Epistemic justice and the knowledge commons for lifelong and lifewide learning

Sylvia Schmelkes - 9 January 2023

Schmelkes Ideas Lab

A new education paradigm

Lifelong learning has been part of the education landscape for a few decades already, and lifewide learning – though more recent – has also been acknowledged as a valuable approach to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education for all (SDG 4). Nevertheless, the notion of holistic lifelong and lifewide learning, or learning from the cradle to the tomb and in all spheres of life, forms an integral part of what I consider to be a new education paradigm, which is under construction and clearly depicted in the Report, ‘Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education’ from the International Commission on the Futures of Education (2021). Another central element of this new paradigm is the notion of epistemic justice. Both of these elements are crucial for the vision of the future of adult learning and education, and were therefore central to the deliberations of CONFINTEA VII, the 7th International Conference on Adult Education .

Based on these two main elements – lifelong and lifewide learning, and epistemic justice – I reflect here on what may be considered human rights that underpin the right to knowledge. The proposal is based on my work in both adult and intercultural education, and more recently, my participation in a collective proposal of an independent expert group (EGU2030) convened by UNESCO for engaging Higher Education Institutions in a decisive commitment to contributing to sustainable development and social justice. Their report, ‘Knowledge driven actions: Transforming higher education for global sustainability’, advocates for inter- and transdisciplinary research, openness to other knowledge and ways of knowing, and a strong presence of these institutions in both policy and transformative projects, including the expansion of lifelong and lifewide opportunities, and a strong presence of institutions who promote these in both policy and transformative projects.

The notion of lifelong and lifewide learning pre-supposes acknowledging the existence of very diverse sources of knowledge and a multiplicity of educational actors that are continually engaged in both teaching and learning. It also implies accepting the plurality of ways of knowing and the need for dialogue as the principal method for ensuring both deep learning, and personal and collective growth.

On the other hand, epistemic justice begins by recognizing that education has favoured the transmission of predominantly western knowledge, generated in former colonizing nations, that were and are imposed on a large part of humanity at the cost of the loss of knowledge and ways of knowing (epistemologies) generated by Indigenous Peoples in colonized societies. The consequence is that humanity has been deprived of learning valuable knowledge and approaches to knowledge.

Other knowledge and ways of knowing

It is not by chance that biodiversity is generally greater where there is more cultural diversity, as well as where Indigenous Peoples are settled. This is in part explained by the different ways in which many Indigenous Peoples understand the relationship between humans and nature and perceive the human being, not as destined to dominate nature, but as one of its components, as are all living and non-living beings. For most Indigenous Peoples, the earth is sacred and is not harmed unless it is necessary to do so in order to survive. The same is true about the ocean, other bodies of water and rivers – which are also considered to be living beings – and the flora and fauna, with which Indigenous Peoples share the land.

Nowadays humanity has become very much aware of this knowledge because the planet and all forms of life in it are threatened by the loss of biological diversity, which in turn produces climate change. Indigenous Peoples have valuable knowledge to share on how to care for the environment, which they continue to conserve, reproduce, regenerate and build. To mention just a few ways in which notions differ from western thinking:

  • The way justice is conceived - as restorative;
  • The way governance is understood - as service;
  • The way democracy is practiced - as consensus, which requires convincing and using arguments;
  • The way the community is envisioned - as the space where relationships are horizontal and egalitarian. Many communities of Indigenous Peoples have mechanisms that curtail excessive accumulation of wealth;
  • The way health is conceived - as the result of harmony, balance and peace. Sickness is the absence of these, and the practice of medicine consists of restoring harmony;
  • The way of comprehending life and death - death is a passage to a different way of being on earth, which is why ancestors are venerated;
  • The way of educating children - the focus is not on the teacher, but on the person who learns; the child does not learn by listening to discourses, but by observing, imitating and doing (Rogoff, 2003). The educator does not teach; he or she makes knowledge available to the learner (Maurer 1984, Bertely 2015, Mendoza-Zuany 2022).

Ways of knowing are also diverse and worthy of being considered.  Science is evidently among these. For example, many cultures have a holistic view of the world, which does not fragment it into disciplines or other categories, and thus does not lose the complex interrelationships between the parts of the whole.  Another example is the notion of time, which in many native cultures is not linear, but circular or rather spiral. This allows for visualizing social and environmental evolution as one that is built upon what exists to transit towards something better, and that never forgets the past precisely because it is the base from which transition is possible.

Unfortunately, much knowledge has disappeared due to the loss of many languages and cultures of our planet, which Santos (2015) calls epistemicide, the product of historical colonialism and of its variants that still prevail.

This immense knowledge – that which is produced scientifically, but also that which is the product of other ways of knowing – is judged by its efficacy but also by its capacity to give meaning to life, to explain phenomena, to generate aesthetic and spiritual experiences, to solve problems that affect us all. It represents the knowledge commons of humanity, a heritage belonging to all those who inhabit this planet. Knowledge also includes artistic creations as well as technology, foundational myths and religions.

Epistemic justice implies the right
of every people to their own knowledge
and ways of generating, legitimizing and valuing it

The right to knowledge

Epistemic justice implies the right of every people to their own knowledge and ways of generating, legitimizing and valuing it, as well as the right of everyone to the knowledge of humankind. The quest for epistemic justice also entails putting a stop to the disappearance of languages and cultures that is occurring every day. León Portilla (cited in Arjona, 2020) says that when a language is lost, we are deprived of a window to the world.

