There Is No "Right" to an Education
The tenth (and last) in a series . . .
We come now to the end of our 10-part series of essays on education and rights. Thank you for following along and staying with me as I try to unravel the twisted knot that is the issue of parents’ and children’s rights, particularly as it relates to education.
I have been moving slowly, methodically, and logically through this extraordinarily complicated topic. All of the essays thus far have been building on one another and toward the penultimate question: Who shall educate the children?
The “what shall our children learn” and “how shall they learn it” questions are, though important, secondary to the “who” question. But, as we shall see, the “what” and “how” questions actually delimit and control the “who” question.
I have established in previous essays that the answer to the “who shall educate the children?” question is indubitably the parents or guardians. This means that parent’s and only parents have the moral right (a right grounded in man’s metaphysical nature) to determine in what and how their children are to be educated. No one else should have this authority.
The government has no moral “right” to educate children that any right-thinking person should respect. It should be absolutely clear now that it would be unconscionably immoral for a government to assume the authority to educate children.
But it turns out that the “who” question is actually co-dependent on another question that is equally if not more fundamental: Do children have a right to an education?
If children have a rights-claim against their parents to be educated, that right will surely have some bearing on the “what” and “how” questions, which means that it could potentially be in conflict with a parent’s right to determine the cognitive content of their children’s minds.
Once again, we’re caught in a thorny thicket of problems and questions. Let’s step back for a moment and view how the issue of a child’s right to an education has been viewed over time.
A Quick History of a Child’s “Right” to an Education
Virtually all conversations today about education in the United States and around the world assume that children have a fundamental right to an education.
But where did this “right” come from?
Interestingly, you won’t find this alleged right mentioned in the writings of the philosophic proponents of the natural-rights philosophy (e.g., John Locke), for instance, nor will you find it listed as a fundamental right in any of the documents of the American founding.
The “right” to an education was first proposed—at least theoretically—by a tradition of socialist thinkers beginning in the late nineteenth century, but its first major proclamation came in 1948 when the United Nations announced to the world in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory (Article 26, item 1, emphasis added).”
Since then, most developed nations around the world have accepted the United Nation’s assertion without question.
In the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union has sanctioned the U.N.’s declaration: “All kids living in the United States have the right to a free public education. And the Constitution requires that all kids be given equal educational opportunity no matter what their race, ethnic background, religion, or sex, or whether they are rich or poor, citizen or non-citizen.”
Curiously, though, neither the Constitution of the United States (including the Bill of Rights) nor its Supreme Court recognize a “right” to an education. In 1973, the SCOTUS in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 announced that it did not find a constitutional right to an education in the Constitution. This means that, according to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, individuals do not have a federally-recognized right to an education, nor does the federal government have any direct power over education in the United States.
While every state constitution in the U.S. establishes a government school system, not a single state constitution or bill of rights declares that education is a right. At most, the Florida constitution says that education is a “fundamental value,” but a value is a policy goal which is very different than a fundamental right.
If children have a right to a “free” education (and let’s assume for the moment they do), the questions then become: against whom do they have this claim, who shall deliver and guarantee this rights-claim, and who shall enforce the claim?
By the standard of the United Nations, the answer to this question is obvious: “society”—society via the government must satisfy the “right” of children to an education. In other words, everyone has a rights-claim against “society” to an education, which means in practice that government (the surrogate for “society”) must have the authority and power to guarantee this right through taxation and compulsory attendance laws.
There are, of course, different ways in which this “right” to an education can be satisfied via the government.
For instance, following the model of some European nations, all children could be given a government voucher or a tuition tax credit to be used at a private school. Under this system, there would be no government schools, but every child would be guaranteed their “right” to an education by taxpayers via the government. (For more on this approach, see Robert Tracinski’s essay “A European Solution for Our School Wars.”)
By contrast, a second approach to guaranteeing a child’s “right” to an education is the one used in countries such as the United States and Canada, which provides children with a guaranteed a “right” to a free education via taxpayer funded government schools. Families may opt-out of the government school system, but they must bear the full financial cost in addition to paying their taxes for the government schools.
