“UNESCO: The Promotion of Peace,” by Elisabeth Anthony Dexter
January 20, 1947

“Prevention of war lies primarily in cultivation of the bases of peace.” This sentence taken from the report of the preparatory commission of UNESCO (i.e., the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) gives in a nutshell its fundamental objective. While the Seeurity Council, for example, is trying to deal with international crises, UNESCO is engaged in “continuous cultivation of a society in which crises are not so likely to occur, in which far-sighted concern for human welfare has first priority, and mutual respect and understanding among nations are cultivated.” This, it is true, has been the objective of prophets, teachers, and (on the human side) the church for generations. Total war has broken down some of the walls which divided them—or at least it has shown the urgency of breaking them down. UNESCO is the attempt to bring together the semi-isolated workers of the past and equip them with modern tools. By its charter it is pledged to use “mass means of education” (such as press, radio, and film) to promote the democratic principle of “the dignity, equality, and mutual respect of men.”

UNESCO was formally launched at the meetings in Paris concluded December 11th, and thanks to the remarkable year’s work of its preparatory commission, it has before it an unusually well-charted course. The projects, grouped under Education, Mass Communication, Libraries and Museums, the Natural Sciences, the Human Sciences, and the Creative Arts, are given three priority ratings: those already begun; those planned for 1947; and those to be undertaken later. A study of the blueprints for these projects dissipates any idea that the work of UNESCO is either vague or impractical.

UNESCO will not do, itself, all the things planned. One of its most useful functions is to make information about what is being done accessible, to prevent overlapping, and to make plans for filling the gaps. Large areas of UNESCO work, then, will be done at the expense of existing agencies, private or governmental; but the information gained will become the property of all. UNESCO’s part will be that of coordinator and inspirer, not that of bureaucratic director.

One commission of UNESCO deals with the educational rehabilitation of war-devastated regions. Financial aid from private sources is sought for this work, which is not included in the modest budget for which UNESCO is asking. Encouraging achievements are already reported. For example, the government of Denmark acted as host last summer to some 250 university science students from Poland and Czechoslovakia. These young people had taken their theoretical work in the hastily re-opened universities of their native lands, but it was impossible to set up laboratories. Denmark, on the other hand, had laboratories and dormitories which would not normally be in use during the long vacation. The Danish government furnished all costs, even transportation and pocket-money; but the Danish delegate at UNESCO asked if other countries might not like to help on these expenses in 1947; the same facilities would be gladly offered.

A visitor to the UNESCO Assembly who (in the French sense) has “assisted” at many international conferences was struck by the truly international atmosphere which prevailed. Teachers, scientists, even ministers of education, are no doubt under less nationalistic pressure than foreign ministers, and the lack of interest shown by the press (the Security Council receives at least a column where UNESCO scarcely obtains an inch) may have had its bright side. In any event, during hours of discussion, the writer heard a chauvinistic note struck only once; and against this may be put numerous instances of national rivalry in generosity. Norway, for example, has been receiving school supplies—pencils, crayons, books—from private groups in Canada; but now the Norwegian government is able to take care of these needs. It has asked therefore if the Canadians will turn their generosity to some less fortunate country—but it hopes that a way may be found to keep alive the warm personal contacts occasioned by these gifts from Canada.

The most striking of the many UNESCO publications, “The Teacher and the Post-War Child,” by Leonard S. Kenworthy, is itself an example of national generosity. This booklet—the result of international cooperation, especially American, British, Greek, and Polish—has been attractively published in English by favor of a special grant from the Greek government, in the hope that other governments will arrange for its distribution—in translations wherever necessary—to the teachers of their own countries. It is practical, and inspiring. It considers and tries to answer such questions as: “How can we teach without pencils, blackboards, and books?” “How can we handle over-large classes?” “How can we cope with children who are nervous and irritable, or who seem to take pleasure in destruction?” “How can we find place for children who during the war had to act like adults, and now find the classroom irksome?” Many teachers in countries not stricken by the war would find helpful suggestions here; and no one, teacher or not, can read it without an increased sense of responsibility for doing his bit for this war-torn world, in which there yet lies so much courage and possibility for good.

Rehabilitation of devastated areas is not the only, or perhaps even the most important task of UNESCO. There are also the areas which, due to historical or geographical factors, have been retarded; they are eager to catch up with more favored nations, and are grateful for UNESCO help. The fundamental objective is to work toward equality of opportunity for all nations—an equality to be obtained by leveling up, until the present “bright zone”—where scientific knowledge and educational and cultural facilities are relatively diffused—may spread to cover the now larger dark area. The report on “Science and UNESCO” (which the writer, an ignoramus in science, found really thrilling) points out that the resulting benefits would not be limited to the now undeveloped regions. Outside the “bright” Atlantic zone, the number of trained scientists is relatively low; yet China has given to the world ephedrine and work on protein denaturation; from Japan came adrenalin; from Estonia work on sex hormones—and one might continue the list indefinitely. If with their limited resources, the scientists of these and other like countries have achieved valuable results, what may they not hereafter be able to contribute to the world?

People of goodwill ought to familiarize themselves with the work of UNESCO; few indeed will fail to find projects of particular interest to themselves, or to be impressed with the sound sense as well as idealism of the proposals. UNESCO is certain to be attacked, chiefly through ignorance, and it will need informed defenders. The budget asked for was seven and a half billion dollars for 1947. How long would this support even a second-class war—a few hours, or only a few minutes? (It might be added that this budget was, at the instance of the American, Australian, and French delegations, reduced very considerably.) Yet it will be strange indeed if some legislators do not inveigh against what they will call “the extravagance of this unknown and untried venture.” There is danger, too, that many well-wishers in the more favored lands will give only lukewarm support because they think of the world in terms of their own comfortable study or well-equipped laboratory. Anglo-Saxons, indeed, sometimes seem particularly liable to parochialism; they know where to go when they want information—why set up anything new? Life and learning may not be so simple for the solitary worker in a distant spot, shut off from his fellow-workers perhaps by language as well as by geography and tariffs. Incidentally, a practical and immediate objective of UNESCO is the reduction of red-tape—censorship, tariffs, postal restrictions, visas, and so forth— which now makes difficult the exchange of the fruits of knowledge.

Another kind of criticism has already been hurled at UNESCO—and oddly enough from opposing sides. The Yugoslav observer accused it of being idealistic, and of not recognizing that the progress of modern times has been based on dialectic materialism. Some Christian groups object that it is humanistic and that it does not give sufficient recognition to Christianity. That the officials of UNESCO are not unmindful of the importance of religion can be readily demonstrated. But an organization which is trying to reach all people (less than half of whom are Christians) cannot align itself, even by implication, with any one faith or with any one interpretation of life. Surely there is the highest authority to believe that the attempt to care for children, to shed light in dark places, to increase brotherhood, and to establish peace is one that would commend itself to the Founder of Christianity.

Elisabeth Anthony Dexter (1887 – 1972) was a historian who served the Unitarian Service Committee in Lisbon, Portugal, during World War II. While there, she helped refugees escape Vichy France, and she oversaw a program that assisted Jewish refugees. In 1944 she became European director of the Unitarian Service Committee. In 1942 she began working with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, and as part of this work she is believed to have been one of only a few people in continental Europe to know the exact timing of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. After the war she worked with the Church Peace Union and continued writing books.