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Cultural resources, common goods, and the futures of the right to education

Patrice Meyer-Bisch — 15 February 2021

Patrice Meyer-Bisch - Quote Card - Ideas LAB

To conceive of the futures of the right to education means analyzing educational shortcomings of the present in the light of new opportunities. A qualitative step forward is now possible given both the recent recognition of the "commons" within human rights, as well as the awareness of the cultural dimension of the right to education. This is an essential broadening of the conception of the right to education, understood as an educational relationship capable of responding to emerging challenges while integrating digital culture.

UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education argued in its June 2020 publication Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action that “the human relationship between the student and the teacher at the very heart of any educational process.” However, this humanistic proposal, in itself, is not enough. A third element is missing in the relationship: meaningful content as a cultural resource shared by the two "learners". Meaningful learning content guarantees the intimate quality of their bond while inviting them to share a community of knowledge, essential to make sense of, and participate in the world. It is this tripartite cultural relationship that defines educational life as a common good with all its political significance for an inclusive development of both individuals and societies.

A good is “common” when it bonds
individual experiences through their shared values

Common goods are much more demanding than public goods

The 2015 UNESCO report Rethinking Education: Towards a global common good? has shown the limits of the theory of public goods, restricted as it is to an essentially instrumental aim. But the report’s approach to the common good remains incomplete. The text indicates that “it cannot be a personal or parochial good” and, a few lines further, argues that “the notion of education as a ‘common good’ reaffirms the collective dimension of education as a shared social endeavor (shared responsibility and commitment to solidarity)”. While very true, even if not new, this focus on the collective must not overlook the private and intimate individual dimension at the core of the notion of "common good". A good is “common” when it bonds individual experiences through their shared values. Education must thus be framed beyond the dichotomy between individual and collective. 

Elinor Ostrom, the American political scientist and 2009 Nobel laureate in economics, is one of the leading authors in the definition of the "commons". Starting from natural resources, she considers that three conditions that define a common good:

  • the resource itself

  • a community that assumes responsibility for the resource

  • the governance rules that this community sets for itself

Thus, if water resources are to be experienced as a common good, they must include communities that assume responsibility for it based on shared rules of governance. A language is experienced as a common good if it is understood as: (1) an oral and written resource which is both individually experienced, as well as a means of expression / print / communication; (2) a community of speakers, and (3) a set of rules of maintenance, protection of its unique characteristics, as well as spaces for creativity. This is a political value inherent to the right to education. 

The right to use one or more languages implies individual freedoms, responsibilities and rights as well as common obligations of protection. As part of the common heritage of humanity, languages require "public protection". But in a democracy, this expression means "protection of the public"; that is to say, the protection of all who are contributors to and actively involved in the language, under the guarantee of the rule of law. This cannot be reduced to the necessarily limited action of public institutions. The State, as guarantor of the right, comes second after all cultural actors involved.

The heart of the right to education lies between “learners” and the communication of cultural resources 

The cultural resources that learners learn to share are at the heart of what we can call “educational life”. This is the life of appreciation, discovery and also of work which opens up personal relationships with the world, with others, and even with oneself—this is a life that emancipates.

The right to education, including its shared learning content and experiences, or lived resources, is thus very closely associated to the right to participate in cultural life.

An educational relationship rests not only on the transfer of knowledge
but also on a living relationship

The exercise of a human right is a relationship between three terms; the holder of the right, the object of the right, and the bearers of obligations. Similarly, an educational relationship rests not only on the transfer of knowledge, but also on a living relationship between two types of actors (learners, including adults and teachers with their organizations – and other associated stakeholders), as well as sets of knowledge which form their common shared resource.

The originality of the cultural dimension is to understand that a work of quality (whether that be language, science, books, music, or a classroom…) is a potential, without which the other two actors can do nothing. Educational life is the effective bringing together of three types of resources: teachers, students, and shared cultural learning resources.

Shared cultural resources are essential factors of inclusion 

Cultural resources, as shared resources, represent a fundamental potential as “vectors of identity, values, and meaning”.  In addition to the specific value to each learning area, they each bring in their temporalities and intersecting territorialities. To take just one example, science education, beyond "scientific literacy", gives us a whole new understanding of temporal and territorial scales. In other words, cultural resources are necessary factors for education, not only for sustainability, but also for inclusiveness, by specifying not only who, but also what, is to be included. In fact, excluded people are not only excluded because of poverty or their ethnic origins, but also because the memories, aspirations and knowledge of which they are the bearers are excluded. 

In conclusion, development can only be inclusive of all if it also includes the different knowledge that concern their lives and their opportunities to communicate with the world.

Educational life is inseparable from informational life

It is now clear that the right to education, also understood as a right to lifelong learning, is inseparable from the right to information throughout life. The technological tools now available have led to a realization that the right to information cannot be reduced to the availability of diversified sets of information channels. Instead, it needs to be understood as a right to access, to practice and to contribute, in various and appropriate ways, to information. In short, the right to information is the right to participate in an "informational life".

This is why digital education is much more than a question of literacy or connectivity, but extends to learning how to master one’s chosen connections.

It is about accessing "digital culture" as a cultural resource just like other learning resources. This realization creates radically new time-space perspectives. Each learner is invited to find their own way of participating in this culture. This brings a new level of “capillarity” that can be fruitful only if it is accompanied by a strong capacity for selection – in other words a mastery by individuals and by educational and informational communities of these open domains.

Patrice Meyer-Bisch is a philosopher and president of the observatory of diversity and cultural rights at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Cite this article (APA format)
Meyer-Bisch, P. (15 February 2021) Cultural resources, common goods, and the futures of the right to education. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/meyer-bisch-cultural-resources-common-goods-and-futures-right-education.

Cite this article (MLA format)
Meyer-Bisch, Patrice. "Cultural resources, common goods, and the futures of the right to education". UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 15 February 2021, https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/meyer-bisch-cultural-resources-common-goods-and-futures-right-education.


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