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Education and the Rights of Children and Parents
The fourth in a series
This is the fourth in an ongoing series of essays on the general topic of rights and education, but it also serves as an introduction to the main essays still to come on the rights of children and parents.
To this point in the series, I have been setting the broader political and philosophic context for the essays that follow, which will examine how the principle of rights applies to children and parents. This essay therefore provides the transition from the first three essays to those which will do the philosophic heavy lifting on the question of children’s and parents’ rights.
My purpose in this essay is to first pause and sum-up our discussion of rights to this point, and then to lay the metaphysical groundwork for what will be an extended analysis of the rights of children and parents, particularly as they relate to the issue of education.
I have covered a lot of ground in the first three of this extended series of essays on rights and education, and so I think a quick summing up of the core arguments is in order before we plunge into deeper philosophic waters.
The first essay on “The Fundamental Issue of Our Time” is concerned with our present cultural and political discontents. The essay quickly surveys the recent grassroots rébellion des parents that has erupted in the last eight months or so over what is being taught (or not taught) in America’s government schools and the authoritarian reaction of the Education Deep State (i.e., the state and federal departments of education, teachers’ unions, the “ed” schools, school board associations, textbook and curriculum companies, and the National Security State) to these parental protests.
These debates and protests over COVID-connected school closings, online learning, mask and vaccine mandates, gender-neutral bathrooms, pedophilic pornography, and the teaching of Critical Race and Gender Theory have forced Americans of all ideological perspectives to consider what I think is the fundamental question of our time: Who should have the final right and authority to determine the nature of America’s schools and what is taught in them, parents or government officials? More precisely, the question is: Do parents have a fundamental right to determine how, in what, and by whom their children will be educated, or should government bureaucrats and teachers have that right?
All of the political-educational policy issues being debated today are really only window-dressing and dependent on these more elemental philosophic questions.
The second essay hones in on what really is the core question of this series, “Is There a Right to an Education?”. This essay goes deeper than the first to explore (but only in an introductory sort of way) the question of rights and education.
More specifically, the essay raises several fundamental philosophic questions: first, do children have a fundamental human right to a “free” education; second, do parents have a right to determine how, in what, and by whom their children will be educated; third, does the government have any kind of rights-claim to educate children; and, fourth, do taxpayers, particularly childless taxpayers or taxpayers who send their children to a private school or homeschool, have a right to opt out of paying for the education of someone else’s children?
The third essay in this series, on “The Role of Rights in a Free Society,” serves as a prolegomenon to any future rights-talk relative to children, parents, and the question of education. More to the point, the essay examines how America’s founding generation understood what rights are, where they come from, and the role rights play in a free society. We need a good understanding of what rights are before we can consider how the principle can be applied to children and their parents relative to the issue of education.
This third essay shows how American revolutionaries developed and understood the principle of “rights” as derived from the requirements of human nature. The founders’ viewed rights as legal claims grounded in three fundamental facts of the human condition: first, that human flourishing is dependent upon men acting on their judgment; second, that freedom is a precondition for thinking, judging, and acting; and, third, that the only thing that can prevent individuals from acting on their judgment is the predatory use of physical force (including theft, fraud, extortion, etc.) against them by other men or governments.
A right is therefore a claim—a claim to that which is necessary and proper for individuals to live and to live well. Such a claim, however, is only valid in the context of civil society. The claim is defined and sanctioned in civil society in the form of a legal principle that must be recognized by the members of that society and protected by the government.
And what function or purpose is served by a rights-based legal system?
Man’s rights or the rights of nature recognize, sanction, and protect individual spheres of freedom in a social milieu (i.e. by criminalizing predatory behavior); and they serve as a moral-social ordering mechanism (i.e., by encouraging voluntary and peaceful social relations).
In the American context, the Declaration of Independence announced man’s fundamental rights of nature (i.e., life, liberty, [property], and the pursuit of happiness), and the United States Bill of Rights (and all the state bills of rights) defined, sanctioned, instantiated, and protected certain civil rights (e.g., the right to freedom of religion, speech, assembly, and petition, to bear arms, to jury trials, to security from unreasonable searches and seizures, to be secure against double jeopardy in criminal trials, to due process of law, to a speedy trial by jury, etc.) from the arbitrary predations of the government.
The primary purpose of rights is, therefore, to open, expand, and protect human freedom as men associate with one another in civil society. As a result, there is no right to violate rights.
