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World heritage education to advance human progress

YANG QIGUANG | 2022-01-21 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A teacher introduces a group of children to cultural knowledge about the Palace Museum, listed as a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO in 1987, on a field trip to the museum in April 2021. Photo: CFP

In July 2021, the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee was convened in Fuzhou, southeast China’s Fujian Province. This marks the second time China has hosted the event. The 28th session, held in Suzhou, east China’s Jiangsu Province, adopted the Suzhou Declaration on Enhancing Youth Education on World Heritage Protection, calling for participating nations to focus on youth education on world heritage protection. 

During the 44th session of the World Heritage Committee, the Chinese Ministry of Education and UNESCO co-organized a side event themed “World Heritage Education for the Future.” At this event, China’s important mission and outstanding achievements in advocating for and practicing world heritage education were reiterated. 
Looking forward, it is of great epochal significance to deeply understand the special role of world heritage education in enhancing individual life value and cultural identity, realizing the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, showcasing national soft power, and intensifying dialogue between different civilizations. 
Inheriting human culture
From ancient times to the present, humans have created unique local customs and complicated interpersonal relationships through productive labor. The places and ways they have lived, as well as the traditional systems that connect their living places and lifestyles, are all concrete manifestations of human cultural heritage in different aspects. As historically valuable material and intellectual assets distilled from thousands of years of human life, heritage carries ubiquitous cultural attributes and has derived unique educational value. 
Human education, in essence, is about practices for guiding life values. It needs to be immersed in our dynamic and diverse cultural ecosystem. Educational forms that approach the essence of human education are closer to the cultural lives of people around the world, and will blend education into daily life. 
In order to reflect the significance of cultural heritage protection and the diversity of cultural expressions, international organizations emphasize individual participation in world cultural heritage education through formal and informal educational programs. 
To international organizations, heritage education should target all people, regardless of their educational levels, age, social status, cultural belonging, or financial conditions. They champion reflective and critical education to associate rich cultural heritage with daily life and exert the legacies’ function in promoting mental health. 
Starting from the second half of the 20th century, international organizations such as UNESCO vigorously called for special cultural heritage educational programs. In response, the governments of many countries and regions around the world actively began innovating systems and policies, encouraging private sectors, children, teenagers, their parents, and other adults to take part in the programs. The systems and policies hence became crucial resources for universal lifelong education, and the key to harnessing culture to express human diversity. 
Through world heritage education, cultural heritage becomes the content of fresh life experiences for each person’s lifelong education and learning. From this, they can continuously identify their own national culture and form a sense of belonging to understand the evolutionary relationship between themselves and others, society, and human development. 
World cultural heritage education directs the public’s attention to the importance of preserving and increasing the diversity of cultural expressions, and teaches each person to raise their own awareness of the cultural power conveyed by heritage, with critical and reflective attitudes, thus gradually fostering historic responsibility for the inheritance and development of national and human culture. 
Spurring sustainable development
Through interactive learning in natural and social environments, human beings have constantly defined heritage through colorful cultural landscapes and created social values for their legacies throughout the entirety of human history, establishing cultural practices acceptable to all members of society and making these practices essential components of humanity. Therefore, human cultural heritage and sustainable social development are closely related. 
World heritage education for all can help learners refresh their knowledge about human social culture, nurture empathy, and build cultural ties with each other. It reconnects individuals with others, and with their cultural and natural environments, instilling a clear consciousness and firm belief that each person is an integral part of the world and socio-cultural dynamics. 
Karla Penna, a PhD researcher from the School of Education at Murdoch University in Australia, noted that the lower a society’s cultural education levels are, the more difficult it is to realize sustainable development. Critical and reflective world cultural heritage education is committed to cultivating citizens of the world with a global awareness, and inspiring their understanding of cultural and environmental protection. It is an important way to promote human well-being and sustainable social development. 
