Is education a human right?

Last week my class went to see Salman Khan speak about Khan academy and universal education. My students enjoyed it. Education policy is a priority for a number of them. They said as much when I asked what they would like President Obama to accomplish in his second term.  They are particularly interested in moving away from the school-as-factory model of education, and figuring out how we can accommodate students’ individual learning styles, paces, and strengths while still providing mass education (although, as a lot, my students seem fiscally conservative and not keen on solving such problems through increased expenditure).  The Khan academy creatively uses technology toward the end of individualized learning.

The end of Khan’s presentation crescendoed with the main argument of his book, education is a human right and we need to work toward actualizing delivery mechanisms that can ensure this right.  The mental image I had as I absorbed his assertion was of Bolivians marching in the streets protesting the privatization of Bolivia’s water resources. This was a result of IMF backed austerity measures to privatize all of Bolivia’s publicly owned resources.  The attempt to privatize water was foiled when Bolivians revolted against legislation that would have made it illegal to collect rainwater.  If access to education is a right, then how about access to water?

I’m always wary of the assertion that X is a human right.  Human rights is one of those empty categories like terrorism. Its cachet effect has allowed it to represent everything and nothing simultaneously. I have not arrived at this conviction lightly. I arrived at if after hearing both Maoists and state forces who fought in Nepal’s civil war defend their own actions on the basis of protecting human rights and dismiss the opposite side’s actions as violating human rights.  I arrived at it after teaching an anthropology course on human rights in which my students could not even agree which should take priority as human rights: social, cultural, political, or economic rights—even after we had been reading and discussing the topic for twelve weeks. Their lack of consensus was not due to any deficiency on their part. How could a group of fourteen undergrads forge consensus over an issue that has been intractable amongst sovereign nation-states since the universal declaration of human rights was adopted in 1948? Rather, their final class discussion demonstrated that they understood the underlying tenants of the human rights debate. What is considered a human right is contingent on: time period, political priorities, and socio-cultural context. And then even after negotiating all these contingencies, the exercise and protection of rights must to be translated from an abstract ideal into practice, practice that in our neo-liberal times must be measurable in outputs and outcomes. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not dismissing rights based claims. I just think that the claim making often tells us more than the claim itself.  What is the context in which this right is being asserted?  Why does it resonate?

In the class following Khan’s talk, I asked my students if they felt education is a human right.  Most of them said yes.  And so I pushed them, asking, has this always been the case. What is it about our socio-economic system that has made education an imperative? We have been learning about the youth experience in the last few decades (what social scientists refer to as late capitalist modernity). Young people have more options than their parents may have had but there is more risk, too. In the transition from an industrial to knowledge economy, education has become an imperative.  Education is as much a survival technique as farming was in the agrarian economy. In that era, the necessity for agricultural knowledge would not have been framed in terms of human rights; however, it served the same role. It was important to individual and communal survival and prosperity.

This of course led us to discuss what knowledge comprises education. (Another thing that I’m always pushing them on, what counts as Knowledge, with a capital K, and what does not). Khan was not discussing just any education, but he specifically focuses on STEM education. Granted, I’m sure he recognizes that education goes beyond the quantitative, hard sciences; however, these are his focus. From the human rights argumentation, this needs to be unpacked.  To survive and prosper in the neo-liberal economy one must participate in the market. What knowledge does the market require? At its basis it requires math and science skills.  All other skills and products will be translated into the quantitative transactions of the market. And thus, (STEM) education is a human right in the sense that it is the imperative basis that everyone—from a third-world farmer, to a derivatives trader, to a mime—needs in order to survive and prosper in the market.

I found Khan’s views on education interesting. He is trying to address the challenges of our education system (good riddance to factory model education) and the social justice component of his mission, universal access to education, can’t be overlooked. Nonetheless, it reinforces the neoliberal reality; we all must participate in the market to survive and prosper. So my question is, if STEM education is a necessity (or human right), does this mean that qualitative and aesthetic knowledge are ancillary, and thus, privileges?

Khan also made me rethink a very entrenched idea I have about myself; I’m not a math person.  Perhaps I could be with the right learning tools at my disposal, working with them at my own pace. I promised myself that if I am ever bed-ridden or incarcerated for an extended period with internet access, then I’ll challenge this notion of myself by working through the Khan academy’s math tutorials. Really, Khan academy is a great resource, especially for you folks who are struggling to guide your children with their math and science homework or want to revisit what type of person you are.

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2 Responses to “Is education a human right?”

  1. Amanda Snellinger May 3, 2013 at 11:05 am #

    To add to the points I raise here I encourage people to look at the UC San Jose State Philosophy Department’s open letter explaining why they are refusing to offer Harvard Professor Sandel’s MOOC course “Justice” and Sandel’s response. The commentary to the Chronicle of Ed’s coverage is interesting. This is a very important debate that needs to be public and include all sectors of the society, because ultimately, how we balance the costs of higher education, provide as much access as possible, and maintain universities as places of cutting edge knowledge production affect all of us and reflect what type of society we are choosing to become.

  2. Abhishek Bhattarai April 24, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    Though content and process of courses might be designed by those in power, capitalists in case of capitalist system, there is still the need to access to basic education for all people though after school level economy will start determining who gets what and how much education (it is done in so subtle manner that people do not recognize this coercive force).

    In neo liberal times it is sad to see that voting once in five years is normally the sole determinant of democracy and human rights. This definition of democracy prevalent especially in my country Nepal and similar others is the most effective weapon used by the rulers to oppress the masses.

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