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Is Education a Right?

Updated on July 3, 2014

The Ultimate Cinematic Rebellion Against Compulsory Education

Is Education a Right?

Throughout our history, Americans have struggled with the question of what constitutes a human right What do people deserve by virtue of being human, and what are merely privileges reserved to those who have earned (or can afford) them? This is a core question in some of the most difficult political issues of our time, issues such as health care, welfare reform, homelessness, and education.

One of the first attempts to clarify the rights of Americans was the adoption of the Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments were an attempt to set limits on the newly formed, much more powerful national government that was created by the Constitution. These are essentially political and legal rights, with some amendments guaranteeing the rights of individuals to voice political dissent and most of the others ensuring that the government cannot indiscriminately arrest and punish people. Freedom of religion and the right to bear arms were also implemented in order to make sure that the government did not impose a certain belief system, aided by a monopoly on gun ownership.

What you have with the Bill of Rights, then, is a list of things that the government is not allowed to do, and I, like most Americans I assume, am glad that they are there. What you do not see in the Bill of Rights, however, is a list of things that the government is obligated to do. So the Constitution guarantees a right to freedom of speech, the press, religion, a fair trial, and gun ownership. It does not guarantee, however, a right to have food, a house, adequate health care, and an education. So if you were to ask most Americans to make a list of their most basic needs, they would find that there is no legal guarantee of being able to meet them.

When our country was formed, most Americans did not expect or really want the government to do very much. Government basically existed to maintain order, defend the nation, and lay the basic groundwork for a functioning economy - transportation, stable currency, communication, etc. Today, government at all levels takes on responsibilities that people in early American history could hardly imagine. The federal government provides various forms of aid with Social Security, provides medical insurance to the poor and elderly, and distributes various forms of financial aid and other benefits to the poor. State governments, in addition to contributing to this newly emerged “welfare state,” spend enormous amounts of money providing free and mandatory public education, something that was unheard of in early American history. In a sense, this paragraph has answered the question that I started with. Apparently, the people of the United States have come to the conclusion over time that Americans have a right to meet their basic human needs. Well, we have sort of come to this conclusion.

Compared to the majority of industrialized nations, the welfare state of the United States is still fairly limited. We are the only industrial nation that does not have a national health care system for all. The government will help you out if you are poor enough, old enough, or disabled, but if you do not fit these categories, and you work in a job that does not provide insurance, good luck. Even when (or if) the new health care bill goes into effect, millions will still be uninsured. Welfare benefits may be available, but they are generally more limited than those provided by other countries, and in recent years, welfare reform laws have set limits on how long a person can collect benefits. Our nation does provide public education, but only up to a point. When you get to the college level, the free ride (sort of) ends.

Until fairly recently in American history, college was a luxury largely enjoyed by a privileged elite. Today, some sort of higher education degree is increasingly mandatory for a person who wants to find a decent job. In a sense, this is nothing new. Public schooling originally developed in the 19th century in response to our country’s gradual transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. Our country needed more white-collar workers – engineers, office workers, professionals – who needed to master at least some basic academic skills to do their jobs. When we were a country of farmers and manual laborers, there did not seem to be as much of a need for an educated work force. (Remarkably, however, American literacy rates were extremely high in spite of a lack of mandatory public education.) School was not made free and mandatory to do citizens a favor; it was done to make sure that we did not have a bunch of useless people running around in this increasingly industrial society.

Initially, people were only required to go to grammar school. Then, as the accumulated knowledge of society grew and as parents increasingly found themselves working away from home, public high schools became increasingly common and mandatory. (Schools are, after all, effective baby-sitting institutions.) This trend toward the average American spending increasing time in school continued through the 20th and 21st century, and now many Americans see college as absolutely mandatory. Does this mean that government has taken on the responsibility of providing a college education to everyone who wants one?

