Book review: UNESCO’s Utopia of Lifelong Learning: An Intellectual History by Maren Elfert
This fascinating and highly readable book describes how the United Nations Scientific, Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shaped the notion of lifelong learning and promoted its adoption as a global educational paradigm. It offers an account of UNESCO’s utopian thinking about lifelong learning and the forces that shaped this, while also considering critically the tensions and ideological challenges that resulted in the prevalence, globally and at country level, of a less-than-utopian, instrumentalist approach to lifelong learning some distance from the expansive humanism of its early theorists.
It is a book that Maren Elfert is, perhaps, uniquely qualified to write. As she notes in her introduction, she worked for many years for the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) during which time she ‘became increasingly troubled by the gap between UNESCO’s humanistic discourse and the reality of “results-based management”’. One manifestation of this, she notes, was the demand of funders for a narrow, instrumental approach to projects which left little room for the organic development of the work and treated human beings ‘as means rather than ends in the teaching and learning process’. This approach, she found, ‘contradicted the humanism and the concept of education as a human right that UNESCO propagates’.
The dissonance Elfert identifies between these two distinct perspectives, and her evident, keenly felt discomfort with it, is the fuel for the book. I suspect that Elfert’s unease will resonate with many readers and not only those who work in lifelong learning at an international level. In more than a decade working for NIACE (the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) in the UK, I witnessed the dramatic narrowing of policy-makers’ thinking about adult education and lifelong learning, and experienced the sharp contrast between the warm, expansive language used by politicians to talk about lifelong learning and the depressing instrumentalism of their actions. These actions, in which all three main UK political parties were complicit, resulted in a profound and sustained constriction in adults’ opportunities to learn, and the destruction of much of the lifelong learning infrastructure that had been many decades in the making. Another casualty of diminishing political support for lifelong learning broadly conceived was NIACE itself, and while its successor organisation, the Learning and Work Institute (the result of a merger between NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion), continues to include lifelong learning within its remit, the loss of a distinctive, dedicated voice has been keenly felt.
Elfert describes the evolution of UNESCO’s thinking about education from the immediate post-war period, when the organisation was founded, through the publication of its two landmark reports on lifelong learning (Learning to Be and Learning: The Treasure Within) to present-day economistic approaches to lifelong learning. Much of UNESCO’s early thinking about education was spurred by its response to the misuse of education for political purposes during the war and the atrocities to which it contributed. A ‘humanistic and emancipatory approach’ emerged, Elfert writes, that ‘aimed at bringing out the full potential of human beings and enabling them to shape their societies towards greater democratization and social justice’. This utopian strain of thinking saw education as a human right with ‘intrinsic’ value and rejected any form of instrumentalism in education, which is to say, any attempt to subject education to other, extraneous purposes.
Elfert deftly describes how ‘lifelong education’ emerged as an educational paradigm during the 1960s, with much of the impetus deriving from Paul Lengrand who popularised the notion of éducation permanente, in France, as one of the founders of popular education movement Peuple et Culture, and internationally, as head of UNESCO’s adult education department. It was not until the Faure report of 1972, however, that lifelong education was presented as a key organising principle of UNESCO’s work. Faure’s report, Learning to Be, represented ‘the first time the organization launched a report setting out a vision for the future of education globally’, seeking to establish lifelong education as ‘the new global “master concept”’ for education. The report reasserted the ‘humanistic’ vision for education set out by UNESCO’s founders and defended it against what Faure saw as the growing prevalence of an ‘economistic’ worldview in education. It proposed the creation of a ‘learning society’ in which education was available ‘for all throughout life, inside and outside of institutions’. The aim of lifelong education, the argument went, was not merely to produce economically useful workers, but to foster the development of a new type of society, in which opportunities for personal fulfilment and active democratic participation were evenly distributed.
As Elfert describes it, while Faure produced ‘an inspirational document that was ahead of its time’, its immediate influence was limited by a combination of economic recession, political pragmatism and escalating Cold War tensions. It appeared at a moment when neoliberal thinking about education was becoming more and more prevalent and human capital theorists were popularising an understanding of education as, essentially, a tool of economic development. This change was being felt within international organisations such as UNESCO, as well as within nation states, and it wasn’t until 1996, and the publication of Learning: The Treasure Within, better known as the Delors report, that UNESCO again presented so ambitious a statement of the value and wider purposes of lifelong learning. Delors consciously contrasted the position taken in his report with the ideologically alien ‘neoliberal’ thinking that had become politically dominant in Britain and in the United States (under Thatcher and Reagan, respectively). He resisted the idea that education was a means to an economic end, and argued instead for education as a right, a means of supporting people to reach their full potential and of creating a fairer and more socially just society. The report emphasised ‘learning throughout life’ and stressed both its ‘lifelong’ and ‘lifewide’ dimensions, noting the relevance of leaning to all spheres of life. Famously, this vision was expressed in terms of the ‘four pillars of learning’: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together.
While the adult education community received the report favourably, Elfert writes, many critics ‘did not consider it practical enough and criticized it for resorting to “the language of idealism and dreams”’. It was overshadowed by the Education for All agenda, on which it had little impact, and by ‘the hegemony of a neoliberal lifelong learning discourse’. As a result, as Elfert notes, it had ‘negligible’ impact at the level of education policy; it was a ‘non-event’, in the words of Kjell Rubenson. Even within UNESCO, interest in it was ‘short lived’. In the meantime, ‘education moved further down the economistic path, jeopardizing more and more UNESCO’s utopia of a just society’. In a final chapter, Elfert shows that while lifelong learning became an established part of educational discourse around the world, lifelong learning policies ‘display a predominantly economic and instrumental interpretation that focuses on the provision of skills for individuals for job-related purposes, which has little to do with UNESCO’s “maximalist” version of lifelong learning’. The language of rights has been replaced by a discourse of responsibilities – principally, the responsibility to acquire and maintain the skills necessary to be a productive worker. The success of lifelong learning as an important educational paradigm has been achieved at the cost of its ‘revolutionary’ and political aspects.
This attenuated vision of lifelong learning as an endless cycle of training and retraining, shorn of its all-important lifewide dimension, will be familiar to UK readers who will have witnessed the systematic destruction of the country’s once world-leading adult education system over the past two decades. The trend has been exacerbated by a prolonged period of austerity and retrenchment in public spending, in the UK and elsewhere, following the financial crash. For UNESCO, Elfert notes, this climate has resulted in a tension between its ‘humanistic tradition’ and the demands of its donors. Nevertheless, I think she is right to argue for the continuing relevance and importance of the ‘maximalist’ notion of lifelong learning, which both Faure and Delores defend, and to assert its relevance to the ongoing struggle between ‘humanistic-emancipatory’ and ‘technocratic-rationalistic’ worldviews. A Elfert notes, lifelong learning is inextricably bound up with the ‘hope that human beings can change their world for the better’. Current threats to the democratic way of life, and the ongoing transformation of the world of work, certainly seem to point in the direction of a broader notion of lifelong learning, which recognises the importance of creativity, resilience, adaptability, and political and civic understanding. The story Elfert tells is a fascinating and important one, and she tells it wonderfully well. While the subject matter may appear relevant only to a fairly niche audience, I found it directly relatable to the national context in which I worked for many years, in ways that helped illuminate it. It also poses important questions to those who advocate for lifelong learning at an international level. I hope it will be very widely read, as, certainly, it deserves to be.