This photograph, which appeared in the Providence Journal in the July 20th Sunday edition has been bugging me. In case you don’t feel like clicking the link, it’s of a group of college-age-looking folks marching down the street. Four of them are holding a sign that reads:
education is a right!
It was apparently taken from a documentary movie called Ivory Tower, about the state of higher education. Without looking into the movie (or the insinuation behind the letters “USSA”), the meaning of the assertion necessitates the question, What do they mean? If I assent to the proposition that “education is a right,” what, exactly am I agreeing to?
In terms of the founding documents of the United States, a right is something that cannot be taken away. It isn’t something that others must provide to an individual. A right to life doesn’t mean that every American must have free access to the most innovative technology that can preserve even a moment of life. A right to speech doesn’t mean that every American is entitled to a national podium for anything they might want to say. Rather, these are things that the government cannot actively prevent citizens from acquiring. If you’re alive or if you have a national podium, the government cannot act to take it away from you.
So what does it mean for education to be a right? Progressive activists mean that government schools have a right to confiscate money away in order to provide whatever educational opportunities they declare necessary.
Some activists seem to believe students have a right to absorb a certain amount of baseline information. This view is typically targeted at the institution of public schools, to force them to prove that they’re providing a baseline education and to invalidate practices (like teacher tenure) that prioritize something else at the expense of students. But a right to be imbued with knowledge would also imply a right to be forced to become educated, which doesn’t sound like what most people think of as “rights.”
It makes more sense — and will produce a better result, I’d argue — to understand education in the same way as life, speech, and the pursuit of happiness. We have a right not to have the government thwart us in our pursuit of education.
As a society, we also have a strong incentive to ensure individuals achieve their potential, so we should allocate public resources to the cause. However, the way we’ve been doing it, by setting up government school systems that have proven to be ineffective and unresponsive, can stand as a barrier to actual education, which is against students’ rights.