Is Education a Human Right?

How did you celebrate Constitution Day this year?

Wagner College sponsored a few events in honor of the day, observed on September 17, the day the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1787. (Happy belated 225th birthday, Uncle Sam!) Since 2005, all educational institutions that receive federal funding must hold “an educational program pertaining to the United States Constitution on September 17 of each year,” says the U.S. Department of Education.

At Wagner College, we gladly complied — after all, educating the community about the U.S. Constitution fits right into our civic-minded mission. And what better timing than an election year! Several organizations, including the student government and the College Democrats and Republicans, sponsored a voter registration drive, luring students in with fun facts about the Constitution and a Founding Fathers photo booth.

Yet there's a certain irony in the fact that educational institutions have become the main venues celebrating Constitution Day, as I learned from a faculty panel held over the lunch hour. That's because education itself, even though it is widely considered very basic social good and function of our government, is never mentioned in the Constitution.

Four members of the education faculty challenged a packed room of students to think about these questions: Should we have a right to an education? And, if so, why are we educating — is the purpose of education job preparation and individual economic opportunity, development of a person's potential in a more holistic sense, or improvement of our society as a whole?Faculty panel on the right to an education

Professor Stephen Preskill pointed out that FDR included “a good education” in his proposed “Second Bill of Rights” outlined in 1944, and that several major United Nations documents on human and child rights have described education as a universal right. The only two nations that have not ratified the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which affirms the right of children to a good education, are Somalia and the United States, putting us into some interesting company.

Professor Karen De Moss, newly appointed chair of the Wagner education department, ran through a history of the legal fight to improve educational equality among America's public schools by establishing equal funding for all schools within each state — a fight that seems not to have worked. Professor David Gordon painted a picture of what this inequality in funding looks like for educational access, using the example of the number of hours of home or hospital instruction a chronically ill child can expect to receive; it varies from one hour to 10 hours per week, depending on the state. And Professor Jason Fitzgerald finished up with some insights into the polarities competing to define why we educate in the U.S.: Is it to develop the whole child? Is it to provide a job credential?

It was a very interesting discussion, and it sent me back to the U.S. Constitution itself. With admiration, I read through the sleek, decisive, efficient text. Its preamble seemingly covers any social good for all ages: How can we the people “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” without providing all people access to a good education?

But in the midst of all our wrangling over what should be taught, how schools should be funded, how teachers and students should be evaluated, maybe it would be useful to have an equally sleek, decisive, efficient statement outlining our commitment to equal education for all, and defining the very heart and purpose of what we are trying to do in this thing we call education.

The Wagner College Department of Education, at any rate, recommends such an effort.

— Laura Barlament, Editor, Wagner Magazine, laura.barlament@wagner.edu

Photos by Anna Mulé

Having Fun with the Founding Fathers Photobooth

Partying like it's 1787 on Constitution Day 2012

September 18, 2012