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?