To a certain degree, the government has taken on this responsibility. Public universities are common throughout the United States. And while these institutions are by no means free, in comparison to the costs of attending a private university, they are a pretty good deal. An even better deal is the ultimate example of the government funded college education: the community college. In California, community college fees were recently raised to $26 per unit, which is remarkably cheap. During this time of state budget deficits, however, there is increasing concern that in my state and throughout the nation governments may increasingly move away from the concept of a publicly subsidized college education. In California, not only have fees been going up, particularly in the Cal State and UC systems, but schools have also been admitting fewer students. This has led many students to turn to community colleges, where fewer classes are being offered. Demand for low-cost classes has outstripped supply, and there are no simple answers.

Some Americans who question the whole idea of a publicly funded college education would argue that this “crisis” is not really a problem. After all, why should some Americans pay taxes to subsidize the education of other Americans?  Some make the same argument about public education at all levels. Why should parents whose kids either go to private school or are home-schooled pay taxes to support public schools? Essentially, this is the same argument used by Americans who complain about all aspects of the welfare state. The United States, after all, has a long tradition of believing that individuals must be personally responsible for meeting their basic needs. At the same time, however, there is the more recent tradition of government being held responsible for guaranteeing, to a certain degree, that Americans have these basic needs met. This American ambivalence toward government aid can be seen in many of the most intense political debates in America today, and it is not at all clear how this will be playing out in the next few years.

Public education advocates can use a variety of arguments in their attempts to maintain or increase government investment into education. They can compare the amount of money spent on education to other government programs, arguing that priorities may sometimes be out of whack. They can appeal to people’s love for children, mixing this with good old-fashioned guilt through questions like, “Aren’t our children worth it?” They can also use the human rights argument, claiming that a just society is obligated to meet this basic human need.

These education advocates should probably avoid these types of “bleeding heart,” “liberal,” emotional arguments. Any argument that does not recognize Americans’ historical ambivalence toward the idea of government aid will not be particularly effective. Instead, they should focus on the practical benefits of public education. Investment in education not only leads to a more productive economy for everyone; it also reduces the number of unproductive, potentially dangerous people in our society. Americans have always been comfortable with the idea of a government that promotes economic development and provides security for its citizens, so why not emphasize these functions of government that almost everyone agrees are legitimate. In the long run, education may even save the government money. It is cheaper, after all, to educate someone then it is to house that person in jail for decades.

So is education a right? I must admit that I am somewhat ambivalent on this question, just as I am with all questions involving government aid. I don’t know if certain members of society should be obligated to pay taxes in order to help meet the needs of others. In the end, however, I find this question regarding human rights somewhat irrelevant. When dealing with political questions, it is best to not get bogged down in discussions about general ideals and abstractions. I prefer to be practical. And when I look at this question in practical terms, I conclude that a society that provides the opportunity for people to become educated and successful is probably a nicer place to live than one that does not. So I am therefore willing to have some of my tax dollars go to this purpose. Is this an entirely fair and efficient way to do things? Probably not, but it is better than the apparent alternatives, and in politics, choosing the best of the flawed options is all that you can do.


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    • abithewriter profile image

      abijith sasikumar 

      5 years ago from india

      education is not a right. but a essential think a man should have in this modern world

    • sn53Anon profile image


      7 years ago from Huntsville, AL

      Hi Freeway,

      You wrote, "A socialist would argue that most people are enslaved under capitalism. . ."

      Of course they would. But they are wrong and the argument is false on its face. Under free market capitalism more wealth has been created, more good accomplished for more people in more places than under any other economic form. Socialism, perhaps the most destructive economic model ever devised, cannot hold a candle to free market capitalism.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      A socialist would argue that most people are enslaved under capitalism, with the fruits of the labor of the working class going to the owners of the corporations. Now I wouldn't go this far, but unless you are a self-sufficient farmer supporting yourself purely with the fruits of your labor, then you are depending on others, with a certain percentage of your labor enriching someone else. So we all end up providing for others and depending on others for survival. The idea of self-sufficiency is almost always an illusion.

      It is difficult to measure the value of some of what the state provides. By providing services, the state can make a society a more stable, safer place to live. Unfortunately, it's hard to quantify these services in monetary terms. How much is it worth to me to have police services, a fire department, decent roads, jails, and schools to babysit (and occasionally educate) the youth so that they will not be roaming the streets?

