Salome and Jackson are siblings of about 11 years old from a rural region of Kenya, their daily morning starts with a manual digging in the sand in a quest for water. Their home does not has neither electricity nor piped water, and they cross a 15 kilometers distance through the kenyan savannah to get to school. In the first article of the 1948 Universal declaration of human rights we read that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. But is it true?


Introduction

For the present analysis we will take into consideration only political obligations on Education from a democratic point of view. Democracy will be understood through its radical proposition, namely the supposition that all humans are born equal in dignity and rights [1], and that they should remain and die in those same equal conditions. Those considerations may seem an obvious statement, but as we shall present, it is less obvious than we generally think.

In 1948 the Universal declaration of human rights has established an important ground for lasting peace in the dark dusk of World War II, but to establish the ‹‹ ground ›› doesn’t necessarily mean to accomplish its foreseen ends. In the first article of the declaration, is said: “Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” [2]

This ground principle would then legitimize all the further articles contained in the 1948 Declaration, including the articles 18, 19, 26 and 27, all of them directly related to the right of education. Let’s look deeper into this matter.

Education

The search for institutional Education is not new, not a modern initiative, neither an original agenda. In Western culture, we get used to refer to Plato’s Academy as one of the first stablished institutions of knowledge worldwide. But this is not just a misguided judgment, this is a systemic ignorance on other kinds of teaching systems as we can find in non-western alternatives methods of inheriting knowledge through generations. Yet, we think that Plato authentically has something to teach us on the path for Education.

To consider ‹‹ Education ›› without a strict conceptualization of what does it means is a big mistake. In fact, what would be the meaning of a ‹‹ right to Education ›› if we do not have primarily a definition for Education? In this sense Plato can be extremely important to clarify what is at stake when we use this concept. In his aporetic dialogue entitled Theaetetus [3], Socrates leads the discussion with Theaetetus on the meaning of ‹‹ knowledge ››. Through all the dialogue, Theaetetus will try to answer the socratic question ‹‹ what does knowledge means? ››, without ever getting to a satisfactory definition. And this unfinishable path of trying to define ‹‹ knowledge ››, instead of impeding it, becomes the own definition of the concept.

As ‹‹ knowledge ›› is a far etymological word from the real term used in the dialogue—which in greek is ‹‹ episteme ››, it might be harder to us to understand what Plato is trying to demonstrate. But if we go back in the origins of the greek term ‹‹ episteme ›› (ἐπιστήμη), we suddenly notice that it is composed by two different radicals: ‘epi’ (ἐπί) and ‘isteme’ (ἵστημι). The first one, ‘epi’, means something as ‘on top’; ‘above’. And the second one, ‘isteme’, is the foundation for the latin ‘stare’ as well as the english ‘to stand’. So ‹‹ knowledge ›› for the greeks, their episteme, actually meant ‘to stand above’, ‘to look from the top’. It might be very clarifying for us if we think in a mountain trial: someone who got lost in the trial normally tries to go to a higher place as a means to get to know the right way to go. It is as if the way made to the top, which clarify our vision, was the definition of knowledge itself.

The interesting contribution of philosophy to our purpose is thus to highlight that ‘knowledge’ canot be defined as a closed concept, and that instead it shall remain opened as a constant activity, which finally leads us to define ‘Education’ itself as a path. But not any path; just the path to the top, where our views become freed. Now, if we define Education as a way to free our minds—since to ‘free our views’ is not but a metaphor for this process, or even a way to free ourselves, we must also accept that rigorously we are not born free, and that actually to be free is to become free—a condition that can only be attained through the development of our path on education. In the article 18 of the 1948 Universal declaration of human rights, it’s said:

“Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”[4]

Followed by the article 19: “Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” [5]

It is relevant to notice in those articles the insistence of the word freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression. If we have seen that the pre-condition to free our minds, or our views (way of thinking), is necessarily related to our experience through the path of education, now we can affirm that both articles above mentioned need for their coherent application, before everything, the concretization of the right to Education. Or, in other words, we simply canot think, believe or express any opinion freely if we do not have as granted our right to Education.

But if the right to Education is necessary for the application of what is provided by those articles, why is it just mentioned later on the articles 26 and 27 of the 1948 Declaration? Let us have a look at their provisions:

“Article 26. (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

“Article 27. (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.” [6]

Here we find that actually there is no compromise in defining as we did before what is to be understood as education, but there is however many directions on A) how is it to be implemented,  B) who should be obliged to provide it, and C) what it should generally ensure.

