The first reading by K. Tomaševski has been thought-provoking for me. I am surprised how much I am struggling with the answer to the question “Is education a ‘basic human right’?” My initial response was yes, of course, but the more I think about it, the more complex the issues seem.

In Tomaševski’s Right to Education Primer No. 1, she gives more definition to what a basic human right is. In part, she says, “Rights entail corresponding obligations as well as remedies for violations.” It is helpful to me to define a basic right as such, and to ask the question “Should a country be punished for a violation of this?” It was also a helpful clarification for me that basic human rights need to be defined and provided for not only by individual governments, but also by global organizations, such as the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF.

Tomaševski also seems to acknowledge that some governments are not in a position to provide for education for all of their citizens. For developing countries, Tomaševski seems to say that donor organizations, including the World Bank and IMF, are obligated to provide for the right. Later, there is a suggestion that this may sometimes need to be done without the support of the government. I wonder though, if a government is not a partner in establishing a right to education, how sustainable will it be? I would argue that donor money may not be well spent without both governmental and popular support.

This leads to a bigger discussion of the whole area of international aid. Tomaševski says that “a cynical image of aid defines it as poor people in rich countries helping rich people in poor countries.” Perhaps I am cynical, but my own view of aid based on what I saw living in Africa is consistent with this. International aid projects, while always well-intended, seem rarely to lead to sustained change. The reasons for this are many and complex, but certainly include lack of government and popular support. If the people of a country do not initiate the reform, drive the process, and believe it is important, it is unlikely to make a lasting difference. This applies to educational reform as well.

There is a tension between offering of aid and the idea of “partnership” with local people. On the one hand, many say that the local people must drive the process of reform. On the other, donors are making judgments about what is “right” and “wrong.” I worry about outsiders making these decisions without always regarding local cultural values.

Tomaševski touches on this in a discussion of education in Burkina Faso. Parents perception of education’s lack of relevance to local culture and employment prospects caused them to opt not to send their children to school. The traditional aid workers reaction to this is to try to convince local people that the reform strategy is the best. I question not only the efficacy of this approach, but also the ethics of it.

This primer also talks about local choice in terms of curriculum content, leading into a discussion of what should be considered a high-quality education. On the one hand, there is the example of a program in which aid workers offered vocational training, which was viewed by the funding agency to be most beneficial to students. However, after many years and dollars spent, the project was a failure, because parents had an expectation of different learning objectives. (See Box 14.) This would seem to argue for local choice in curriculum content.

However, Tomaševski takes the position that there should be a global agreement on what is considered “good education.” She stakes out a position that school should be certain things and not others. I think, though, that this must be a LOCAL decision. While some of us may think that school should be student-centered, exploratory, and open, other cultures may value other objectives in education, and that should be their choice. (By “they,” I mean the majority of the people, not the government.)

One other point in Tomaševski’s primer that struck me was her condemnation of technology as an educational tool. She says, “For teenagers in the OECD countries who have replaced socialization by surfing the web, there is no evidence claiming benefits for their social skills, tolerance or even basic literacy.” Wow! My experience with educational use of technology (especially Web 2.0 tools like wikis, blogs, etc.) is exactly the opposite. These tools develop literacy and critical thinking skills in a way we often are unable to achieve in traditional classrooms. Further, these technologies may be the key to increasing educational equity in the developing world. True they will never replace teachers, but they can increase teachers’ reach and efficacy. Perhaps Tomaševski was thinking of an older type of technology (drill and practice software) when she wrote this.

OpenEd-Is education a “basic human right”? – Part 2

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