      As I say in the following hub that I wrote a while back, it is very difficult for many people to measure the actual value of their work in the modern world, whether they are working in the public or private sector:

    • sn53Anon profile image


      7 years ago from Huntsville, AL

      How can it be possible to proclaim something a human right if, in order to provide it, a portion of a nation's citizens must be enslaved? For when one man toils while another benefits, isn't that the essence of slavery?

      And if I am to work two days each week in order to provide things to others and not to benefit from my labors myself, then what of my human rights?

      No. I cannot agree that another's desire for food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education. . . in any way should cause the state to declare that I must work, must give up my freedom, must become the nation's property, in order to provide for another.

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 

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

      Well done Freeway Flyer! I voted this hub up for useful. The question you pose, which is the title of your hub (Is Education a Right?) does not have an easy answers. You have given an efficient, fair-minded, and comprehensive survey of many sides of the argument about the proper role of government in our lives.

      One thing we might also think about is the structural reality (Of America in particular even among the rest of the advanced western capitalist countries) in which our society does not want every youngster to obtain a college education. After all, who would serve us coffee at Starbucks? Who would make up our beds in the hotels?

      Who would wash the windows of the high-rise office buildings? Who would pick strawberries from dusk till dawn? Certainly these folks weren't entirely "free" in taking those jobs, and they probably wouldn't have taken them if other options were available to them. We need to think about what that means on a societal level. Does this reality call for structural changes in our society?

      You know, this society of ours doesn't even want everyone of working age to have a job. As a history teacher, I know you know this -- that's why the Federal Reserve raises interest rates when unemployment gets "too low." The Fed raises interest rates making borrowing money more expensive for businesses to expand, and this causes them to eventually lay off workers. You see, they don't want prices going up, workers to have anymore bargaining power, and they don't want the economy to "overheat," and so on and so forth.

      I think the flaw in the Libertarian position is the fact that they seem to think people end up where they end up solely by choice, due to their own efforts or fault alone (its that American rugged individual thing, you know).

      Anyway, I'm just blathering on.... I really enjoyed this hub.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      I think that you may be giving public schools too much credit. I don't know if they have such a coherent, well-defined agenda. And if they are trying to turn kids into Marxists, they seem to be doing a lousy job. The community college students that I see show little affinity for socialism. Just today, I talked to my classes about why it does not work very well, and no one has ever risen to socialism's defense.

      I agree that this movement toward "political correctness" and promoting "self-esteem" often goes too far. Much of this, however, represents people overcompensating for the "sins" of the past. Since Native Americans were previously stereotyped as savages, now they are presented as perfect, peace-loving environmentalists. And because educators of the past were viewed as too harsh, now they are overly "touchy feely." These things often go in cycles, however. They are not necessarily part of some well thought out agenda.

      Much of the responsibility for low quality students falls at the feet of parents and the students themselves. As a teacher trying to get people to evaluate their basic beliefs and assumptions, I can tell you that it is very difficult to get anything through to students who just don't give a crap.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      7 years ago from Chicago

      The Progressive educational philosophy is based on these basic beliefs: "An absolute faith in science and the theory of evolution; a belief that children could be taught very much like animals in accordance with the new behavioral psychology; a conviction that there was no place for religion in education and that traditional values were an obstacle to social progress which had to be removed."

      It stands to reason that most of the Progressives, by definition, were social liberals and that many, like Dewey, considered socialism morally superior to capitalism. To change the way America thinks, an elite cadre of intellectual leftists has long sought to capture the minds of American youth by editing and presenting slanted facts as truth.

      The philosophy of Progressive educators is opposed to the American system of self-governance that limits government to a few carefully defined functions. Progressive educators do not teach children that their rights are antecedent to government—not created by it. They do not want children to understand economics or history because if they did they would come to understand that market-based economies deliver prosperity while Socialist systems deliver poverty and de facto slavery.