World cultural heritage education will prepare global citizens to handle any problems and predicaments facing their countries, thus enhancing social cohesion and cultural tolerance. In the long term, economic development will also accelerate, so that communities, regions, countries, and the wider world will gain vitality, and eventually the overall life quality will upgrade for humanity. 
Today, our natural and social environment is confronted with many challenges. Different countries and regions are uneven in terms of development levels. The United Nations still must overcome difficulties to eliminate hunger, achieve full gender equality, and provide better medical services and infrastructure, thereby attaining the Millennium Development Goals. This necessitates the mobilization of numerous actors, including sustainable education forces like world cultural heritage education, to build a future of sustainable development. 
In 2015, the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development delivered the major outcome “Transforming Our World: 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Under the framework of the 2030 agenda, UNESCO released the “Education for Sustainable Development: Learning Objectives” at a conference in Ottawa, Canada, in 2017, pledging to carry forward education for sustainable development comprehensively and systematically. Playing a key role in culture, science, and education, UNESCO has reinforced the construction of existing legal frameworks for the protection of cultural heritage worldwide. 
Promoting mutual learning 
In recent years, the global exchange of ideas obviously has begun to outweigh the flow of goods. Cultural dialogue on globalization has become more significant than ever. Retaining a country’s distinctive cultural features amid globalization, while communicating with other nations and regions, is a prominent issue facing deep globalization. By stepping up efforts in world cultural heritage education we can promote peace, human rights, gender equality, and the cultivation of world citizens, contributing to cultural diversity and sustainable development. Vibrant international cooperation and exchange will help protect world cultural heritage and ensure that it can play its due role in global development. 
World cultural heritage education is considered vital to facilitate cross-cultural communication and tighten social bonds, whether in local communities, within countries, or across the globe. To a nation and state, strengthened world cultural heritage education can pool resources which national historical experiences and life value are based upon, to demonstrate national soft power, and accumulatively develop into crucial innovative forces for the state and nation to move on. 
World cultural heritage education is also the foundation for the international exchange of necessary goods. It encompasses cross-cultural learning, communication, and cooperation within the scope of international culture and world civilization. In fact, knowledge and skills concerning human heritage, which were passed down from generation to generation for centuries, used to be an important aspect of life around the world. However, in a post-modern world of globalization, technological revolutions, and the pursuit of economic growth, local histories, customs, and cultures have been deemed by some as legacies of times passed and rejected by contemporary society. Younger generations are divorced from their own nations’ traditional culture, and subjects related to cultural heritage are deleted from school curricula. Sadly, these are usually regarded as normal outcomes of the changing times.  
UNESCO is devoted to world heritage education to build up the general public’s awareness and ability to engage in cultural heritage protection, and inform them of the eternal value of culture inherited from past societies. The legacies will be a force driving the new human community forward, and serve as a foundation for communication between global cultures and civilizations.
In 1994, UNESCO launched the special project “Young People’s Participation in World Heritage Preservation and Promotion” to encourage global communication and cooperation on world heritage education, thereby inspiring future generations to better understand cultural interdependency on regional and global dimensions.
Currently the world is rapidly entering a complicated stage of deep globalization, as the humanities faces profound changes unseen in a century, highlighting the importance of enhancing understanding and encouraging dialogue between different civilizations. Modern society needs to address new challenges, such as climate change, urbanization, and migration, with resources and knowledge handed down from previous generations. As Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay said when talking about the COVID-19 pandemic, “Let us reaffirm the primacy of education, science, culture, and knowledge to help us surmount crisis.” 
Ignorance of human heritage will lead to a loss of cultural characteristics, which will impoverish humanity. Integrating world heritage education for children and teenagers with a lifelong learning system for society as a whole; leveraging the particular role of world heritage education in initiating and advancing dialogue, mutual learning, and cooperation between human civilizations through the provision of rich, diverse heritage education services; and carrying forward the shared values of humanity, namely peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom, should become more common ways to bolster the development of world civilizations.
Yang Qiguang is a professor of education at Fujian Normal University.