Education is a Human Right

For the first time in recent American history, a politician is advocating free college education for all. This, in a country where many parents want to eliminate the Department of Education and believe that government has no place in the education of their children, requires a lot of political courage. The title of this post is one of Bernie Sanders’ slogans. Although UNESCO has been labeling education “a right” for a long time, Sanders is the first person in the US to extend this policy to college. But why is this slogan so appealing?

Modern education is based on various philosophies, which oftentimes oppose one another. For example, while progressivism encourages learning real-life activities and places great emphasis on the desire of the pupil, essentialism believes that children should learn the traditional basic subjects and that these should be learned thoroughly and rigorously. Since each philosophy claims to rely on the best available scientific theories of learning, confusion abounds as to what education really is and and how one has to teach the next generation.

Before there was a philosophy of education – which started in the nineteenth century – there was just education. It was the medium in which one generation transferred its knowledge to the next. Post-Renaissance education, Middle-Ages education, Greek education, Babylonian and Egyptian education were all of this kind.

We can trace this all the way back to our tool-making ancestors. As soon as the first homo erectus bashed two stones together, they knew instinctively that they had to pass on this newly acquired skill to the next generation. And from then on,

the forces of evolution were directed solely to the brain, whose development was driven by the education of the offspring by the current generation.

When our ancestors discovered how to start a fire, they educated their next generation on how the new discovery worked. When the first words were uttered, our ancestors educated their offspring on how to speak. As the abstractness of the skill increased, so did its perceived necessity and importance. And the act of the education of the next generation required the participation of more and more members of the social network (teachers). Egyptians made sure that the next generation acquired the newly discovered abstract skill of writing and built institutions in which this took place.1 A tablet, probably used in the first madrasas to teach Babylonian children the latest technique of multiplication, still exists. Plato insisted on teaching the Greek children the abstract skills of reading, writing, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. His educational theory was one of the most important factors in the development of the Greek genius.

  1. I am not implying that all children were involved in learning. The emergence of classes and castes limited this privilege to a subset of the next generation.

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