Is Education an Obligation or a Right?

So in the United States, is education an obligation or a right? It was in a conversation about education this morning with my brother Peter that he formulated that very basic question. It was synchronistically what I had decided to write about today, but I had not framed the question so crisply.

It is really a poignant question because you can make a compelling argument that it is one, the other or both. I’m really wrestling with what “education” is all about and whose business is it anyway. In Wiktionary the definition is…

1-The process or art of imparting knowledge, skill and judgment
2-Facts, skills and ideas that have been learned, either formally or informally

The first definition is something that is done to you, while the second includes something you could do for yourself.

Education can be framed as an obligation because school attendance is compulsory (until you reach a certain age) and much of what you learn (and increasingly how you learn it) is mandated by the state as well. But it is also provided to every youth in the country (funded by taxpayers rather than tuition) under the principle that every young person has a right to it.

From reading about the history of the foundation of the American public education system in the 1830s, progenitors like Horace Mann clearly saw education as on obligation of the state. Mann was a mainstream progressive of his time who believed America needed a citizenry trained in shared ethical/religious values based around non-sectarian Protestant principles. He was concerned that immigrants were coming to this county with many different cultural traditions, some of which were incompatible with the egalitarian goals of American democracy. You could argue that this was mainly a Protestant “us and them” prejudice against a growing influx of Catholics, who were alleged to have a primary allegiance to the Pope rather than their newfound country. Inspired by the universal mandatory education system that emerged in Prussia in the early 19th Century, Mann was a key player in setting up a comparable system in Massachusetts, that by the end of the Civil War had been adopted by most other states in the country.

The biggest problem with adopting universal public education was always the cost to the taxpayers. That cost was mitigated to some degree by hiring a teaching workforce of educated women who could be paid much less than comparably educated men. But still, public school funding has been an ongoing political issue everywhere, and became a cause for progressives who framed it more in terms of being a right of every young person that the state should be obligated to provide. Often on the other side of that argument were conservatives who saw schools as inefficient (from a business point of view) and questioned the need to educate everyone and the resulting costs.

You can make the case that progressives won that political argument and that most mainstream conservatives have come to at least tacitly support universal public education. But the argument over education between the two camps continues and has migrated from whether… to who, what, when, where, why and how. Vouchers, unions, charter schools, privatization, standards, assessment, national vs state have all become education battlegrounds for the two political camps. And I have argued in a recent piece (see “Left-Libertarianism and a Broader Political Perspective”) that there is an emerging third political position on education borrowing on libertarian principles from both right and left.

Today the stakes have been ratcheted up pretty high. There are some 50 million people under eighteen in the US who have a right/obligation to go to school. To that end there is a huge institutionalized government/educational/business infrastructure involving many billions of dollars devoted to funding, building, staffing, supplying, directing, regulating, and enforcing a public school system (and to a lesser degree private/independent schools or homeschooling that supplement it) that every youth in America must attend. We live in an increasingly globalized world which many argue requires a more thoroughly educated younger generation or else the US will become a second-rate country.

All of this I think keeps us perhaps too focused on the macro level of education, fixating on it as a tool for societal and economic re-engineering, and the resulting political football that accompanies any such potentially transformative exercise. The dimensions being so large seem to inspire putting forward sweeping systemic OSFA (one-size-fits-all) solutions. The biggest problem with these OSFA solutions is that they generally work well for only some kids, and not work well for others. With such grand scope and so much at stake, critics can easily label any solution as a failure. And even worse, defenders of that solution can label the kids it doesn’t work for as failures.

Says longtime Ken Mortland, interviewed in an EdWeek blog piece, “Education Reform Facts You Rarely Hear”

Has three decades of reform by thousands of dedicated educators produced no improvement, as suggested by the likes of Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan? Or are Rhee and Duncan choosing to ignore the progress that has been made, lest knowledge of that progress weaken their position and status?

In a macro educational context in terms of 50 million young people at risk, there is certainly lots of money and reputations to be made framing things as a failure and riding in as a white knight with “the solution”.

So getting back to that question my brother posed that frames this piece… At its most fundamental level, is education a thought out or otherwise connected course of learning which is done by an individual with the assistance, as needed, of various other people functioning as teachers and/or mentors? Or is it the imparting of knowledge by several million people to fifty million other people? Is it something you do or is it something that is done to you?

I tend to frame it as the former, though most people these days seem to be framing it as the latter. For example, here is Tom Friedman, a progressive whose work mostly focuses on world affairs, wading into the educational debate in his New York Times piece, “Teaching for America”

If we want better teachers we also need better parents — parents who turn off the TV and video games, make sure homework is completed, encourage reading and elevate learning as the most important life skill. The more we demand from teachers the more we have to demand from students and parents. That’s the Contract for America that will truly ensure our national security.

Friedman seems to be framing education as an obligation, and something that needs to be imparted to the student, like it or not, with the parent as the deputized agent of the system and the state.

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2 replies on “Is Education an Obligation or a Right?”

  1. Cooper,

    I’d like to send you an unpublished article. If you e-mail me, I’ll attach it. It’s a different historical perspective on NCLB (ESEA).


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