Sunday, September 2, 2007

Educating the World

QUESTIONS: In your opinion, is the "right to education" a basic human right? Why or why not? In your opinion, is open "access" to free, high-quality educational opportunity sufficient, or is it necessary to "mandate" education through a certain age or level?

Is the right to education a basic human right? I do not believe that there is a simple answer to this. First of all, what are human rights? And then I have to question the concept of education and what it could mean when used in the same sentence with human rights.

Tomasevski assumes that we all know what human rights are, as if there should be no question about the definition. Having been raised in the United States, but also having lived in various other countries, the definition is not so obvious to me. The rights I have come to expect as a human in my own country cannot be assumed when I travel into a different country. Even the human rights I have come to expect in my own country have not, and still do not, extend to all of its citizens. So I ask, how can there be human rights defined and expected across the world when we cannot even recognize or secure them in our own country? But even more, one countries definition of human rights may defile the cultural and social expectations of another country. Who has the right to define others rights?

In the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are these words: “...recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…” What struck me, as I read the last few words, and peace in the world, was the feeling that if we were all the same there would be peace. The entire declaration seems to be about making everyone comply to sameness, or a general rule. But the world is made up of so many different cultures, so many different ways of life that I feel it is wrong to seek compliance in this way.

Which brings me to the word education as a human right. I have given much thought to the design of courses and how to make them culturally sensitive to the audience. One cannot strip culture from a course. The person designing it is immersed in culture, to the point of blindness. And the designer cannot be expected to know or understand every culture that it might reach and thus design accordingly. I am aware of the prejudices and cruelties laced in teaching that Tomasevski speaks about. We react in horror to hear how people are maligned in a language course, or that a math class can also teach genocide. Education has been used to indoctrinate or beat students into submission. I abhor any such use of teaching. But I have reservations about a general definition of education that is not sensitive to the culture. Too often our need to help is not help at all, but pushing our own beliefs into places where they don’t belong.

Tomesevski uses emotionally provoking words that on the surface I can buy into: Education unlocks the key to other human rights; you cannot have the right to education without also having rights within education; parents do not hold their children’s rights or recognize that children are the subject of the right to education.

I am not against the ideas that claim education as a human right but I can’t help but have reservations. Mandating anything, even primary education, or arbitrarily assigning a certain level or age does not address individual needs. Each country and each family must have the right to choose what is best for them, otherwise human rights are violated for the sake of human rights. The powerful need to reserve judgment, be cautious, and recognize when enforcement steps across cultural boundaries.

Access. Access to education. Access to education that is free and of a high quality. I am all there. How to carry it out is another thing. Mandating anything like this cannot work unless there is support. But there are problems. If there is support it seems to end up being used for meetings and overhead that do not spiral down to the intended. Or it is used to build buildings which then require furniture and security, again, to the neglect of the intended. If access is created, for instance internet in small villages, destruction or theft is possible. According to Tomesevski, cost is usually not even the reason for denying access. The denied are excluded because of gender, or lack of identity papers. They might be refugees or from nomadic cultures. How do we then create access? I hope this class will be enlightening. There is still so much that needs to be done. And how do we create education that is of a high quality AND usable in all the many different places that it might end up? Maybe it is done case by case, maybe someone has figured this out – but I think it is still in the hopper, awaiting a solution.