OpenEd: Already dissembling on fundamentals

The questions that Professor Wiley poses for discussion to open the course seem straightforward enough, but I have found them vexing. I have to recognise that I don’t necessarily have a firm grip on some fairly fundamental issues.

I have to acknowledge that I don’t have a tight grasp on what a “basic human right” means. Jim goes into this question with characteristic zeal and insight, and with an attention to critical theory that I am unwilling and unable to match. Presumably, we are talking about something stronger than a “right to expect quality service for my money.” The power in a term such as “human rights” is that it implies a set of enduring, essential and perhaps universal laws that stand somehow apart and above the laws made by governments of the day.

But in reality, what weight do “basic human rights” carry? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is full of noble sentiment, yet the objectives are rarely met, even in wealthy, putatively democratic societies. We accept that rights may compete with one another, and rights are defined and redefined by all sorts of entities with their own interests. We often see rights recognised or ignored seemingly at the whim of those with power. I recall a conversation with a colleague, who said something like “people don’t care if they have a right to shelter, they just care if they have a roof over their heads.” About a year later, I don’t have a satisfactory response to that…

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration is concerned with education. Shortly after declaring “everyone has a right to education” comes the assertion that “Elementary education shall be compulsory.” Which brings us to the second question of the week — “is open access to free, high-quality educational opportunity sufficient, or is it necessary to mandate education through a certain age or level?” I share some of D’Arcy’s misgivings about how education can be misused. Canadians bear the shame of what government-mandated residential schools did to First Nations children. (As an aside, just this week stories of bizarre abuse emerged at an expensive private school in Canada.)

I am inclined to acknowledge those concerns yet endorse the idea of some kind of mandated education anyway. The tragedy of untapped human potential and the urgency of struggling against ignorance in its many forms works powerfully on me. The denial of education is as grave an abuse as anything likely to be perpetuated in education’s name. Then again I recognise, as Catia Harriman observes, universal education isn’t just a matter of building schools and passing laws, there is a broad and perhaps intractably complex set of related economic and social conditions that must also be addressed.

Perhaps I am overthinking this stuff. But I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t think that education was one of the very most vital concerns of the human race. If the appeal to basic human rights does not motivate us, an appeal to self-interest ought to suffice. Simply put, the ability for humans to share knowledge is necessary for survival in more ways than I could begin to catalogue. The provision of education has a clear connection to all sorts of benefits that enhance what we think of as “quality of life.” I cannot dismiss the critical concerns of those in the course who have written posts opposing compulsory education. I think educators have an obligation to subject assumptions and practices to relentless interrogation. But ultimately I fall back on what I suppose is a pragmatic impulse to get on with doing the best we can, and as much as we can. Doctors don’t let their inability to cure every ailment prevent them from trying to do their jobs, and the mission of educators is no less integral to human life.

I’ll confess I haven’t read all of my course-mates’ posts at this point, so I may need to follow up to account for ideas prompted by the ongoing discussion.

2 thoughts on “OpenEd: Already dissembling on fundamentals

  1. I thought the comment that “‘people don’t care if they have a right to shelter, they just care if they have a roof over their heads.'” was interesting. I too had thought through the issue of what a “right” really is.

    This also resonated with me in terms of the United State’s complete lack of providing its’ citizens a “right to education,” while having one of the world’s highest rates of universal compulsory free education. Does it matter that we don’t have a legal “right” to the same? To many people, on a day-to-day practical level, probably not. However, if we woke up one day and found the political tides turning toward a lack of free education, it would matter a great deal. Stranger things have happened I suppose. That’s one reason that Constitutionally-guaranteed rights are important.

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