The former option, while violating the rights of taxpayers, would leave parents the right and freedom to choose where and how to educate their children via the private education sector. The latter option is clearly the most rights-violating because 1) it violates the rights of taxpayers who are forced to pay for the education of someone else’s children; 2) it violates the rights of parents by effectively denying them the ability to give their children the kind of education they most value; and 3) it violates the rights of parents and children vis-à-vis compulsory attendance laws.
Why Conservatives are Totally Useless on the Question of Education
The claim that all children have a “right” to an education is clearly embedded in America’s government school system. It’s the fundamental moral premise undergirding the whole structure. Without this foundation, the case for government schooling would collapse.
Not surprisingly, conservatives and Republicans have bought into entirely into the claim that children have an inalienable right to an education, which means three things: first, they accept the government school system as morally legitimate, which means they share a fundamental moral premise with the Left; second, they can never offer a fundamental critique of the government schools that goes to the root of the matter, which means they can only trim at the edges; and third, they can only be “reformists” and only then in theory but never in practice because they will never—ever—control the government schools.
The claim that children have a right to an education has a powerful emotional appeal behind it, but that’s all it has. It has no basis in reality or reason. Sadly, though, it’s a show-stopping claim for most people. Republicans can only stutter and stammer when asked the question, do children have a right to “public” education?
No conservative or Republican would ever dare suggest that children do not have a right to an education, which means the education wars will always be won by the Left because they hold the moral high ground and they control the Education Deep State (i.e., the federal and state departments of education, the so-called “ed” schools, the teachers’ unions, school board associations, textbook publishers, accrediting bodies, etc.).
The same is true, by the way, with the issue of health care. Republicans have no moral argument against socialized medicine because they’ve bought entirely into the Left’s claim that all Americans (humans) have a “right” to health care. As with the education issue, conservatives and Republicans can only argue that they can better deliver education or health care at a lower cost!
Despite the fact that America’s government school system is in a state of intellectual, moral, and demographic collapse, nothing meaningful can be done about it because the second anyone suggests obvious never mind radical solutions to the crisis, the Education Establishment plays the “rights”-card, which ends the conversation and Republicans go back to their pacifiers and sippy cups.
And it is for this reason that we must rethink the fundamental moral premise behind government schooling. This is why we must re-open the question as to whether children have a “right” to an education, free or otherwise.
A Few Redneck Questions
Per the Redneck method of philosophizing, let’s take seriously for the moment the assertion of the United Nations that “everyone” has a “right” and subject it to some obvious questions. I have a long list of questions here, but I really do want to you to read and think about each question.
What could it possibly mean to say that “everyone” has a right to an education? Does this mean that every human being, regardless of age, has a right to an education? Does that mean that an illiterate tribal elder in the Sudan has a rights-claim to be educated against his village, district, state, and national governments or even against the United Nations?
What could it possibly mean to say that “everyone” has a right to a “free” education? But since “free” does not grow on trees, who shall pay for this “free” education if the parents of those children being educated do not? What moral obligation do childless taxpayers, homeschooling parents or parents who send their child to a private school, have to pay for the education of someone else’s child? And who shall pay for the educations of those children who live in poor countries that do not provide “free” education for their children? Does a child living in a small village in Zaire have a moral claim to be educated on a rancher living in eastern Wyoming? Should there not be a “global” tax administered by the U.N. to ensure that “everyone” in the world is educated? And why should this “free” education for “everyone” be limited to elementary-school-aged children? Why shouldn’t there be “free” education for high school or college or university?
What does it mean to say that the “free” education to which “everyone” has a right shall be “compulsory”? What exactly does “compulsory” mean in this context? How shall compulsion (presumably government compulsion in the form of physical coercion) be used against children or parents who choose not to obey laws mandating government schooling? Should non-compliant children be absconded from their homes and given over to Child Protection Services? Shall non-compliant parents be fined or arrested? Does “compulsory” mean that all education shall be government schooling? What happens to parents who homeschool their children or send them to a private school? Should home and private schooling be banned?
To what sort of “free” “education” does “everyone” have a right? What exactly is meant by education? Is this education right simply a right to learn the 3 R’s? But what about history, literature, science, mathematics (e.g., geometry, algebra, Calculus etc.), a foreign language? Shouldn’t children have a right to learn these subjects as well? And who exactly shall determine what subjects children have a right to learn?