      "The Father of Modern Education" was John Dewey—a Communist, an Atheist, a leader of a teachers union, and a signer of the Humanist Manifesto. This manifesto called for Humanism to become the new religion of America as a replacement for the fables of Christianity, which it calls powerless, insignificant, and backward. It specifically states that there is no God; rejects the supernatural; worships science; and states that religious worship and churches should be eliminated. Humanism opposes Capitalism and endorses Communism.

      In 1983, Humanist Magazine featured an article that boasted: "The battle for mankind's future must be waged and won in the public school classroom. The classroom must and will become the arena of conflict between the old and the new, the rotting corpse of Christianity and new faith of humanism."

      "Allegiance to a nation is the biggest stumbling block to the creation of international government. National boundaries and the concept of sovereignty must be abolished. The quickest way to do this is to condition the young to another and broader alliance. Opinion favorable to international government will be developed in the social studies curriculum in the public schools." The National Educational Association

      The indoctrination of our children with leftist ideology is complete with the usual anti-Americanism. Children are taught that the famines and starvation in Africa are the fault of America; not their own pitiful, utterly corrupt rulers. Children are not told that American citizens give more money to Africa, and volunteer more time, than the rest of the world combined—or anything else flattering about our nation. The history of America is portrayed as a long story of oppression and injustice—not as the greatest nation in the history of the Earth. It is certainly not a place with any values worth fighting for or that children should feel damn lucky to live in. The only taboo in public school education is Traditional Values.

      Moral relativism teaches the children that American values, traditions, customs, and system of government are no better than any other. Thus, they are not worth defending.

      Political Correctness is an enormous part of the NEA agenda for your children. The term "Founding Fathers" is now banned in some schools because it is not gender neutral. Any classroom discussion of art, literature, music, technology, inventions, or civilization must include an equal number of achievements by all racial groups and genders—no matter how insignificant. A history textbook therefore thanks the American Indians for their contribution to the United States Constitution.

      Political Correctness offers harsh penalties for free speech and the right to think for yourself. Many do not know that this doctrine originated with Vladimir Lenin and was a favorite of Chairman Mao—Cultural Marxism.

      The focus of public school education has been diverted from the learning of knowledge, wisdom, and truth—to "Self Esteem." Honor rolls and spelling bees are going the way of the dinosaur—not to mention dodge ball. Sixty percent of American high schools no longer use class rankings or announce valedictorians. Competition and achievement is frowned upon and if prizes are awarded, they must be given to all kids in a group—participation awards. Honors classes, designed so the brighter students could learn more, have been discontinued at many schools because the vast majority of the kids who qualified for them were white. We can't have that. We'd rather have them bored to tears in remedial classes with everybody else.

      Constructive criticism has been replaced with undeserved praise. Children are told that even wrong answers are still "good" answers. This underrates the importance of effort. 200 studies have shown that the Self Esteem Movement in education has yielded zero positive results. In fact, the opposite is true. It has spawned a generation of narcissists who face every choice with "it's my life!" If they fail in life it must be because "society" is oppressive. The enormous wave of violence in schools can be traced to Progressive education. What should be taught is personal responsibility. The Self Esteem Movement has given a generation the freedom to be fools.

      The public schools have rejected sound educational precepts, such as to teach a body established knowledge, wisdom, and truth. Rather than be taught to think and reason logically, students are encouraged to trust their adolescent feelings. This is not a serious place of learning. No wonder that when things don't go their way they sometimes respond with rage and violence. Henceforth many schools now require armed guards and metal detectors.

      The ideas behind multiculturalism, social justice, diversity, and political correctness are derived from Cultural Marxism. They exist to condition students to reject the traditional morality of America despite its overwhelming success and prosperity. Public schools purposefully contradict what parents teach their children—especially if the parents are Christians. Any parent who voices objections to this ideology is branded "mean-spirited" "judgmental" and "intolerant."

      Schools minimize the importance of cognitive thinking. Students have been denied the basics of education—to be taught to read, write, and do basic mathematics. They graduate from high school with a tiny vocabulary.

