FAMILY VALUES: by William L. Saunders, JrNews Weekly
Human rights and education
, February 6, 2010
This article is from a presentation by William L. Saunders, Jr, director of the Centre for Human Life and Bioethics, Family Research Council, at the fifth World Congress of Families, held in Amsterdam in August 2009.I would like to focus upon a matter many ordinary people consider to be of primary importance in ordinary life, that is, the education of children. I would like to do so through the lens of universal human rights.
The distinguished professor, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard University's School of Law, wrote in her 2001 book, A World Made New
: "Early in 1947, with the horrors of two world wars fresh in their memories, a remarkable group of men and women gathered, at the behest of the newly formed United Nations ... to draft the first 'international bill of rights'.
"So far as the Great Powers of the day were concerned, the main purpose of the United Nations was to establish and maintain collective security in the years after the war. The human rights project was peripheral, launched as a concession to small countries and in response to the demands made by numerous religious and humanitarian associations that the Allies live up to their wartime rhetoric by providing assurances that the community of nations would never again countenance such massive violations of human dignity. ...
"[However,] together with the Nuremberg Principles [of 1946] ... and the 1948 Geneva Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights became a pillar of a new international system under which a nation's treatment of its own citizens was no longer immune from outside scrutiny. The Nuremberg Principles ... represented a determination to punish the most violent sorts of assaults on human dignity. The Genocide Convention obligated its signers to prevent and punish acts of genocide. ...
"The Universal Declaration was more ambitious. Proclaiming that 'disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind', it aimed at prevention
rather than punishment." (Emphasis in original).
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereafter referred to as the "Universal Declaration", or the "Declaration"), then, aimed, on behalf of the collective conscience of mankind, of all people of goodwill, to call upon governments to respect the human rights of their citizens.
Thus, article 16 of the Declaration addressed that institution without which there is no human future, the family. Article 16 declares: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." Thus, article 16 recognises the common sense fact, sometimes overlooked by governments and international organisations, that the family exists prior to the state, is the foundation of the state, and that the state is obligated to protect it.
The article emphasises that this priority is not simply vis-à-vis the national political unit - the state - but is also vis-à-vis the society, or larger community, itself. The family is the foundation; society and the state are built upon it. As any builder knows, if that foundation is cracked or unstable, the edifice built upon it is likely to collapse.
Article 16 recognises the right of a man and woman to marry and found a family. Article 26 recognises "the right to education", and sets forth various important aspects of this right - that it be universally available, and, thus, so far as possible, free to all. Further, "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Then, echoing the approach of article 16, article 26(3) recognises that parents are the primary educators of their children: "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children." As article 16 recognised the priority of the family founded upon marriage to the state, article 26 recognises the priority of the wishes of parents regarding the education of their own children over any designs of the state.
Remember, per article 16, the State is obligated to protect the family. If the State presumes to usurp the rights of parents to choose the education of their own children, it damages the family, violates its own obligations, and undermines the foundation of a just society and State.
The Declaration, though extremely persuasive, is not itself international law; it is not binding law. The Declaration has had - and continues to have - a mighty, summoning effect upon the minds and hearts of mankind. Still it is true that a system of treaties were devised to put into legal obligation
the principles of the Declaration.
The International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (which I will refer to subsequently as the "ESC Covenant") echoes the provisions we have just reviewed of the Declaration. Article 10 enacts the principles of the Declaration's article 16, requiring each State to accord "the widest possible protection and assistance ... to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society". Likewise, article 13 of the ESC Covenant (along with article 14) requires the provision of free, compulsory, universal primary education (e.g., for children through to the age of, approximately, 18). