Law in Contemporary Society

The Right to Education

-- By ColinONeal - 1 June 2017

A Federal Constitutional Right to an Education and the Preservation of Freedom of Thought

As networked digital communications have immensely expanded access to information for most of the human race, the sheer volume of information to which most people are exposed has increased dramatically. If individuals lack an effective means of selecting from among the quantity of information available, this over-exposure can be a nearly insurmountable barrier to freedom of thought. An effective system of public education is the most promising remedy for this problem. Given the importance of education in preserving meaningful freedom of thought, the United States should adopt – either through judicial revision or an amendment – a Constitutional fundamental right to an education.

Modern Changes to the Information Landscape and Overexposure

While, historically, access to information was difficult and often defined by scarcity, it is now readily accessible with little effort and seemingly characterized by overexposure. Significant research has shown that an extremely high degree of choice substantially limits our ability to decide between options effectively. The legal tactic of responding to discovery requests not with too little information, but with too much, is an effective illustration of the principle: it uses a volume of information designed to overwhelm and render anything of value impossible or overly difficult to locate. As the amount of available information continually increases in our society, the danger is that the quality of the information we choose to consume will decline. The sheer number of required choices inherently limits the amount of time one can spend making each choice. Without an effective and efficient means for selection between competing sources of information, individuals risk having their consumption decided arbitrarily, or dictated by another interested party.

The Importance of Education

Publicly available education systems, designed to both achieve familiarity with the wide variety of available types of information and to foster critical thinking, are the most promising means for alleviating the danger that high volumes of information will be so overwhelming that the quality of our choices suffer. As the volume of information in society increases, effective education will only become more essential. Exposing an individual to a variety of books and ideas, for example, will enable them to more quickly and effectively understand their future options for reading, and can support both knowledgeable and satisfying choices even among a broad range of options. Both public education and early involvement by parents and others, can expose children to a variety of sources and concepts, and in doing so provide a set of tools which will enable meaningful decisions between what might otherwise appear to be an incomprehensible range of options.

Given the importance of establishing familiarity with a variety of ideas to enable meaningful choice in the context of the internet, as well as the risk of excessive reliance on established preferences, education has a role of inescapable importance – both to enhance our ability to understand and select from the wide variety of options available, and to challenge established patterns of thinking and preferences through exposure to new ideas. This central role in enabling freedom of thought in a modern context – not to mention numerous other considerations of justice and fairness – push heavily for the recognition of a Constitutional right to education.

Value of a Constitutional Guarantee

In the now-famous 1973 case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court declared that the United States Constitution did not include, either explicitly or implicitly, any guarantee of a right to education. Justice Powell, writing for the court, dismisses the argument that recognition of a fundamental right to an education is necessary to preserve the right to freedom of speech and the right to vote. By arguing that there is no guarantee to “the most effective” speech, however, Powell sidesteps the true issue: namely, whether an individual is entitled to a minimal level of ability to vote intelligently and express themselves clearly. The opinion is particularly difficult to reconcile with the court’s decision two months earlier in Roe v. Wade, which recognized that a right to an abortion was encompassed within the right to privacy. Roe and other substantive due process cases represent a compelling line of legal reasoning which would justify the Supreme Court finding a right to education in the Constitution. If the Court is unable or unwilling to do so, a Constitutional amendment expressly guaranteeing the right to education would be a crucial measure for the protection of freedom of thought.

While every U.S. state currently provides public education services, guaranteed either by statute or within the state’s constitution, a Federal Constitutional guarantee of a right to education is an extremely important step. Such a right would enable additional substantive legal safeguards for education, and through subsequent litigation would better explore and define the proper balance between the needs of a diverse set of students. Currently, the extent to which each state provides legal remedies for educational problems is highly variable – many states use out-of-date language, or offer little real protection. Establishing a Federal baseline educational guarantee would ensure that every child is able to get the education, and critical thinking skills, they need to effectively navigate modern society.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the very recognition of the right would elevate its importance in political discourse, and help focus national attention on an often-overlooked area that is more essential to preserving freedom of thought than ever before. A Constitutional guarantee of a right to education would serve as an affirmation of our country’s commitment both to education and freedom of thought at a time when both concepts often appear to be under attack. The precise scope of a right to education would be a difficult question to answer. Nonetheless, it is past time to acknowledge that, at least in the modern world, freedom of thought cannot exist in the absence of effective education – and we can no longer pretend that other Constitutional guarantees have any force when freedom of thought is denied.


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r3 - 01 Jun 2017 - 23:35:12 - ColinONeal
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