Open Ed Intro: Basic human rights?

On a weekly basis I will be posting my thoughts and reflections about the Introduction to Open Education course I am taking online with an international contingent of folks. David Wiley has been kind enough to extend the offer to any and all interested parties, and I figure a little book learnin’ can never hurt. I think of it as an opportunity to actually focus rather than blindly act and react -which I am all too good at.

The questions for reflection as the class gets underway are the following:

In your opinion, is the “right to education” a basic human right? Why or why not? In your opinion, is open *access* to free, high-quality educational opportunity sufficient, or is it necessary to *mandate* education through a certain age or level?

The first question immediately opens up an entire discourse that reflects my own interests and concerns with the larger questions of open education. I had gone back and forth with Gardner Campbell a number of months ago about the relationship of all these Web 2.0 technologies to theorists like Foucault. I have the beginnings of that post but never really got around to finishing it. But this first question immediately returns me to some of the questions that I think are germane to thinking about an alternative framework for education, which by extension, brings in so many other facets of our social existence: economics, politics, culture, etc.

Let me start with a question in response to the first question. Why is “right to education” in quotes and the phrase a basic human right not in quotes? Do the quotes here assume a statement of some kind? Can we read from them that this is an idea that has had currency for some time now and most be understood within a particular context, hence the quotes? If so, might the question of a right have a particular bearing on, what seems to me, the more important element of this statement -basic human rights. How do we come to understand the idea of a basic human right, what might be understood as a universal right that all humans, despite their cultural, economic, political, and social differences, should all have equal access to? Where does such an idea come from? Is the idea itself intrinsic to humanity, much like the proposition that education should be considered a “basic right” for all people?

In my mind, the phrase a “basic human right” needs to be qualified with quotes because it is very specific in its geographic, political, and historical context. Such a statement “basic human rights,” or rights inherent to all people, implies a whole host of very specific intellectual and political movements in Western thought during the eighteenth century. This moment, often characterized by writers such as Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson (amongst many others), we begin to see such defining statements of humanity’s basic rights come into a wider circulation. Such a statement takes on a tremendous amount of importance and power in swaying the means though which the social and political revolutions of democracy would unfold during the Colonial uprising throughout North and South America as well as the French Revolution on the continent. The statement “basic human rights” undergirds a key conceptual component for creating an understanding of what is commonly shared amongst all people, what helped to define during that moment “the human condition.” What we see in the question above is the unacknowledged trace of one of the most powerful discursive statements for framing the understanding our own moment, the Age of Reason often enshrined as the Enlightenment. At the very heart of this statement there is immediately a host of archaeological artefacts of Western intellectual history and its continued reliance upon the core concepts of the Enlightenment. “Basic human rights,” as a statement in the above question cannot be divorced from the very violent context of its popular inception and circulation during the 18th century.

So the very force that brought a series of Western cultures together in order to understand their moment and redefine their relationship to power and knowledge simultaneously allowed for an intellectually sanctioned violence to all kinds of alternatives. In many ways, the idea of “basic human rights” in the above question frames a direction wherein the basis of what seems to be the real focus of the inquiry, i.e., “an education,” becomes an almost naturalized fact. And the only question we are answering is whether or not we should all have a right to an education on some fundamental level. But how much of the assumed definition of an “education” is also caught up in the discursive formation of this concept as a product of the Enlightenment? For example, how do we define this notion of education, given the overwhelming dependence our culture (and I speak here specifically of the US) focuses this concept upon shaping a responsible citizen. The basic premise of an education in the US is defined by a notion of citizenship, and idea of responsibility to the state. How do we measure this as a basic human right? Is it our right to be a responsible citizen? Is it compulsory? Is it our right to be an informed citizen? Who do such things benefit the individual or the state?

