Is education a ‘right’?

Dear Ms Maya Menon,

I am writing this only because you have said that you will be interested to hear the thoughts of your readers on the RtE Act. I am taking the liberty of writing to you though I am not a “teacher” in the formal sense, though I have educated/trained thousands of students over the last ten years. I do not also know how you will take this because I subscribe to a school of thought that is diametrically opposed to yours as expressed in your article.

I am a “teacher” in the formal sense and I have taught both students and teachers over the past three decades – and while I do speak from the formal schooling perspective, which requires urgent reforming, I do not maintain that education is only schooling. However for many, many people life long learning gets a head start if they have been to school.

In my opinion, the RtE Act is one of the worst pieces of legislation that could ever have been foisted on the people of this country in general and on the children of this country in particular. While there are many reasons to come to this conclusion, the most fundamental of them all is that it is unreasonable to call education a “right”. In other words, the very term “Right to Education” is an oxymoron.

To understand this, one needs to first of all understand what a “right” is. Your write-up appears to portray “rights” as some kind of entitlement from the government to the people. I beg to differ. The only sensible definition I have come across for the concept “rights” is that rights are moral concepts defining and sanctioning man’s freedom of action in a social context. Rights are a recognition of certain conditions of existence essential for the survival of man as a rational animal with a volitional consciousness.

While I don’t disagree with your idea of “ right” – how the RtE needs to be seen is as an entitlement that all Indians and especially the government needs to give our children, who themselves are not in a position to demand this right. If for over 60 years we have not been able to provide a decent education to our young – we do have a moral responsibility.

The only real “rights” are the Right to Life, Liberty, Property and the Pursuit of Happiness. Even these rights are only about man’s freedom to act to sustain his life as he deems fit, to acquire and retain property, to preserve his freedom and to pursue his own happiness – the emphasis is on freedom to act and not on the outcome itself. For instance, the right to property does not mean that everyone is entitled to some property but that everyone is free to acquire property through proper means – that means without violating the rights of others.

The “Rights” that you have mentioned are totally outside the reach of lakhs of Indians primarily owing to them not having had access to a basic education. They don’t have any conception of freedom of expression or action or pursuit of happiness – because these ideas require an awakening of the mind….. through contact with perhaps inspiring people or insitutions.

By this simple yardstick, the correct definition of Right to Education is that every child should be free to seek education in any manner they deem fit and can afford. It (the definition) cannot be that every child is entitled to an education of a certain kind, i.e., schooling. Nothing that has to necessarily be obtained as a product of other people’s efforts can be called a “right”. The provision of education requires the participation of many people – those who invest to set up and run schools, those who fund them, those who work for them, etc. By no stretch of imagination is it legitimate that some people must necessarily provide education to some other people. This can only be enforced by coercing and compelling providers of education to harm themselves in order to benefit others. Such an action would be a gross violation of the real individual rights of those who provide education. On this ground alone, the RtE Act is unjustifiable.

What makes it worse is the point that at the end of the day, the RtE Act harms the interests of the very people it purports to help – prospective students. However, rather than go around finding faults, let me explain in what other way the government could have acted. Let me outline the real reform of the education system.

The right thing to do would have been to free up the education system from the influence of the government. Here is a simple step towards freeing education. Get the national boards of education such as the CBSE and the ICSE to make it possible for a child to write their X and XII board exams as a private candidate. In other words, get them to eliminate the requirement that only children who have studied in schools affiliated to them may write their exams.

How will this measure benefit students? While it will in numerous ways, I will list here three.

First, it makes attending school a matter of choice and affordability. People will admit their children in schools not because they have to but because doing so will get their children better education. At the same time, those who cannot attend regular school can study on their own and appear for these exams thus qualifying for various forms of higher education. At this point I take the liberty to remind you that we live in a country that celebrates a mythological character like Eklavya and a real life character like Dr. Ambedkar for the simple fact that they attained the heights of excellence without the support of a formal education system. My suggestion will make it possible for more poor children to study under street lamps by attending unrecognized night schools while working through the day to support themselves and their family using books received as hand-me-downs and charity. My suggestion will make it possible to see a million Ambedkars coming up every year.

I think we romanticize the Eklavya story. It is a story of discrimination by caste, it is also story of being a victim of circumstances by birth rather than a story of achieving one’s life potential! Dr. Ambedkar most certainly received formal education – otherwise he could not have gone to Columbia University! Your suggestion of Night schools will only promote child labour! Remember RtE is for children up to 14 years as of now – not for University level education.

Second, my suggestion frees children and parents from the tyranny of the school system. Parents will be free to educate their children in any manner they deem fit (including home education). They will no longer be bothered about whether a school is affiliated to a recognized board or not but about the quality of education that their children will get in that school. Imagine this – in the middle of an academic year, I will be able to move my child from School A (which I am dissatisfied with) to School B (about which I have got good reviews). What freedom!!! This will force schools to come face-to-face with the strongest disciplining force ever found, the force of the free market – offer good education and make it worthwhile for people to pay you to educate their child or perish.

I think the free market force already exists in some form for schoolgoers in cities. Parents are exercising that right too. Many poor urban dwellers are sending their children to low-end private English medium schools – with the hope of giving their children a better future. They are choosing to take their children out of the government system. But what about the rural Indian child or the tribal child – how does the market force apply for her/him? It behoves upon the government to act responsibly and with the best interests of the child at heart.

Third, my suggestion will lead to the blooming of home schooling and open schooling. It will reduce the kind of investments that a provider of education needs to make in order to provide quality education. For instance, if I am starting a school I don’t have to apply for affiliation to any of the Boards because my students can anyway write the CBSE and/or the ICSE exams. I don’t need to invest money to acquire land and construct buildings. I can rent out smaller spaces at cheap rates and reduce my cost of operations. This will make it possible for me to run a financially viable system of education by charging far lower fees than I would need to under the current dispensation. Thus it will radically bring down the cost of education across board. The biggest beneficiaries of this fall in costs will be the poorest of the poor.

What you are suggesting is running schools as sweat shops! Admittedly many schools in India are indeed sweat shops – but “we” cannot be promoting them as our idea of effective schooling!

As another writer in an earlier issue said, the RtE Act should rightly be called the “Compulsory Schooling Act”. The RtE Act (and your article too) makes a fundamental mistake – that of mistaking schooling for education. Let us face a simple fact of life – schooling is not education. Schooling is neither necessary nor sufficient for a child to receive good education. Once we realize this fundamental error, it is possible to think of alternate solutions.

I need to correct you on that count! My article was an open letter to teachers and those who work in schools to explore the implication of RtE for them.I most emphatically do not suggest that schooling is education. But I do maintain that for millions of us across the world – our education did begin with schooling.

Balasubramanian S