School Based on Universal Human Rights?

FYI… this piece is way more initial rumination and not yet a polished argument… but here goes!

Israeli teacher Yaacov Hecht, one of the founders of the “democratic education movement” says that he was inspired to reinvent schools in a democratic paradigm, a paradigm that “sees as its main goal the education towards human dignity” as set forth in the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In his book, Democratic Education: A Beginning of a Story, Hecht says…

Democratic education considers the protection of human rights in school as a necessary and basic condition for the beginning of work on education towards human dignity… The basic assumption of a democratic school is that a young person, living in an environment which respects him and protects his rights, will know in the future to protect human rights in all three spheres…

One – “my” and “our” human rights
Two – the rights of “the other” or “the different”
Three – the rights of the whole of humanity

Before I even attempted to plunge into Hecht’s educational philosophy, I thought I better read the thirty articles in the UN Declaration myself, which I did. I think we tend to not apply principles of human rights always to children because… they’re children. If we love them, feed them, educate them and keep them safe, that’s all the human rights they could possibly want or need, right? But then trying as always to think outside the box, I think there are at least seven of the principles called out in the UN Declaration that I find particularly applicable youth and education and offer an interesting perspective on our current prevailing public education model and the possibilities for a new more democratic approach.

One should probably start with the article explicitly addressing education…

Article 26: (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

I wrestle with compulsory education generally, because when you compel someone to learn you risk destroying a human beings natural inquisitiveness, and suppressing our basic human nature. But I understand that compulsion is pragmatic not so much to ensure that the individual learns, but that the state provides every individual the opportunity to learn. If the individual must comply then that puts pressure on the state to provide.

Given the call for at least elementary education to be compulsory I think it is interesting that the article follows to say that parents should have the right to choose their child’s education. This would seem to call for educational choice, or at least, the right to keep your kids out of school and allow them to homeschool or otherwise learn outside of school.

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Certainly we acknowledge as a society that our kids should have the right to life and security. I think it is the consensus of most adults that kids only have a limited access to liberty and remain (in order to ensure their safety) under the responsibility and control of their parents and any school they attend that is agreeing to assume that custodial responsibility during the school day.

That said, within the relative safety (hopefully) of the school campus, I think we do a disservice to our youth and to our society at large by limiting students’ liberty as much as we do. More and more I think it is a violation of a student’s human rights to mandate where they must be at every moment of the school day, against their will if necessary, on threat of punishment. I can’t think of an instance when we require the same of adults, except when they are incarcerated or otherwise required as a consequence of their actions to do some sort of community service or mandated attendance in a rehabilitation program.

Short of staying on campus and meeting certain criteria in order to complete the school’s program (graduation, certification or whatever that threshold is) I think you violate a person’s human rights (whether adult or youth) to mandate exactly where they must be and what they must be doing at all times.

I understand that this is a provocative statement! How can a conventional school instruct a student on the mandated standardized curriculum if they can’t control that student’s actions at nearly every moment of the school day? Our education system was set up on an industrial assembly-line model featuring top-down control to create a “product” (the graduating student) that meets certain specifications (being able to test out on the standardized curriculum). The question is whether this 19th Century paradigm for “mass schooling” is still appropriate today, where we presumably are asking our younger generation to contribute to a society that lives by and even celebrates egalitarian and humanistic principles.

Article 21: (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country. (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

This is where I think most of our schools, both public and private, really violate the spirit of these human rights principles. We seem to operate under the assumption that democracy and democratic process is good for adults, but not appropriate for young people, who need to be governed by external control by their “superiors” (adults). Looking at it from more of a positive perspective, we miss our greatest opportunity to help our youth develop into active and effective citizens in a country with egalitarian ideals and democratic institutions. It is only fair and consistent with humanistic principles that we give students the opportunity to participate in the governance of an institution where they spend much of their young lives.

I think a lot of adults, whether school staff or not, think that this is tantamount to letting the inmates run the asylum! But do we really want to treat our kids like inmates, or like young proto-citizens instead. Do you become good citizens in a democratic country by just taking orders and instruction from others and learning about democratic process, or is the end better served by actually practicing democratic process in a truly meaningful way (not just deciding what color the decorations will be at back to school night).

Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

I would like to see some (if not all) of our schools (whether public or private) reconsider their top-down control model (adult controlling youth) in favor of a more egalitarian paradigm that has been (and I hope will continue to be) a fundamental principle of American society. I’m talking about youth and adults sitting in a circle (real or metaphorical) discussing process, addressing issues and making decisions, rather than adults constantly in front of and facing youth giving them instructions. Youth and adults addressing each other as equals, either last name basis for both student and teacher or (preferable to me) first name basis for both. Courtesies generally conveyed to adults by each other becoming the norm between youth and adults.

This is how we strive to behave in our contemporary adult world with each other, why not start practicing it with our kids from the first day they set foot in school!