And finally, we must inquire what the U.N. means when it asserts that “everyone” has a “right” to a “free,” “compulsory” “education”? What does the U.N. mean by a “right”? Is a “right” a right to some “thing”, that is, to some good or a service produced or provided by someone else? Is there a right to violate the rights of third parties? Where does this right to an education come from? Can it be validated philosophically or is it a “gift” bestowed by government?
These are just a few of the obvious questions raised by the U.N.’s Declaration of Universal Human Rights as it relates to education. But of course all of these questions suggest that the pronouncement of the United Nations that everyone has a right to a free and compulsory education is not only false but absurd. The questions can’t be answered without tying oneself up into an intellectual pretzel, or worse . . .
There Is No Right to an Education
Generally speaking, a rights-claim is not a right to “things” (i.e., to goods and services) but to freedom of action, which means the freedom from interference. The argument that one has a right to things, that is, to the product of another’s labor (mental or physical), is a grounded in a moral philosophy which says that individuals have moral obligations to sacrifice their lives and their fortunes for the sake of another man.
The idea that one man has a right to violate the rights of another is actually an abnegation of the principle of rights. It’s a contradiction in terms. No man (or child) has a right to impose an unchosen obligation on another without the other’s consent. The principle of rights imposes no moral obligations on other men other than to respect the freedom of others. To suggest otherwise would be to subvert the idea of rights.
Still, this issue is very complicated and can’t be dismissed quite so easily. Let’s back up and probe a little further.
Is it not the case that children have some kind of rights-claim to certain goods or services? Don’t children have a rights-claim to be nourished, clothed, and sheltered, and, if they do, couldn’t a claim be made that children have some kind of right to be educated?
Children are and must be the exception to the general definition of rights that we have established throughout this series of essays. The principle of rights does not quite apply to children in the same way that it does to adults. The rights-claims of children are considerably more complex than they are for adults.
As we’ve seen in earlier essays, children do not have the right to liberty in the way that an adult does, but surely they do have some kind of a rights-claims to certain things, such as food, clothing, and shelter. But how so?
A child’s right to liberty is held in abeyance by his or her parents, and the child’s right to be nourished, clothed, and sheltered is promised to the child as a right via a third-party beneficiary contract. (For a fuller discussion of third-party beneficiary contracts and their relation to children, see my last essay “Children’s Rights Defined and Defended.”) To be clear: a child’s right to be fed, clothed, and sheltered is morally and legally valid against only the child’s parents or guardians.
But what about education? Does a child have a rights-claim to be educated?
Again, using the Redneck methodology (i.e., an inductive approach that begins not by spinning intellectual cobwebs or building intellectual castles but by just looking out at the world and observing the day-to-day experiences of the multitude of people with whom we interact directly or indirectly), let’s cast aside all of our assumptions and prejudices and start with a simple question.
If children have a right to an “education,” the obvious first question is: to what kind of education do they have said right? Do they have a rights-claim to learn the 3 R’s, classical Greek, Latin, a modern language, history, geography, physics, biology, chemistry, literature, Calc 2, Geometry, economics, Critical Gender Theory, sex education, etc.?
And to what level of education do children have a rights? Do they have a right to an education up until the point where they can read, write, and calculate? Do they have a right to an education up through elementary, middle, or high school? Why not a right to a college education or to medical school?
And the natural follow up question is: who determines what kind and what level of education children shall receive?
These very simple questions demonstrate the absurdity of the idea that children have a right to an education, particularly a right to be satisfied by someone other than the child’s parents or guardians. Children do not have a universal right to an education provided by someone other than their parents or guardians.
Yes, you might think that education is vitally important for the lives of each and every child (which I do) and, yes, you might think that a well-educated citizenry is necessary to sustain a free society (which I do), but what you can’t do is to demonstrate philosophically that there is a “fundamental right” to an education. You can’t create an education “right” (which means a rights-claim on a third party) based on a whim or out of whole cloth. Every state constitution or bill of rights that establishes a government school system is simply stating a policy preference that is ultimately grounded in coercive force.