I don’t necessarily want to argue the above questions one way or the other here, but rather to suggest that the statement a “right to education” is deeply embedded within a relationship between the individual and the state. One’s right to an education is in many ways an outgrowth of being a part of a political state. Which, in turn, defines the limits of possibility of one’s idea of an education. Would we say one has a natural right to learn? I don’t think so because learning is not something that can be entirely dictated by or through a state. The same might be said for an education, however the definition of what an education is can be mediated through the state -which brings up the still persistent issues of accreditation, certification, degrees, etc. Many of these policies are defined by either state or federal guidelines, and often funded by state or federal funds -suggesting that an education can be understood as distinct to some significant great degree from learning (the concept learning here is extremely underdeveloped so forgive me, it is an idea I will be trying to return to somewhat frequently over the next several weeks).

In short, I think the premise of such a question has as much to do with the Western tradition of Enlightenment’s ability to frame the value of education in relationship to the emergence of the nation state. An issue upon which so much thinking over the last two hundred years has opened up innumerable questions and critiques. One that I would like to think through as part of a theoretical framework for my own examinations of many of the questions we will be discussing as we trace through the notions of an open education (and what that idea might mean) is Michel Foucault’s discussion of the archive in The Archaeology of Knowledge as a series of surfaces. What does it mean to understand knowledge, ideas, and even an education as a surface? –as a space upon which is written the statements and struggles of a particular historical moment?–a space in which the limits of art, poetry, politics, and education are always revealed when confronting the enshrined archives of power? To what degree is education an extension of state power? These are all questions I understand as companions to the original questions asked of us, and I will be pursuing them as we work through the specifics of open education – a space I imagine will frame a highly contested landscape of power given its relationship to knowledge, and vice versa. Moreover, a space where the vestiges of rationalism will everywhere be at odds with the unleashing of imagination.

Why is the idea of education as a “basic human right” a statement we still feel compelled to articulate? What defines this as an ongoing struggle more than an inherent right of humanity? And how might the tracing of the struggle help us to understand the seemingly obfuscated notion of what, in fact, an education means in our particular moment?

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15 Responses to Open Ed Intro: Basic human rights?

  1. I outlined my squeemishness with the “right to education” in my blog post for the course. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since, and if we truly define basic education as a human right, and are serious about it, that means we must be willing and able to put boots on the ground, with blue berets sent in to protect this human right, along with the others agreed upon under the auspices of the UN. There’s a slippery slope involved – where does it go from saying “basic education is a human right” to moving into action into protecting and providing for that right. Scary stuff, that.

  2. jimgroom says:

    Exactly, it is amazing how quickly the seemingly rhetorical question of “Do we have a right to education?” becomes a much larger and more complex question involving the structures of power. What qualifies as an adequate education? Who does the education benefit and how has it become a natural right? -if in fact there is such a thing. Fascinating questions, and I just took a shot in the dark, you actually did the work 😉

  3. Tony D'Ambra says:

    I may have missed the point, but you Americans have already framed this issue:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    The right to an education simply follows as a predicate…

  4. Tony, you made the point right there. These self-evident truths are already largely ignored even with in the USA. All men are not treated equally, and their rights are alienable at the whim of the administration, or of industry. Imagine how human rights are treated in less civilized nations. When life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are low priorities, basic education will be even lower (unless it is as a means to produce new workers…)

    yes, I’m a bit jaded.

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  6. jimgroom says:

    Tony and D’Arcy,

    Jaded you are, D’Arcy. How can you start a revolution when you have no faith? One must believe in abstractions. And, in fact, this is the very genius of that notion of rights as self-evident truths. It allows an entire population to abstract the idea of freedom to something greater than their reality, something that exceeds any particular detail of their life yet can also be understod as some form of naturalized embodiment. Moreover, this abstraction is at the same time faced with its limitis when the definition of rights is not so much at stakeas the very question of what constitutes a human! Think about it, we have spent much of our time in these posts thinking about the questions of rights and what a basic or fundamental human right is or is not. When in 1776 (as well as the following (and preceding) 100 years!) the basic definition of human was still very much in violent contention. The danger is how we might scoff at such a gross distortion of humanity in retrospect, while at the same time repeat the same violent logic when we begin to imagine a mandated system of rights and education.