Article 11: (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Students should be given a right to bring issues and grievances to a body that includes their peers, fellow students. Some conventional schools already have some forms of “student courts”, but democratic schools make this a centerpiece of their program, even subjecting the actions of the adult staff to being addressed by the “justice committee” as they call it in some democratic schools. That body then rules and metes out judgments that have the “force of law”, at least within the confines of the school and its program.

Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In a quintessential democratic-free school like Sudbury Valley, a student decides on their own curriculum and directs their own learning process. But even in a more conventional school that is predicated on learning the state-mandated curriculum, I believe human rights principles would indicate that every student should be able to pursue that learning in their own way at their own pace, with the understanding that the school has its criteria for successfully completing the program offered. I’m talking here about treating public schools more like the college model, particularly for students beyond elementary schools.

Article 29: (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible. (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Kids can and should be more than passive consumers of a curriculum presented to them by their teachers and passive participants in their educational institution. Seems like there should be a corollary to our Revolutionary War slogan, “No taxation without representation!”, which would be something like, “No education without representation”.

I see no compelling reason that students and their teachers should not participate more actively in customizing the learning process to meet their individual or collective needs. If we think there are some compelling circumstances for kids not participating in the governance of their learning process, then we should at least offer “democratic” schools as an alternative that parents could choose to send their kids to, if they believe that giving kids a real voice has real educational value. Those “democratic” schools exist already as private schools, too outside the box at this point to pass muster in an OSFA (one-size-fits-all) public school system run by people the overwhelming majority of teachers and students will never meet.

Given all of the above, I think we have to acknowledge that moving towards democratic education is going to involve a lot of swimming against the current. The logic of our public school system since its beginnings in the 1830s is that we essentially have to be autocratic to assure that we are fair. We have to mandate that every kid has exactly the same public education, including mandating what we learn, when we learn it, where we learn it, who we learn it from, and increasingly how we learn it as well. This is due in part to a history of severe racism and sexism in how kids were “tracked” into academic, vocational or domestic curricula. Rather than wrestle with the complicated process of ensuring that all our kids have a range of educational options, we have taken the simpler path of least resistance of mandating one path, completely controlled from the top with no questions asked.

3 replies on “School Based on Universal Human Rights?”

  1. “Short of staying on campus and meeting certain criteria in order to complete the school’s program (graduation, certification or whatever that threshold is) I think you violate a person’s human rights (whether adult or youth) to mandate exactly where they must be and what they must be doing at all times.

    I understand that this is a provocative statement!”

    Indeed! As a public school teacher who wholeheartedly agrees with the idea of democratic/free schooling in the public sphere (and have asked my principle about incorporating at least some elements of it multiple times), I can tell you that removing the requirement to know exactly where students are at any point is not going to happen in my district regardless of school organizational structure.

    In short, it’s a liability issue. If we were ever to have an emergency, drill, lockdown, etc., didn’t know a student’s location, and something happened to that student, we’re liable. It’s as simple as that.

    I have a sign-out sheet on my door which students use as necessary to write down where they’re going and when (and, for most things, they don’t need specific permission), but it’s not realistic to envision middle-schoolers going wherever they want on the grounds without adult knowledge of their whereabouts. We just can’t do it.

    Are you familiar with HB Woodlawn in the Washington, DC area? It’s a democratic school but it has an application process, which I think is a shame. Thoughts?

    Loved your post!

  2. In the Sudbury Valley democratic-free school, kids can go where they want on the large rural property without adult supervision. The agreement is that they will stay on campus. Sudbury Valley is an independent (private) school, not a public one, but I’m sure has its liability issues as well.

    As to the HB Woodlawn school, I’m assuming that it’s private as well. Like any community of people it has rules or thresholds for joining that community. Hopefully being democratic, the members of the community -both youth and adults – participate in the decisions to allow new people to join the community, or at least to develop the guidelines used to accept new people. In public schools there has been essentially a political agreement by a majority of citizens that public schools should accept all kids in the appropriate age range, with no other qualifications. That was still a choice, but by a larger “community”.

    My thoughts… but anyway… thanks for the comment!

  3. HB is a public school, actually, but the selection criteria aren’t precisely clear from it’s website (it’s part of Arlington, VA public schools). In fact, some of the language might imply that all applications are accepted unless there are more than the available slots, at which point the school has a random lottery. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case, though; like I said, I find the language a little unclear.

    The more I think about it, the more it seems that if there was parent buy-in, we could make it work with the liability issues (requiring students to stay on-campus but getting signed parent permission to acknowledge and accept the lack of mandated adult supervision). The problem is that not every parent will agree to that, and it would be very difficult to keep track of who has permission and who doesn’t. My district doesn’t offer school choice like some do, so we couldn’t restrict admission to only those whose parents agreed to the terms.

    I so desperately WISH more schools were both democratic and free — I try to make my own classroom model those concepts as much as possible but, other than advocate advocate advocate, there’s not much I can do about the larger school culture.

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