One of the first images to greet visitors to Taylor High School in Cleves, Ohio, is a mural dedicated to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who was shot in the head because she believes girls should be able to go to school.
The mural, which stretches the length of a football field, intersperses student artwork with text from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was inspired by a group of eighth graders who, in December 2012, just months after Yousafzai’s shooting, had attended a human rights conference in Canada. Until then, “Malala” had seemed a mere headline from a faraway place. At the conference, her story brought home the importance of global awareness.
“The conference is about opening up your eyes to how big the world is,” said Scott Hannum, a Taylor alumnus who attended the conference and who helped organize the mural project; he is now a college senior. The mural represents a communitywide effort in Cleves, a village about 13 miles northwest of Cincinnati, and was supported by the school’s athletics department, student council, parent-teacher organization and the local Kiwanis Club, among other groups.
For years, the Three Rivers Local School District, which includes Taylor High School,has relied on UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to help broaden minds in a school environment that library media specialist Marney Murphy describes as “sheltered.”
Murphy has regularly escorted small groups of students to UNESCO-sponsored programs such as the 2012 human rights conference in Winnipeg, Canada. In 2008, the school helped pilot UNESCO’s “Breaking the Silence: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project,” a resource for educators that addresses the history and scope of slavery. Murphy, drawing from the district’s tradition of hosting naturalization ceremonies every three years, has contributed a curriculum covering the process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens.
The Biden administration offers a fresh opportunity for the United States to return to the table and to share its resources with an interdependent global community.
The school’s relationship with UNESCO came to a halt on Jan. 1, 2019, when the Trump administration withdrew from the transnational organization, which the United States helped found in 1945. In so doing, the former president has deprived U.S. students, researchers, scholars and teachers like Murphy of knowledge, resources and expertise that underscore UNESCO’s commitment to education as a foundation for a peaceful, just and sustainable world.
UNESCO is perhaps best known for its World Heritage Sites, but it is much more than that. It publishes the Global Education Monitoring Report, which collects and analyzes data used by education policymakers around the world to strengthen their education systems. UNESCO also develops educational tools on topics such as gender equality, global citizenship, education in emergencies, and climate change.
“UNESCO has been at the forefront [of] issues that a lot of American teachers … are increasingly focusing on,” says Aaron Benavot, a professor of education policy at the University at Albany and a former director of the monitoring report.
Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to abandon the often-beleaguered UNESCO. Under former President Ronald Reagan, the United States withdrew in 1984, citing poor management and conflicting values. It rejoined about 20 years later during the administration of George W. Bush. Bush described re-entry as “a symbol of our commitment to human dignity.” In 2011, after UNESCO recognized Palestine as a full member, the Obama administration cut funding but maintained its membership.
The reasons given in 2017 by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for withdrawal were “mounting arrears,” the need for fundamental reform and, perhaps most significantly, an “anti-Israel bias” at UNESCO.
UNESCO has played a meaningful role for U.S. schools. Its Associated Schools Project Network, of which Three Rivers was a member, comprises more than 10,000 schools worldwide, and a similar network for universities supports international research collaboration. These programs have continued without U.S. participation under the Trump administration. The world has since lost access to U.S. resources and expertise, and vice versa.
In March, the organization began coordinating an education response to the pandemic, which it estimates has disrupted the lives of more than 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries. UNESCO aims not only to ensure that their learning continues, but also to reverse a pandemic-era rise in child labor, early marriages and child abuse.
That initiative could have been an opportunity for U.S. schools, universities and nonprofit organizations to weigh in on solutions to a global crisis that will have long-term implications worldwide. Without a seat at the table, though, the U.S. voice has been muted.
That is one reason why “it is crucial for the U.S. government to rejoin UNESCO and support UNESCO’s work — to ensure that every child has access to quality education,” said Jennifer Rigg, executive director of the Global Campaign for Education-U.S., a Washington-based coalition that promotes education as a human right.
The Biden administration offers a fresh opportunity for the United States to return to the table and to share its resources with an interdependent global community. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden played a key role in shepherding the United States’ return to UNESCO in 2002. The newly inaugurated president’s swift reversal of several of Trump’s nationalist policies, along with his more recent announcement that the United States will rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council, offers hope that he will also restore the U.S.-UNESCO relationship.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Kristen Cordell proposes a role for first lady Jill Biden, a community college professor who spoke at two UNESCO events during the Obama administration. In her first official event as first lady, Biden celebrated teachers in a virtual gathering: “Student by student, you are changing the world,” she told them.
Back in Ohio, the mural that runs along a prominent hallway in Taylor High School attests to the impact UNESCO has had. After two years with no UNESCO connection, library media specialist Murphy says she is “hanging by a thread,” but hasn’t given up. Murphy still found a way for some students to attend a nuclear nonproliferation conference in Winnipeg, Canada, in 2019, and for others to volunteer in an orphanage in Bolivia last year.
“It’s important for everyone to understand that they are just one small part of this world,” Murphy said. “And we all need to play a part in contributing to [its] betterment.”
Mary Beth Marklein is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University, where she is studying issues related to diplomacy and international education.
This story about UNESCO’s role for U.S. schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.