"maybe it's 'cuz 'cuz
we're all gonna die die"

Monday, September 03, 2007

Interesting conversation at Bavatuesdays: education, rights, and universality

Over at Jim Groom's bavatuesdays blog, there's an interesting conversation going on about the question of whether or not education should be considered a basic human right. (D'Arcy Norman has also weighed in. This is in reference to an online course, "Introduction to Open Education," by David Wiley.) Groom's instinctive response (I'm guessing about the "instinctive" part, of course -- I suppose I'm projecting) is to slap quotation marks on "right" and "education" and to remind us that framing the question in this way reinscribes a whole cluster of modern Western assumptions about the relationship between the individual and the state which are impossible to universalize (and indeed the effort to universalize them may even be harmful, though that's a whole other conversation). Speaking as a historian, I agree wholeheartedly. The notion that you can take two highly contingent, constructed categories -- "right" and "education" -- and then ask whether one fits into the category defined by the former, in some kind of ahistorical, absolute sense -- well, it just raises all my Foucauldian hackles.

But it seems to me that there's another, perhaps "softer" way of reading the question, too. It sort of depends on whether you think of bell hooks or Sister Mary Elephant when you think of education. It's also possible to think of a "right to education" from a more subjective perspective, as more or less equivalent to, say, "a right of equal access to the socially-stewarded means by which one achieves majority, dignity, and the status of a full participant in one's community." Paolo Friere might argue that conventional, formal, institutionalized education, which in many modern settings is actually the means by which a human person is transformed into a subject of the state, actually works against this goal, which is fundamentally emancipatory, transformative, and even revolutionary. Ivan Illich, in Deschooling Society (1973) wrote:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value.
That other great educational theorist of our time, Pink Floyd, would probably agree. In this sense, you might even argue that people ought to have a right not to be educated if they don't want to be. As Peter Elbow remarked, teaching should only be performed with consenting adults. After all, you can't "mandate" transformation, dignity, or full personhood. You can try to make the means to those ends as widely distributed and as easily available as possible, but that's ultimately a subversive activity. Not to mention that experience suggests it is also easily co-opted. But that doesn't mean it's not important.


Jim said...


I think your suggestion that there is a softer approach to this question is an important one. I find myself fixating on any universalized notion of "basic human rights" and my instinct (you are quite right with that) is to problematize (although a learned extinct from too many years of grad school). That said, I think your reading of Illich suggests an interesting way to think about the confusion that takes place in the process of education versus a potentially different way of conceptualizing learning. I haven;t read Deschooling Society, but I now know I have to.

Moreover, the idea of thinking rights through the negative is a powerful one. Often times rights quickly become conflated with mandates. We have the right to compulsory education, no guarantee or real concern about how good it is, mind you. What if the converse were true, if we had the right to refuse certain forms of education and dismiss certain seemingly beneficial mandates. It would begin to suggest right (often interpolates as the opportunity to have something) as the opportunity to refuse something, or decide not to do something. The idea of voting as a right has not convinced the majority of the US to vote, why? Does mandating a right in many ways no longer make it such. Do allowing education to be optional and more fluid constitute a loss of rights?

But I am certain that the notion of Pink Floyd as educational theorists is downright brilliant ;)

Nathan Rein said...

Lemme let you in on a secret... I never read Deschooling Society either... I know it "by reputation" only ... don't tell my students.