    I actually have some serious concerns about parsing these issues along the lines of any any pragmatic solution. I think a pragmatic approach may have to suffice at times because we live in the world and must conform to it at times. (While a cynical perspective is not really an approach at all, just a form of capitulation -however astute.) A real shot at open education as a space to redefine the axis around which we think and learn means re-examining our relationship to nation states, one another, and ultimately the abstraction of power and its temporary embodiments in both ourselves as well as all the institutions and people around us. Education, in its purest form, is revolution! Open education is just a qualification of this fact so that we can live in the world.

  7. Tony D'Ambra says:

    Jim, D’Arcy is entitled to be jaded. We live in societies that pay lip-service to ideals yet violate them every-day.

    Freedom is embodied in the choices society allows us to make but also more importantly in a person’s CAPACITY for true choice. Open and free education is a basic human right, and asserting that is neither violent or revolutionary in a free society.

  8. jimgroom says:


    Open and free education is a basic human right, and asserting that is neither violent or revolutionary in a free society.

    So what if we were to do more than assert it in a free society? For example, let’s say we desire more than lip service and we demand it, fight for it, and/or die for it. Would that constitute “revolutionary”? For I am certain such an assertion put in action would quickly become violent.

    In fact, it can be argued we everyone in the US has access to an open and free education, but I don’t think many would argue the equity of such access as consistent and adequate. Moreover, what if we were to extend this assertion to healthcare in the US? It think at that moment the barbarism of a system may become that much more readily apparent.

  9. OK, Jim, you may be my favorite edublogger again.

    It’s funny, because reading that question, I had the same reaction as you (or perhaps a little to the side): speaking from within an Enlightenment frame, within a history where education becomes a state concern, yes — this is a valid question.

    But that assumes so much. To even say no to this I have to answer it from very narrow and circumscribed place — and that place is far more constrictive than any answer I could give.

    But answering from that frame, that is, putting my tricorner hat on, the distinction we’d want to make is what you touch on: learning would be the proper natural “human right” since learning is the act, and can exist without the presence of the state.

    Education is a product — and here it is Illich that is instructive: by confusing basic needs with the scientifically produced products and services which fill those needs we’ve done irreparable harm to our society and our humanity — hence when posed as a question about “education” as opposed to a question about “learning” you create almost instantly an acceptance of a role of government as that unassailable center — that is we rely on governments to supply our humanity, rather than protect it.

    That’s a witches brew of 17th c. Enlightenment thought and a more modern strain.

  10. nathan rein says:

    Jim, I reposted the comment that Spam Karma ate over at my own blog. Being new to this, I don’t really understand trackbacking, so here’s the link, in case you’re still curious …

  11. Jon says:

    Thanks for this, Brian. You know some of my take. But in response to Tony and Jim… The Declaration of Independence is of course self-consciously nonsense. Were the rights that it declares either self-evident or inalienable, then the Declaration would have to have been written. In short, that document is a performative contradiction: it claims that rights are prior, but recognizes that in fact what are termed rights are always only achieved as the result of struggle.

    To put this another way: the phrase “fight for your rights” is strictly meaningless. You either have rights (the contractualist view) or you have to fight. And if you are fighting, you are fighting to construct rights, not because they are pre-ordained or self-evident.

    So, in this case, nobody has a right to education. But they can benefit from a historic struggle for eduction, a struggle that is ongoing and is endlessly renewed.

    But to frame such a struggle in terms of rights is in fact only a mystification.

    And incidentally, in reference to Mike’s comment, the same goes for needs. Needs are not natural and pre-given: they are historically constructed. People’s needs today are different from what they were ten, fifty, a hundred years ago. And they are different in (say) the USA than they are in (say) Mexico or Japan or Rwanda. Needs, too, are the outcome of a process of struggle.

    Any other version of the discourse of needs presupposes an unalterable nature. Just as the discourse of rights presupposes an inevitable state, which is likewise naturalized, eliminating history and politics.

