Is Education A Right (Or A Privilege)?: A Speculative Essay
Once again I want to look at a question brought up in one of the forums. What we are trying to work out, there, is: Is education a right (or privilege -- my inclusion). I should say first that I am not speaking in constitutional terms. I'm not making the claim that an education is constitutionally guarenteed beyond a certain number of years in free public school. What I am interested in is: Should a pre-K through four-year college degree, at least, be legally guaranteed by American society.
I should make it clear that I am aiming this inquiry at America because that is the cultural framework in which I am approaching the question, because I am an American. My inquiry is also aimed at America because it is my understanding that many other countries in the industrialized world, and even some countries in the so-called developing world, have a somewhat more generous public subsidy for their citizens seeking a 'higher' education, one beyond high school.
So, we are defining the idea of rights in a moral (in the 'there ought to be a law') sense. So the idea of whether education IS a right will flow from the idea of whether of not I believe it should be. 'Is' and 'should be' will be understood synonymously.
The philosophical technique I'm going to use to try to evaluate whether or not something should be considered a right is what I think of as negation. Is something is merely a privilege then its negation (not having this thing) should have neutral consequences for people. No negative consequences should follow the person(s) who are not given x thing.
If a thing 'Is'/'Should be' a right then its negation will cause harm to people, leave them vulnerable or seriously disadvantged.
For example, in theory a driver's license is a privilege not a right. We think of a driver's license (and therefore a car) as something optional, that one is not required to have. You are allowed to have one if you follow all the necessary rules, but the privilege may be withdrawn by the state if you breach these rules.
We have 'freedom of speech' in America. In theory we can say that this is a right because its negation is thought to do harm to people. The negation of the freedom of speech is not thought to be neutral in its consequences for individuals. The negation of the freedom of speech is thought (in theory anyway) to bring about political disenfranchisement -- not a good thing in a democracy for obvious reasons, yes? On the 'Is'/'Should be' scale (even if it wasn't formally recognized in the constitution), then, the freedom of speech is a 'right,' at least to my way of thinking.
Rights-In-Practice Versus Rights-In-Theory
Many people, believe it or not, think of the United States as a formal democracy as opposed to a 'functional democracy.' By this (am I'm thinking of Noam Chomsky's assessment) they mean that beneath the impressive forms of democracy that we have in America, the internal machinery of it does not function very well.
For example, in theory anyone who is a suitable age may run for public office. Formally speaking there is nothing preventing you (whoever you may be) or me from running for mayor or governor or president. As long as we aren't convicted felons and we are thirty-five years of age or older, we may run for any public office in the land. This is an example of what I mean by Rights-In-Theory.
So nothing is stopping anyone from running for any public office in the United States of America. There's just one thing: you better have hundreds of millions of dollars and/or access to people who are willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on your campaign. Therefore the vast majority of Americans do not have the Right-In-Practice to run for political office.
This is what I am talking about. I am interested in Rights-In-Practice. I want to know if a four-year college education an 'Is/'Should be' Right-In-Practice, such that its negation causes seriously harmful consequences for people; or is a four-year college education merely a privilege such that its negation brings neutral consequences, making such an education effectively optional.
Let's go back to the drvier's license again. If you live in New York City, which is very crowded and jammed together, with public transportation more than readily available, one can be forgiven for thinking of the driver's license and a car as privileges. This is because the negation has neutral consequences for the person involved. One can easily get around in New York City without ever even learning how to drive, if one wishes.
Not having a driver's license and a car does not have any harmful consequences for the individual. Remember, we're talking about Rights-In-Practice, as we have already defined the term. In New York City a driver's license and a car (if one can afford it) are effective and practical privileges.
But suppose you live in Los Angeles, which is also a huge city, much more spread out, and not a whole lot of public transportation. It seems to me that the situation looks somewhat different. Having a driver's license and a car is more than a privilege, it is a necessity. Furthermore, not having a driver's license and a car (the negation) is actually harmful to the individual. One is not able to go to work, school, and generally move around effectively. It would be hard to live in Los Angeles without a car (for us, in this hub, the instinctive response of 'Well, then you shouldn't live there' is not satisfactory).
Therefore I would say that (in the 'Is/'Should be' a right) sense, having a driver's license and a car is a right in Los Angeles and a privilege in New York City.
Let Us Return To The Matter Of College Education (Is It A Right Or Privilege?)
So, that is the test. Does the negation of a thing bring about harmful consequences to people or neutral consequences. Every single one of the Bill of Rights are rights in the Rights-In-Practice sense, because the negation of anyone of them is seen to bring about negative, harmful consequences for people.
Look at the second amendment, which is so controversial. We do know that at the time it was written, it was seen as vital to the self-protection of citizens against foreign or illegitimate coercion from a foreign or illegitimate source. It was thought that the negation of that 'right' renderd people intolerably physically vulnerable.
My answer, therefore, to this question (Is a college educaton a right?) is this: today, in America, given the structure of the economy (neoliberalized globalization, deindustrialization, financialization, offshoring, conversion of the economy of one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumes, etc), we are a society that concentrates very much so on financial, legal services, etc. Unionization is at an all-time low due to the relentless assault on them by Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush (Bush 41).
The period of 1945 (the end of World War Two) to about 1975 was what many refer to as a 'Golden Age' of American capitalism. Remember, American industry had no competitors. Why? Because those industrialized countries that might have competed with America were destroyed and needed many, many years to rebuild -- and they had to do this by buying American stuff!
Trade Unionization was relatively high, which meant the workers were relatively strong politically (but it must be said that by world standards, the American workers were ALWAYS comparatively weak). American workers in the manufacturing industries enjoyed comfortable middle class lifestyles without college degrees. Therefore, I would say that the negation (of having a college education) would have had relatively neutral consequences, and so I am tempted to say that a college degree during this period was more of a privilege. Not having one didn't plunge Americans into desperation.
Today we're looking at something different, aren't we? One cannot enjoy a secure middle class lifestyle without a college degree. Not only that, but not having a college degree makes one vulnerable to having to work two or three jobs in order to try (mostly unsuccessfully) to make ends meet. You know all the statistics, so we needn't rehash them here. I would say, in these circumstances, a college degree is a right (Right-In-Practice), in that its negation brings about actually harmful consequences for people.
I'm going to leave it there. I hope I've given us something to think about. This hub is far from complete. There are so many questions we have to address as a society. If we wish to leave the economy structured this way, what obligation does government have to provide for a college education for all its citizens who want one? What is to be done about the rising costs of college? Do we want to restructure the economy, broaden out the manufacturing base, so that having a college degree is not such a matter of desperation? (Such a situation would render a college degree more of a privilege again).
Thank you for reading. Let's go out with this.