The claim that there is a general or fundamental “right” to an education is, to modify Jeremy Bentham’s famous quip about natural rights in general, “nonsense, nonsense upon stilts.” Such a claim has no foundation in nature or logic. It is founded not on man’s nature but on power. The claim that there is a “right” to an education is simply window dressing for a particular policy preference.
What all of this means, of course, is that the entire structure of government schooling in the United States is built on a philosophically illegitimate moral claim, which means that the edifice rests on philosophic quicksand. If this claim of a right to an education can be demonstrated to be false, then the whole structure of government-run education collapses.
The Rights-Claim of Children to Education
It should be clear by now that children do not have a general right to an education in the way that many people today speak of rights. Children do not have a rights-claim against “society” to be educated despite what the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says.
The proposition that children have a right to an education paid for by a third party is grotesquely immoral and it must be opposed.
That said, it is true that parents clearly have a moral and a legal responsibility to provide their children with some kind of an education in the same way that they have an obligation to feed, clothe, and shelter them, and it is also true that children have some limited rights-claim to be “educated” by their parents via the third-party beneficiary contract.
Defining exactly what this right is and how it ought to be protected, though, is a difficult task. All the questions that we’ve asked above relevant to government schooling can also be asked of parents.
What kind of an education do parents owe their children?
Let’s start with the negative case, i.e., with those cases where it can be said that a child’s right has been violated. It would clearly be a form of physical and cognitive abuse and therefore a rights violation for a child to be locked in a dark room for weeks, months, or years, preventing them from developing their conceptual faculty. Such action by the parents would be a criminal rights violation that would require the government to act as the child’s protector-agent and to rescue him and place him in some kind of protective care.
But it would not, however, be a violation of a child’s contractual right to be educated by his parents if the parents did not provide their child with a formal academic education (e.g., in Latin and Calculus) but instead provided him with an education in a particular kind of work (e.g., as a fisherman in Alaska or as a rancher in Texas or as a plumber in Maine).
Nor would it be a violation of the child’s contractual rights if the parents were homeschooling “unschoolers,” who choose not to teach their children how to read until the children show an interest in learning how to read. Some “unschooled” children, for instance, do not learn to read until after they are the age of 10 or 12, but surely we would not say that their moral right to be educated had been violated and that the government should swoop in and save them.
In other words, there is no right to a particular kind of education that must be provided by parents or guardians, and if there is no right to a particular kind of education then there can be no “right” to an education. At best, we can say that children do have moral and contractual rights-claim against their parents to be provided with the necessary cognitive means required for the normal development of their cognitive apparatus and rational faculties, which includes the acquisition of language and other forms of communication.
As we have seen, the application of the concept of individual rights to children is a difficult subject. Describing the precise conditions and drawing the exact boundaries of the parent–child relationship and the role that a rights-protecting government should play in protecting children should probably be left in theory to those who work in the philosophy of law and in practice to common law courts.
The government of a free society must never be involved in defining what constitutes a “good” education, or any kind of education for that matter. There should be a complete Separation of School and State. The government’s only legitimate role is to protect individuals from objectively identifiable rights violations, which can and sometimes will include protecting the rights of children from physical or cognitive child abuse. Otherwise, parents should be left free to provide for the education of their children.
Still, as difficult and as emotionally charged as the issue of children and education may be for some people, we must keep in mind that in a free and just society this would be a marginal issue. It is possible that in a free and moral society (one that respects and protects individual rights), a minuscule percentage of children might not receive a “good” (whatever that is) education (which might be a tragedy), but such a society would still be moral and just and the quality of education for most children would almost certainly improve dramatically. The alternative, of course, is a government-run education system where only a small minority of children receive a “good” education.
Contemporary experience and history demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that virtually all parents in a free society will take full responsibility for the education of their children (in varying degrees, of course) in the same way that they care for the physical health of their children.
Contrast that with a society that does not respect and protect individual rights in the name of a universal “right” to an education. The result is a society that is both immoral and unjust and that also fails to educate most children on a daily basis. We should not be surprised that a moral and just system leads to good results while an immoral and unjust system leads to bad results.
The conclusion before us is now obvious. A free, moral, and just society is one in which all individuals shall have the right and shall assume the responsibility for educating their own children.