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Education: Opportunity or Right?

2010.May.21

[Editor’s Note: In acknowledgment that I take too long between posts to keep this blog lively, I have invited a couple of friends to post here as well. Our beliefs overlap somewhat but I value their different perspectives and look forward to what they will bring this page. Don’t hesitate to let them know you like them more!–QT]

Contributed by JohnCLeonard

In talking with some of my more libertarian Internet acquaintances here recently, the subject fell on whether or not everyone in the country has an equal opportunity to “make something of themselves”. It was more than a little disturbing to me to hear these people, primarily white males, argue that the only cause of poverty is laziness. Their response to my suggestions that this simply was not the case, especially in regards to education, was to invoke “equality of opportunity” vs “equality of results”.  As the debate continued, it became more and more clear to me that the people I was debating with considered education to be an opportunity and not a right.

What’s the difference? You can choose not to exercise an opportunity or not to exercise a right. There’s still a clear choice involved. However, an opportunity only exists for a finite time while a right presumably exists throughout your entire lifetime. So is education a right or an opportunity in this country? The laws that ensure that everyone has access to public schools all treat an education as one of the basic rights that every United States Citizen and resident should have access to.

The ability of our children to receive an education is one of the things that has set our country apart over the years. It’s possibly the most important reason that the United States has become one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Why did we gain that advantage? Because we treat education as a right.

That treatment leads me into the point that I was trying to get across to my acquaintances: an inequality in available education is an inequality of opportunity. Without a solid foundation to build on, you either go sideways or down. There is no up. There is no amount of hard work or skimping that can make up for that inequality. But where does this inequality lie? It’s most prevalent in areas of extreme poverty. You know, the kind of poverty that you can still taste on a person even years after they’ve managed to pull themselves out of it. The same sort of tenacity that I saw in my grandparents who survived the Great Depression.

For a lot of people in this country, every day is their Great Depression. I’m not talking about out of work stockbrokers, insurance actuaries, bankers, or that ilk. I’m talking about Kentucky coal miners and the inner city kids with the mom that works three waitress jobs just to afford a roach-infested firetrap that’s too hot and too cold in the wrong seasons. I’m talking about the sons and daughters of family farmers (the few that haven’t been put out of business by corporate agriculture).

People can’t help but be born into these situations. The parents don’t have access to good medical care, let alone cheap and effective contraception (or they’re too religious to use it). They don’t have access to good education, either, as it’s very likely that their own parents were in the very same situation.

Education in general has degraded over the years, but most especially so in the areas where poverty is rampant. The communities can’t afford to pay for good teachers, so they get the ones that can’t get/keep jobs anywhere else. Then the government saddles them with NCLB, and the whole thing becomes a game of “let’s teach the kids how to fill in ovals” rather than an education that teaches them how to use all the rights they’re given responsibly or even how to actually read, write, and do basic arithmetic.

If we remember that education is what put our nation in the lead for so many years, then why do we now, in this increasingly scientific and technical world, quibble about whether or not it’s a right? Without an education, there is no way to function as a productive member of modern society. That, in my opinion, makes it a right we can no longer afford to think of as an opportunity. Sure, some people may not choose to exercise their right. We don’t even force people to vote in this country, and really, that ties back into education as well because this country was founded on the principals of an educated and well-informed electorate.

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