    My $.02.

  12. Jon says:

    Ooops, I was getting confused as to which blog I was reading there… I clicked through to this discussion from Brian’s blog, and forgotten I’d clicked through. Anyhoos. So the previous comment is a response to the two original posts.

    Oh, and about the state: indeed, the whole notion of rights depends upon and reciprocally constructs the notion of a beneficent state. But we know that ain’t true, don’t we?

  13. Tony D'Ambra says:

    I am clearly out of my league here, but I will struggle with one last post.

    Mystification? Hardly. Everything I say is grounded in a firm reality.

    I am in Australia – btw your president is here in my city now – and we don’t have a bill of rights (though many are fighting for one – remember the pen is mightier than the sword.

    Though regrettably no longer the case, for over 10 years in the 70s-80s we had a completely free and open education system. I was educated to a Masters degree under this system – without it I would never have gone to university. This radical reform was legislated by a reformist federal govt, and there was no fighting in the streets nor any overwrought intellectual debate.

    That same reformist govt. gave us a free universal health system, again without incident, which survives to this day, despite attempts by conservative govts to undermine it. But people will be on the streets if they ever have the temerity to actually dismantle it.

  14. jimgroom says:

    Oh, and about the state: indeed, the whole notion of rights depends upon and reciprocally constructs the notion of a beneficent state. But we know that ain’t true, don’t we?

    @Jon: This is an excellent point that beautifully frames the way in which the idea of rights becomes a product and power of the state. Which, by extension, they can grant and deny at will, and arbitrarily at that.

    @Tony: Building on the above comment. Does the fact that the free and open education of the 70s and 80s (which afforded you real opportunities) has since been dismantled re-enforce some of the ideas of rights being always a condition of political, social and political struggle rather than an inherent human condition?

    I think that my hyperbolic vision of street violence and mayhem reflects my own unease when working through these ideas, I am always out of my depth. But I find it both encouraging and exhilarating that a few folks care enough about these extremely important ideas to lay it all down in the comments. I’m extremely fired up! More than that, almost all the folks engaging in the discussion above are not even in the class -does my getting access to all these intelligent ideas mean I’m cheating? 🙂

    @Mike; Glad to be at the top again. It only took a gut wrenching post and some critical theory to lure you back -you’re easier than me:) That said, I like the way you are pushing the differences between learning and knowledge above. You are helping me frame out my next post in this class, which in many ways will build on all the comments above, but in particular on the idea of learning not so much as a formal education but as a historical sense of struggle -to build in one of Jon’s points from above. Learning is that space that might focus a lens on various histories of struggle, and their relevance to the current, ongoing struggle for rights (as Tony’s above discussion of the uncertain status of a free & open education in eduction in Australia, as well as the ongoing struggle to maintain the the “right” to affordable healthcare).

  15. Final thought: I’m somewhat of a pragmatist, so I think a great starting point for discussion is to ask yourself what would happen if we followed Illich’s suggestion that we make asking potential employees where they went to school illegal. Make it as illegal as asking their religion or marital status.

    How does the “right to education” look then? I’d say quite differently, because we use educational history and brand to maintain the current power structure, and then we wail about how uneducated people have no opportunity.

    Well, yeah, that’s because that’s precisely why the system was designed this way — to keep them out. The system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It’s not broken at all.

    Maybe we should be honest about what we use “education” for before we see “access” as a panacea — because the current system, when we give the masses “access”, will simply find new ways to lock them out. It will make new distinctions.

    It’s already happened in fact — the high school degree has been made worthless by universal college, so now students that once could get decent jobs out of high school have to put themselves in thousands of dollars of debt to get those exact same jobs.

    That’s what we did the last time we fixed “access”. That’s the legacy of our great humanitarian push for universal college. We enriched bankers, impoverished students, and contributed further to the permanent adolescence of our nation by having students that would otherwise enter a world of work postpone it for 5 years.

    Won’t get fooled again, hopefully?

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