More than 100 million children do not have access to education today. Among those who do, millions more are deprived of a quality education in a safe learning environment. This “education” often involves corporal punishment, violence, sexual harassment or political indoctrination. Even in the United States, considered by many the most prosperous country in the world, educational inequity persists along socioeconomic and racial lines. Half of the 9-year-olds growing up in America’s low-income communities will not graduate from high school by the time they are 18 years old. And it is not because they lack potential.
To deny our fellow human beings access to a quality education in a safe learning environment is to deny them their human right to education, which is established explicitly in the founding documents of the United Nations. Adopted in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”
Especially in Western cultures, rights-based dialogue often focuses on civil and political rights while ignoring economic and social rights like the right to health or the right to education. Positive rights like the right to education, critics argue, are difficult to justify because they are financially difficult to provide and because they require active provision of entitlements by the state (as opposed to the state being required only to prevent the breach of rights). That is, public resources must be used to improve the status of society’s have-nots.
But as the civil rights hero Jack Greenberg argued last January in a lecture at the University of Michigan Law School: “(We all) have an interest in a stable and prosperous society. If a large part of the population is subjugated, disenfranchised and not fully productive, it’s not going to be a successful society.” The right to education is not just an end. It provides a foundation for economic development and many other improvements in the quality of life. By enabling children to gain skills and knowledge, education breaks generational cycles of poverty. It is linked to improvements in health and nutrition. Education empowers children to be active participants in civil and political life. Education also reduces the chances that children will come into conflict with the law or become vulnerable to various forms of child exploitation like child labor or recruitment into armed forces or gangs.
As noted above, lack of access to quality education is a large problem. Hundreds of millions are deprived of this human right, which has a profoundly negative impact on our world. But what can we, as students, do to address this problem? We lack the political power of President Bush. We don’t have the financial power of World Bank President Robert Zoellick or the moral authority of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. And we certainly can’t influence others through rhyme like newly appointed University “Visiting Professor” Mos Def.
Demanding education about human rights is a good place to start. The primary and most critical responsibility of the University, after all, is to educate. There are programs for human rights education underway – both the international studies minor and the recently created peace and justice minor allow students to focus on human rights.
But it’s OK to want more. Limiting dialogue on human rights to extracurricular groups at the University has forged an essentially isolated political subculture that is powerless to bring human rights into the mainstream. As students, we must demand an academic approach to human rights at the University. We need more classroom discussions with diversity of opinion, facilitated by faculty in pursuit of solution-oriented debate. This is the most crucial step in enabling the University to participate in the international system on behalf of the dispossessed. By approaching human rights as what we are – students – we can encourage the University to provide us with the tools and knowledge we need for the future.
LSA senior and a member of Human Rights Through Education. The group is hosting a free conference Feb. 1-2 at the Michigan Union on the human right to education. For more information about “The Right to Education: Challenges and Opportunities” and HRTE, visit www.umich.edu/~hrte