How to Think About the Question of Children’s and Parents’ Rights
With our reality-based definition of man’s rights set firmly in place, we can now begin to apply our understanding of what rights are to the corollary instances of children and parents. Our primary questions are these:
1) What are the rights of children and do they have a right to an education?
2) What are the rights and responsibilities of parents relative to their children?
Related to these questions are two more:
1) What “rights” or authority does the government have relative to the education of children?
2) Do all citizens, whether they have children or not, have a moral duty to pay for the education of someone else’s children?
To answer these questions (which I will do in succeeding essays), we must first consider the metaphysical facts of reality and the specific moral conditions from which the rights and responsibilities of children and parents arise.
My goal here is not to recapitulate some theory of rights as discussed in a philosophic or academic book on the subject. Instead, I’ve tried to think long and hard about what I have observed or experienced in the world either directly or vicariously, and I’ve also relied on my knowledge of history and what I’ve learned about the human condition from books, magazines, movies, TV, the news, etc.
Based on these observations and integrations, I have attempted to determine what choices, actions, and moral principles are necessary and therefore right relative to children and their parents.
My goal is to indicate how the rights of children and parents are derived from a moral code that is grounded in the reality of the human condition. My approach is therefore observation-based and inductive.
The Metaphysical Foundations for the Rights (and Responsibilities) of Children and Parents
In order to understand how the principle of rights applies to children and their parents, we must consider certain fundamental facts of the human condition that provide the necessary foundation for thinking correctly about this complex topic.
The first fundamental fact defining how the concept “rights” applies to children and to their parents is the unique moral and social context in which children are created—that is, a two-step process defined by a series of moral choices.
Step one: the act of procreation resulting in the birth of a new human being is the consequence of a chosen act. Two individuals—one man and one woman—choose to engage in sexual relations that may result in the creation of a fetus/child. Copulation always has the potential to create a new life unless one or both parties to the act are infertile. This is an irreducible fact of human life.
Another irreducible fact of human life is that either party engaged in the act of copulation can “just say ‘no’” prior to the act as difficult as that may sometimes be. Whether one actually intends to create a child or not is irrelevant. (Rape is an exception since the act is not mutually chosen.) Whether the parents made a conscious decision to create or even ultimately wanted a child is irrelevant once the woman has given birth and the parents claim the child as theirs.
The critical fact of reality is that the child was the foreseeable result of their mutually chosen actions.
The act of procreation is therefore much more than just a simple physical act; it is a moral (or an immoral) act precisely because it is a volitional act. And with that choice and act come, as we shall see in succeeding essays, certain rights and responsibilities.
Step two: even more important than the choice to procreate is the decision to carry a fetus to term and to bring a new human being into the world. This is the fundamental metaphysical fact that defines the nature of parenthood and its subsequent rights and responsibilities. This is the moment when one or both parents claim the child as theirs or give it up for adoption.
A man and a woman may or may not explicitly or consciously intend to create a child, but they absolutely do choose to bring the child into the world and keep it. Whether one thinks abortion is or is not immoral is beside the point. It is simply a fact that pregnancies can be terminated even in those places where abortion is illegal. It is also a social fact that children can be given up for adoption. (Adoption creates a whole new series of problems with regard to the question of rights that I cannot take up in this series of essays.)
What cannot be changed or denied, however, is that the choice to bring a child into the world creates a new series of rights and responsibilities (to be discussed later in the series) that did not exist prior to the child’s birth.
The second fundamental fact crucial to identifying, defining, and sanctioning the rights of children and their parents is the unique metaphysical condition that defines childhood.
This condition is characterized by three essential qualities:
1) that each and every child (whether it be a newborn, a toddler, or a minor) is a metaphysically unique and distinct being;
2) that children are born without any means of independent survival, which means that they are in a state of total dependence on their parents or other adults for an extended period of years; and,
3) that a child’s physical and mental state of being changes radically over a relatively short period of time from a state of total dependence to one of partial dependence/independence, and ultimately to a state of full, self-governing independence.
In sum, a newborn child is a metaphysically distinct being that is temporarily dependent on its parents or some other adults during that period of childhood in which the child’s body and conceptual faculty are developing.
With these facts of nature now established, we can examine more closely the rights of children and parents and how both are connected to government. More on this next week.
 The founders’ view of rights was summed up best in Ayn Rand’s definition of what rights are: “A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” See “Man’s Rights” in The Virtue of Selfishness (1963).