A) First of all, the articles 26 and 27 guide us to an interpretation that Education should be free for an extensive universal access, seeking thereby the realization of an equal process of schooling and academic training which would ultimately lead to a fair meritocratic system of society. The given instruction according to which ‘elementary education shall be compulsory’ supports our definition of Education as a path for freedom;

B) They imply that school (in different levels), parents, communities, religious institutions and nations in general should provide the necessary means for the establishment of an universal access for education;

C) And finally it points out that not only Education should enable people to develop their own capacities and concur for social benefits based in their merit, but also that it should strengthen community and political values of cooperation between people and nations in the defense of universal human rights values and the maintenance of peace. By suggesting all these social values, alongside with the protection of the right to participate in the benefits of scientific advancement and cultural life, those articles demonstrate that Education should not be concerned only with individual freedom, but also with collective freedom.

We could take these articles as an universal ground for the international agenda [7] in matters of Democratic State policies on Education since 1948. We might however consider some obstacles for the realization of their prescriptions until our days.

Obstacles

We have taken into account the concept of Education essentially as a method, a way to become free. In this section we want to consider some important obstacles to the achievement of an universal access for education. We will center our analysis on the life of some children who struggle everyday in the search of their freedom.

Zahira, Salome, Jackson, Samuel, Carlito: these are the names of some children we got to know thanks to the recent Pascal Plisson’s documentary Sur le chemin de l’école (2014). In Plisson’s documentary, we are presented with the daily challenge confronted by all these children in their way to school—the huge distance needed to be crossed among deserts, mountains, rivers and   villages to get to their school.

Salome and Jackson are siblings of about 11 years old from a rural region of Kenya, their daily morning starts with a manual digging in the sand in a quest for water. Their home does not has neither electricity nor piped water, and they cross a 15 kilometer distance through the kenyan savannah to get to school. In their way, they find elephants, hills and other animals that only imagination can picture how frightful it might be for children to traverse it alone. Taking two hours to cross those 15 kilometers (not to say 15 more in their way back home), their journey starts even heavier due to the fact that they must carry each one a medium gallon of water and a dry twig to school. Once in the school, the sticks are gathered with the ones from other students and then used to make fire. Similarly, all the water taken by the students to the school is joint in a big boiler, so the fire and all the water gathered are used to cook the students’ meal during the journey. All of what could be prevented if the school had piped water and electric power.

Zahira is a 12 years old Moroccan student. Her school is more than 20 kilometers away from her home. Passing through the high mountains and unpaved roads of Imlil region of Morocco, she can easily take more than 4 hours to get to the school. She is only able to traverse this huge distance once a week, so she can just take classes on Mondays. The high hills climate can be very sever, and accompanied by two friends, the three of them encourage one another to face this distance until the end. Without using money, Zahira takes a hen given by her parents at home and carry it until getting close to the school village, where she will change it for different grains and cereals in the market; grains and cereals which will be taken to school to share with the others. Evidently this school pattern of one day classes per week is detrimental for her and all of her colleagues—at least those in similar conditions—education learning.

Samuel is a 13 years old Indian student, he was born prematurely and for this reason he has developed a paraplegia condition which prevents him form walking. Each day he needs to go through a 4 kilometers distance to reach the school, something that he would be incapable of doing alone due to the lack of infrastructure of his village area. His two younger brothers help him to cross the dust, rivers, and other villages in their way to the school by pushing him in his wheelchair. His wheelchair was something improvised with some brilliance consisting in a plastic chair attached to a metal structure with two bicycle wheels, but its fragility make it very improper and even dangerous to cross rivers and sands—which ordinary wheelchair would be prepare for it?—risking to seriously harm him and his brothers. Useless to say that the 4 kilometers distance increases exponentially with the poor infrastructure for wheelchairs circulation in the region.

Carlito is a 11 years old Argentinean student, each day he cross with his younger sister 18 kilometers to get to the school. Living around the Andes Cordillera they belong to an ancient national culture of ‘Gaúchos’, who traditionally move around through large distances by horse riding. Even if their horse helps to make their way quicker, it still takes around 2 hours to get to school through the pampas and hills of Argentinean South, which requires them to wake up each morning very early.

