• Clayton Morell

We can do better: School

The Context of Education in Human Rights

Last week, I sang in public to get students to talk to me about human rights. True story. Getting college students to interview on camera during their walk to/from class is as tricky as you might imagine, but the human rights element made for an interesting dilemma - a few people were interested in talking, but didn’t want to be embarrassed by a lack of knowledge on the subject.

It certainly makes sense that people wouldn’t generally want to be interviewed on a concept they know little about - but something makes me feel uneasy about the fact that a fair majority of people don’t understand a basic history of universal human rights.

Not too long ago, industrial warfare became a reality very quickly -- culminating in two periods of global-scale violence. Leaders and common people across the world saw an undeniable need to address the violent tribalism that seems to be ingrained to human instinct.

For an individual, growing up means doing things that aren’t natural to us for long-term benefit over short term thrills.

For the early international community, unprecedented bloodshed was - hopefully - an inflection point for growing up. Entire nations or cultures of people could be destroyed if we let it happen. A war that leads to extinction became a possibility.

A survival mindset gave rise to the International Bill of Human Rights. We felt a dire need to actually define what it means to be properly treated like a human being, and what it might take to popularize a commitment to peace.

If you ever take the pleasure of reading through the UN’s treaties, you might notice that the idea of education is a centerpiece in their rhetoric. Education is inseparable from the idea of human rights; remember, violent tribalism is an instinct that has pervaded the human experience -- we really can’t address it on a large scale unless most people are aware of its history, direction, and the measures we act on to resolve it.

The hard part of this unprecedented historical awareness is unprecedented action. Some of us *cough* United States *cough* *cough* haven’t closed the loop yet. America’s education culture is among the most obvious and fixable shortcomings we face in following through with our endorsement of the UDHR and ICCPR, among other human rights initiatives.

My intention with this article is to focus on the United States k-12, but these sentiments can be applied more broadly in other parts of the world, or to other areas of education.

What Should We Do Better?

The International Bill of Human Rights offers a vastly different perspective on what education culture might look like versus the education culture we have unwittingly created for ourselves. This does not cater to any particular party or interest group. Keep in mind that the UN doesn’t rule over all who dare ratify their treaties - the United States voluntarily agrees to uphold these views, at least on paper.

For now, we’ll take a look at just the UDHR Article 26 Sections 1-3:

“1. 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.

2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

Three Things We Can Do Better

1. Re-evaluate Demand and Compromise on School Choice

The discussion surrounding teachers’ unions and financial infrastructure in education is a rabbit hole in it’s own right. However, the consequences of monetary dysfunction are glaringly obvious depending on the location.

Many of our funding issues arise from larger cultural issues, and ultimately long-standing conventions in how local governments subsidize education.

In the United States, high quality, publicly funded education is entirely possible. Our institutions have comparatively large amounts of resources that could potentially be allocated towards schools. On a federal level, the United States actually outspends most countries in this arena.

Conservatives often argue survival of the fittest is the best method when it comes to incentivising school performance, essentially with funding allocated to each student in the form of a voucher, and allowing students to freely choose their school, whether that be public or private.

Private education theoretically functions as a potential source of accountability for government institutions, and preserves the right to choice. In other parts of the world, private education sometimes finds ways to address the needs of communities underserved by government.

In reality, school choice comes with some important drawbacks. Underperforming schools in poor areas already don’t get financial support they need. American education has a history of racial inequality. With a conservative model of school choice, there is a strong potential for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Likewise, teachers are already underpaid even in fairly good working environments, so you can imagine that talented educators would have very little incentive to work in schools that face the full effects of poverty, violence, and historical government neglect.

In theory, we need a compromise between our current model and school choice that addresses the problematic natures of both teachers’ unions and private interests. Why haven’t we done this already? It seems complicated at first glance, but my opinion is that the United States ultimately has a cultural problem.

Our political culture values winning, losing, and greed more than it does sound policy. This is no different whether we’re trying to change gun laws, taxes, healthcare, or education. There is no liberal or conservative utopia. Good policy decisions find optimal balance.

Likewise, are we really committed to bettering education when we value entertainers over teachers who commit themselves to public service? Economies function on the basic scarcity of resources, and the market is willing to pay more dollars for star athletes and mumble-rappers more than talented educators. I suggest we change our demands.

2. Curriculum Change: Academic Rigor vs. Better Humans

By the time most kids take the SAT, they’ll know how to recognize a special right triangle, or point out grammatical errors -- that’s all easily testable, good to know, and gives more viability to a private education market. Let’s not kid ourselves though, it’s alarming that we don’t teach people how to take care of themselves physically, be scientifically literate, understand their world through nuanced philosophy, or know the history of policy decisions.

Our systems have not changed much in the last half-century and that’s starting to show.

Dietary and fitness education is largely ineffective.

Information regarding sexuality is being intentionally falsified or censored in public schools.

The scientific consensus on climate change and its policy implications aren’t being taught in schools.

On that note, we still largely struggle to teach the importance of scientific thought.

We often teach developmentally inappropriate topics to various age groups despite what research into education implies.

Our linguistic education viewpoint and methodology is far behind the times;

Students don’t learn about the lives of other people groups, and our education systems fall behind in considering the needs of minority students.

The strong link between history and philosophy is rarely, if ever brought up in schools. Wars are often presented as logical progressions of political disputes, and the contrast between human suffering and political gain is never mentioned. The creation of institutions that seek global peace are glossed over, if at all. People aren’t taught about human rights or how peace is established and maintained. These aspects of learning aren’t directly measurable or profitable.

Can we really say that we’re developing the full human personality, or promoting peace and respect for others?

3. Stop Being So Negative, but Recognize Exploitation

The people making a lot of money in the education business right now put in a lot of effort to essentially create their own market demand, artificially keeping themselves relevant through money, politics, and fear tactics. These people want you to believe that our systems are too large, vague, and problematic to improve without their business. It's a problem on both ends of our political spectrum.

Don’t buy negativity at face value. It’s distracting us from what we can offer students.

The uneducated public is easy to use as a pawn for greed. The fossil fuel industry lied about the alarming implications and causes of climate change in roughly the same way that the tobacco industry lied to the public about the risks of smoking.

To this day, we face the effects of short-sighted party platforms that only have political power through ignorant public support. If we're undereducated and don't know what benefits us, how do we expect politicians to be knowledgeable and/or have our best interests in mind?

People love to complain about the fact that our government always seems to be in some sort of gridlock, or run by puppet politicians; what happens if we turn that same judgement back on ourselves? We might see that we’re the most common denominator of all puppets, stuck in a cycle of undereducation, negativity, and overzealous support for misguided policy in a dysfunctional political system.