Epistemic justice cannot be disentangled from social justice, which may not be achieved until all peoples have the same right to their knowledge and ways of generating knowledge. I propose here to consider four rights that would support the more general right to knowledge.  These four rights are the following:

  1. The right to know oneself and about one’s own culture, which is related directly to the right to identity as established in in Article 2 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2007): ‘Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.’
  2. The right to learn in one’s native language, as stated in Article 14.1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations 2007): ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning’. This is important because each language names what is relevant to each culture and allows for it to be strengthened. One may learn other languages, and it is often necessary and enriching to do so. But this should never happen at the cost of one’s own language.
  3. The right to know about others, from the past and of the present, from all corners of the world. Here I refer to Lonergan’s (1993) concept of ‘intellectual horizon’, which defines the process of learning as the permanent transition through three concentric circles: from a central circle, composed of what one is aware of knowing, to an outer circle which encompasses what one is aware of not knowing, and finally to a circle without boundaries which is composed of everything that one is not aware of not knowing.
  4. The last is the right to be known in what one is; in what one knows; in what one believes and desires; based on the strength of one’s own identity in community. This requires an equal standing with the other or others with whom one interacts, as well as the recognition of the dignity that every human being deserves for the reason of being human, and every culture deserves for the reason of existing.

These rights require working towards facilitating that all peoples bring this bountiful knowledge to light; the knowledge commons to which the International Commission on the Futures of Education refers to. They also imply having the consent of the peoples to make their knowledge accessible to all, so that its appropriation and exploitation can be avoided and countered.

Once shared, knowledge can be placed in a position to dialogue with other peoples’ knowledge and with what we know, described as ‘universal knowledge’, in order to allow for its contributions to be critically reflected upon, understood, respected and – ultimately – incorporated or not into one’s personal array of knowledge and ways of viewing the world.

Epistemic justice and adult education

It is in this context that we understand the full meaning of Paulo Freire’s (2007) pedagogy of dialogue. Dialogue is what allows for the practice of these rights to be liberating and to represent mutual enrichment, within the spiral movement of human evolution. Dialogue is what permits the social co-construction of new knowledge as a fruit of interaction. Dialogue opens the door to developing autonomy in decisions about what to incorporate of what is learned as a product of epistemological dialogue, and thus to combating cultural domination. In short, this refers to a renewed intercultural approach to what adult education contributes to the notions of lifelong and lifewide learning.

These proposals are not new to the community of adult educators. The Belém Framework for Action from CONFINTEA VI (UNESCO Institution for Lifelong Learning, 2009) recognized the need to educate in the different Indigenous languages and to prepare pertinent programmes, methods and materials in which Indigenous cultures, knowledge and methodologies are recognized and valued. It also made a call to recognize the plurality and diversity of learners. It was conscious of the opportunity that globalization opens to learn from rich and diverse cultures that transcend geographical boundaries. It condemned the fact that many adult education programmes are not receptive to Indigenous peoples, to rural populations and to migrants. It was critical of the fact that the diversity of students in age, sex, cultural tradition, economic conditions and special needs (including disabilities) and language are not reflected in most programme contents and practices. It pointed out that few countries have coherent multilingual policies that foster native languages, in spite of the fact that they are often essential for creating literate environments, particularly for Indigenous and minority languages.

Its successor, the Marrakech Framework for Action (UNESCO Institution for Lifelong Learning, 2022), the outcome document of CONFINTEA VII and extensive consultations, renews the community’s commitment to sustainability and acknowledges the contribution of adult education to the 17 SDGs and the 2030 Agenda as a whole. It recognizes the transformative power of education, lifelong and lifewide, for building a more sustainable future and recommends that climate education be mainstreamed in lifelong education. Although it does not go as far as to recognize the importance of diverse knowledge and of ways of knowing and the power of dialogue in knowledge co-creation, it does express a commitment to ‘placing diversity, including linguistic diversity, inclusion, accessibility and equity at the heart of our endeavours’.

Final words

In referring to epistemic justice and the knowledge commons – knowledge and ways of knowing - the Report from the International Commission on The Futures of Education constitutes an invitation to deepen the role of education in the decolonization and in the co-construction of knowledge, in education’s contribution to the struggle against discrimination, inequalities and in the achievement of a truly intercultural world, without which social justice, peace and sustainability would be elusive. These roles of education, as part of the new education paradigm, will need full support of civil society, educators and governments to make the notion of holistic lifelong and lifewide education a reality.


Dr Sylvia Schmelkes is a Mexican sociologist and is currently a faculty member, formerly director, at the Research Institute for the Development of Education at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, where she also was Academic Vice Chancellor until February 2022.

Cite this article (APA format)
Schmelkes, S. (9 January 2023). Epistemic justice and the knowledge commons for lifelong and lifewide learning. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB.  Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/epistemic-justice-knowledge-commons.

Cite this article (MLA format)
Schmelkes, Sylvia. "Epistemic justice and the knowledge commons for lifelong and lifewide learning." UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 9 January 2023, https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/epistemic-justice-knowledge-commons.


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