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Is Education A Right (Or A Privilege)?: A Speculative Essay

Updated on December 10, 2015
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.



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 You are allowed to have one if you follow all the necessary rules, but the privilege may be withdrawn by the state if you breach these rules.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.

Situational Rights-In-Practice

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.


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      8 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Good Day Lady_E

      Thank you for commenting on my unworthy hub. So college isn't free in the UK anymore? I see this as what is sometimes referred to as the unfortunate Americanization of social democratic European political/economic order.

      We are agreed that college education should be a right (fully tax-supported), and that was my conclusion in working out my amateurish Right-In-Practice/Rights-In-Theory puzzle; I particularly think so (sticking to what I know best the United States) in this precarious economic environment seems to be eroding more and more of its industrial manufacturing base.

      Yada, yada, yada. Thanks for the read.

      Take it easy.

    • Lady_E profile image


      8 years ago from London, UK

      You've certainly given us food for thought. I personally think Education is a Right, but for those who are not financially well off - it's a priviledge and I'm not just referring to poor countries.

      In UK, University Students Graduate into debt. They have to pay back their student loans. Things are getting so tight right now with the new Coalition Government making drammatic cuts - which will mean some might not be able to afford UNI. It then becomes a privilege.

      I like your style of writing.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      8 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Good Day cwarden

      Thank you for commenting on my unworthy hub! Yes, the issue is a complex one. The basic question is: Do we want to restructure society in such a way that a college degree is possible for literally every single one (the structure of society itself forbids universal college education, as you know)? Or do we want to restructure society in such a way that a college degree is not necessary for a dignified life?

      Listen, thanks for stopping by and posting a comment. And thank you also for paying the honor of the "follow." I hope I do not disappoint.

    • cwarden profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      This hub is excellent! A very important topic in these times and you put out quite a message for all of us to discuss. Thank you.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      8 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Good Day eilander1542011

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my unworthy hub. I must thank you also, because I've noticed you joined my "fan club," I guess they call it. Thank you for honoring in that way. I hope I do not disappoint.

      I fully agree with and endorse your remarks, in general, which are an illustration of the nature of the power structure in America. There is a sociologist called William Domhoff who made a thorough study of this. You can watch an extended, ninety-minute interview on YouTube on an old show called Alternative Views, which was a public access cable public affairs, originally broadcast out of Texas. The interview is called "Who Rules America?" Its absolutely fascinating and enlightening.

      They also draw conclusions about how this power structure can most effectively be opposed. There is also an online summary of his book, "Who Rules America," which you might also find interesting. I would also recommend the free online book by economist Dean Baker called "The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the State to Stay Rich and Get Richer." Truly illuminating!!

      Listen, thanks again for stopping by and I hope we get the chance to dialogue about this and other matters.

      Take Care, Man! :D

    • eilander1542011 profile image


      8 years ago from Everywhere

      Great hub wingedcentaur! Very well-developed and thought out. It is sad how uneducated we are as a society these days. It can be attributed to many reasons and causes, and this is certainly one of them. It is becoming increasingly harder for the lower classes to survive. It sounds like an extinction plot to me. Corporate bigwigs trying to squeeze the life out of the lowest class so the rest will fall even more in line, and drive the machine even more relentlessly.

      I agree wholeheartedly that we need to formulate plans and push them on our government. Our political leaders have been hijacked form us, and we need to take them back. Ours is a government for the people, not the corporations, so let us fix things ourselves if they want to turn on us.


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