Holistic Education Column
An Educational Rights Movement
I think of the networks of educational alternatives as essentially comprising a human rights movement. “Rights” represent the legal and social acknowledgement of the inherent worth of every person. The American democratic tradition, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, declares that the value of a human life is inviolable, beyond the authority of government or society to grant, measure or curtail. Educational approaches that respect each individual’s learning style and personal interests share this commitment to human rights.
Do children have the same, or nearly the same, rights as adults? Our cultural common sense tells us “of course not”: Children are immature, dependent, and more or less ignorant about the world. We don’t let children drive or vote, we try to restrict their access to alcohol and tobacco until they near adulthood, and we strive to protect them (often not diligently enough) from exploitation in the workplace, seductive marketing, inappropriate exposure to sexuality, and other social practices that they are not developmentally equipped to digest.
Moreover, parents and society at large (primarily through its educators) have a moral and natural obligation to guide young people through their development toward maturity, teaching them values and good sense, even if this guidance must sometimes overrule their own desires and impulses.
Still, even acknowledging that children are less mature and more vulnerable than adults in important ways, is it not possible that they could reasonably benefit from a more generous extension of the human rights we adults expect for ourselves? If democracy represents trust in each person’s ability and right to manage his or her own life, and if we were to discover that in the proper settings young people, even at quite young ages, possess this ability to a significant degree, then are children not entitled to somewhat more autonomy in the unfolding of their personalities?
Most educators who have given young people this chance have seen, first hand, that they show surprising maturity, creativity, and thoughtfulness when they are allowed to make decisions about their own learning and about daily life in their school communities. In such an environment, the curriculum, rather than being fixed in advanced by policymakers and teams of experts and then delivered to passive learners, is what progressive educators call “emergent”: It is actively developed through a dynamic, engaged relationship between teachers, students, and the world they experience.
In addition, the policies that govern school communities, rather than simply being handed down by those in power, are formulated through the active participation of everyone involved. Just as the new green business models recognize all relevant parties as “stakeholders” in the way organizations operate, a democratic learning institution treats everyone involved, including the learners themselves and their parents, as vital members of a collaborative community.
Young people deserve to have a say in what and how they learn because they are the most direct stakeholders in the educational enterprise. They are not “human capital” to be plumped up with marketable skills for feeding to the corporate economy. They (and their parents) are not “customers” consuming the products of the knowledge industry.
Instead, as Maria Montessori insisted, each child is the builder of a unique human personality, driven by a creative force from within to engage the world inquisitively and purposefully. This is why human beings deserve rights; we are endowed with both the capacity and the imperative to fashion a personality, an individuality, that will experience and live in the world in ways that no other does, and we require autonomy and security in order to fully achieve this potential. This individuality begins in childhood, therefore children are entitled to educational and existential rights necessary for them to accomplish their task of building a mature individual.
The emerging educational rights movement, I believe, is heir to the great civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In his book Hope and History, civil rights activist and historian, Vincent Harding, wrote that the movement was “far more than a contest for legal rights”—it was a “quest for democracy in America, for the healing of the nation, for the freeing of all our spirits.” It seems to me that alternative/holistic educators are committed to these same principles.
The educational rights movement is democratic because it is inclusive and egalitarian, and invites youth to participate in the life of their culture to the full extent of their capacity. It is a vision of healing because it respects the wholeness of each child’s life, the emotional and existential richness that seeks nourishment and expression but which industrial schooling ignores or suppresses. Finally, “educational rights” means a freeing of the human spirit from the arbitrary routines of transmission schooling; it is a recognition that some living spark—whether of divine or biological origin—guides the unfolding of every individual from a source that is more fluid, more creative than the dictates of curriculum standards.
The concept of educational rights extends the vision of the civil rights movement to the sphere of children’s development and learning. Educational rights demand that we as a society move beyond the transmission of official knowledge and enable every young person to discover his or her unique personality and place in the community.
The idea of rethinking education in terms of human rights is beginning to appear on the cultural map, and it promises a major shift in the ways we teach our young people.
For example, a group of parent activists in New York City launched the Education is a Human Right campaign in 2005. Their goal is to establish a more democratic and open form of public school governance and an expanded view of learning that transcends standardization and high stakes testing. They are affiliated with a larger network called the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. See www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=1634 for a provocative discussion of their efforts.