All of those children fortunately have received a lot of attention and international contribution to improve their situation after the film’s release [8]. But they are evoked here not as mere individual cases of difficulty and struggle for getting access to their right to Education, they actually only represent a bigger frame of Education obstacles in the life of many children around the world. The first and evident obstacle which draws our attention is the long distances they need to face to arrive in their school establishments. Just take into consideration how many kilometers you walk daily: is it even close to 15km, 18km, or 20km? Unless if you are a marathoner—and excluding the distance you go through by public transports, it is very unlikely that you even get close to those numbers. But that is not all, we canot forget that those kilometers include rivers to cross, hills to go up through, and harsh cold in the winters to endure; and even worse if you use a wheelchair and your living area is deficient on providing accessible infrastructure.

The right to Education of children, teens, or even adults, in those regions is therefore threaten by the very difficult access to educational establishments. Starvation, thirsty, risk of violence—specially if you are a young woman—and exhaustion, are some other daily conditions confronted by people in their quest for education through all the long roads similar to those mentioned as examples. Education being itself a long path for those who can easily have access to institutions of learning, becomes thus incredibly arduous—when not impossible—to those confronted at these many obstacles.

Since the access to Education appears now as much as important as the existence of educational establishments, and since ‘access’ means not only the length of the roads but also adequate nourishment, water provision, security, etc., the path for Education needs to be understood in all its complexity. We do not intend to address all these problems here, but we want to make clear that without access there is no Education, and without Education what we loose is the very principle of all democratic rights: social equity.

Equality

Let’s come back to the first article of the Universal declaration of human rights:

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Here we read that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. But is it true? Couldn’t we say that someone who is born in the heart of Paris, because of the easier access to schools, museums, universities, amongst other cultural facilities, has more rights to education than an individual born in a violent or extreme poor environment with no schools at all? Well, if that is the case as it seems to be (what does not make it less unfair), and considering that Education plays a major role on defining our futur possibilities in life and liberates us from a sentenced inevitable futur, we are not really born equal and free, but we are born equal in the capacity to become free and equal in dignity and rights. Society should grant us all an equitable access to Education for the pursuit of our freedom as individuals and collectivities. If the State where we live canot cope with these obligations, it has not therefore attained yet the democratic goal of rights equality.

The long path for education, is finally the harsh path for freedom. And since freedom is the foreseen democratic ground without which no right can be effective, it leads us to conclude that Education should be an universal priority, if not the primary right of all. The incapacity of contemporary democracies to realize an effective access to Education, is certainly a threat to fully upbringing people to the exercise of their deserved freedom. Just as the children referred before, it was through sand, rocks, rivers and other barriers that Pina Bausch’s famous dancers should be able to move freely. In this sense, we could not thus find better dancers than those children crossing the long paths to their school. They seem to be telling us at the top of their quest for freedom: “we need to dance with, to dance against, to dance above all the obstacles.” [9]

[1] We will use as a legal source of analysis only the 1948 Universal declaration of human rights, considering it as a major reference for democratic policies on contemporary States. As it is said in its preamble, a better comprehension of this text is always a step forward its realization: “Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge…”.

[2] Universal declaration of human rights, 1948: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.

[3] PLATO, Theaetetus, Sophist, Harvard University Press, LCL, translated by Harold North Fowler, Cambridge, 1989.

[4] Universal declaration of human rights, 1948: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/.

[5] Id.

[6] Ibd.

[7] Alain Carry, Marc Pilon, Jean-Yves Martin, Le droit à l’éducation: quelle universalité?, EAC, Paris 2010.

[8] Cf. at On the Way(s) to School,  The Foundation page: http://www.surlechemindelecole.org/?lang=en.

[9] From Wim Wenders’ film: Pina Bausch, 2011.

Bibliography

Alain Carry, Marc Pilon, Jean-Yves Martin, Le droit à l’éducation: quelle universalité?, EAC, Paris 2010

On the Way(s) to School,  The Foundation page: http://www.surlechemindelecole.org/?lang=en.

Pascal Plisson, Sur le chemin de l’école, 2014

PLATO, Theaetetus, Sophist, Harvard University Press, LCL, translated by Harold North Fowler, Cambridge, 1989.

Universal declaration of human rights, 1948: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/. Wim

Wenders, Pina Bausch, 2011