Here in the United States, we are privileged to have a public school system that makes learning available to everyone. Is it always quality education? No. Is it the best education system in the world? Certainly not. But as American citizens, we have a basic right to an education.
The theme of KnowledgeWorks Experience Conference this year is “Education is a Civil Right: Early College Delivering on the Promise.” It’s had me thinking about that notion of education and civil rights. A lot. Is education a civil right and, if so, why?
Inherently, I know the answer is yes. Articulating why I know that is more difficult. As I too often do, I looked to my bookshelves for help.
In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass, he tells of when his master learned that the master’s wife was teaching Douglass to read and write.
Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, “If you give a n—– an inch, he will take an ell. A n—– should know nothing but to obey his master – to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best n—– in the world. Now, if you teach that n—– how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would be unfit for him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. And to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”
Although the incident is unsettling in its recounting, Mr. Auld was smarter than I might be initially inclined to give him credit for. Learning does lead to discontent and unhappiness with injustice. Learning does make us unfit to fall in line with the status quo when that no longer makes sense.
Learning makes us free.
Although we’ve stood in our own way countless times, the United States was founded on the idea that all people are created equal and have fundamental rights, like liberty, free speech and due process of law.
Without education, we cannot take full advantage of these freedoms.
And so. Education is a civil right. Because learning makes us free. Learning makes us discontent and unhappy, just like Mr Auld said of Frederick Douglass, but empowers us with the knowledge and know-how to make change and improve the world in which we live.
Our challenge is to increase the quality of the education being delivered. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about the March KnowledgeWorks Conference, where we’ll be talking about how to expand opportunities for students through a quality early college education.