      Public schools have surely contributed to a rise in crime and immorality by rejecting any code of morality. If there is no right or wrong children will feel free to just go with their feelings and emotions. To decide for yourself what is right or wrong is fine for mature adults who have a moral foundation, a fully developed intellect, and some life experience but to allow a child to decide for itself is absurd. Every child needs a simple but exact code of conduct. Otherwise we produce children unable to take a stand and this is a weakness that leads to immorality more often than not. Do we not all want the next generation to be decent and responsible? They rarely become this in a moral vacuum. Children lack the mental prowess necessary to observe, analyze situations, compare results, anticipate consequences, and make decisions based upon firm commitment to goals and ideals, which is all a part of the values clarification process. In fact, many adults have a hard time doing this.

      Morals and values are often the result of the experiences of people which are then passed along to the next generation. It is absurd to assume every person should "reinvent the wheel" and start from scratch, living and experiencing, and then determining a set of values that applies to them.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      Amendment ten makes things tricky. States are supposed to have jurisdiction over areas not expressly mentioned in the Bill of Rights. People define "expressly mentioned" differently.

      Mac Teacher, since a high school degree means little today, it is strange that our society is making a college degree increasingly difficult to attain.

    • OpinionDuck profile image


      7 years ago

      The states can selective incorporate the Bill of Rights into their Constitution.

      I never understood why. still don't

    • Mac Teacher profile image

      Mac Teacher 

      7 years ago

      Two thumbs up freeway flyer. I am an advocate of reasonable or free higher education. I have been a participant of California public education since 1938(either as a student or as a career educator) My undergraduate college years were from 1951 to 1955. During those golden years of Calif. history education was free through the university for a B.A.for those that qualified. This was normal qualification not the elite few that were scholarship awardees or national merit


      The high cost of higher education in both the public and private sector has been absorbitant. To have a system where "no child is left behind" and college entrance is expected of all students so that most can have a lifelong debt of student loans is one of the most uncivilized acts in what is supposed to be a civilized society that I can imagine.

      I am looking forward to reading more of your insightful hubs. Keep up the great writing.

    • Daniel J. Neumann profile image

      Daniel J. Neumann 

      7 years ago from Harrisburg, Pa

      Freeway Flyer,

      Well I think you covered both sides of the issue fairly, and I have to agree with your conclusions—although I do consider education (along with healthcare and justice) to be a human right complimenting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our economy, as you point out, is maturing into something quite different than the context of 1776, although the Bill of Rights is timeless and increasingly relevant.

      The abolition of slavery, equality for women, and even the Miranda Rights are all products of liberal (or perhaps Marxist) progressivism.

      Thanks for sharing this,


    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thanks for the information. I do not feel reassured.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      My understanding is that it is a combination of literature, philosophy, and the arts. It is more limited to the study of the intellectual achievements of humanity. So history is not necessarily a priority.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Could I ask you one more question. What exactly is "Humanities"? When I went to school,many years ago now, I was taught "history". I left with a good amount of information about our past. But a friend of mine, who is younger than me, was taught "Humanities" as a subject. There wasnt a subject called "History" at his school. He left without any idea of his country's, or the worlds past. So I tend to hear alarm bells ringing when I hear the dreaded word "Humanities".

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      The longer that I teach history, the more convinced I am of its importance. For more than selfish reasons, I also think that more emphasis must be put on social sciences and humanities.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very comprehensive and timely Hub Freeway Flyer. Our country is seriously falling behind in academic performance which is leading to a paucity of skilled workers. This of course leads to importing workers from other countries for these occupations. I also agree with Christopher that our education also needs to be more broad based. We are producing too many higher culture illiterates. I come down more on making this along with health care a right. But I agree it is more effective politically to argue it is in the interest of our nation's security. I wish if they have another stimulus bill that education would be one of the things it emphasizes instead of pork.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Very well written, and informative, article. I think education is very important for producing good productive citizens. I do feel, however, that it should be more broadly based. Perhaps a little less emphasis on maths and science, and a little more on literature, arts, and history. I feel that someone with a broad appreciation of how the world works, is better for society than just the narrow "economically productive" type.


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