made Pounds 25,000 available for students from the developing world to attend.

Unesco is so impressed by the United Kingdom's Adult Learners' Week, the annual publicity-fest at which providers and broadcasters co-operate, that it is consulting the DfEE and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education about how to spread the concept internationally (South Africa gave strong support to the UK in Hamburg). Birkbeck College is responsible for the website and publication for an international Unesco colloquium on virtual learning environments. Federico Mayor, the current and widely respected director-general, contributed his Personal View about reproductive cloning of human beings in The THES (February 6 1998).

The DfEE is one of several departments active in the so-called Whitehall Group, led by the Department for International Development, which is investigating the possibility of establishing a Unesco National Commission similar to those which exist in other countries. Though British names feature prominently in 50 Years for Education - notably Julian Huxley, the first director general, and Lionel Elvin, a former director of education and later director of the Institute of Education - ironically the publication appeared before the UK could be listed in it as a member.

The kit comprises a book (modestly but misleadingly described as a "brochure") and two CD-Roms. Where possible, the CD-Rom content is trilingual (English/French/Spanish). The meat of the book summarises Unesco's specific work and activities over the years, under five main heads - Unesco in the world (its three institutes for education, its regional strategies); Towards Lifelong Learning for All (including basic education, adult education, education of girls and women, special needs, higher education and societal development); Promoting the Quality and Pertinence of Education (including planning, statistics, supporting technologies, education and the world of work, the Associated Schools Project); Aid to Education (technical assistance, emergency action, school buildings, fellowships), and Dissemination of Information.

The CD-Roms provide the texts of what are called key "standard-setting instruments", a historical bibliography, the full text of major Unesco publications on education, a directory of technical cooperation projects, extracts from related films, videos and sound recordings, and personal statements from many of the participants in the work. The standard-setting texts go back to the foundation documents - the UN's own 1945 charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 50 years old this year, in which the right to education is enshrined. These are reinforced by texts adopted during UN World Summits, all with a direct bearing on educational curricula and the research of higher education institutions (such as the 1992 Rio Declaration, the 1994 Copenhagen Summit for Social Development and the most recent Beijing Summit on Women), plus the many international conventions and agreements signed by member states. The wide variety of audiovisual materials is typified by the extracts from a CBS television discussion, recorded in 1949, on the new Declaration of Human Rights, with Eleanor Roosevelt and other leading international figures of the time.

Unesco, for all its admitted weaknesses, is an ethically inspired instrument of international collaboration, meant to promote peace through education. It has succeeded in sharing knowledge, training educators on a huge scale worldwide, and developing humane policies. It is striking that the language of education policy now used in Britain and the European Union is closer than it has ever been to that forged by Unesco over the years. It will be appropriate to revisit the major Faure report (Learning to Be, 1972), elaborating the concepts of lifelong learning and the learning society, and to study more closely the ambitious Delors report (Learning: The Treasure Within, 1996), now being quoted in British reports.

The last of the many quotations which enhance the text of this substantial reference book is from a 1997 speech by Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the UN, to the American Council on Education: "The first ingredient of political stability is an informed citizen. The first ingredient of economic progress is a skilled worker. And the first ingredient of social justice is an enlightened society. Education is, thus, the key to global peace and well-being."

The general statements of value and mission with which 50 Years for Education opens and closes are well attuned to current realities, notably by an awareness of the relevance of new information and communication technologies.

Brian Groombridge is professor emeritus of adult education, University of London.

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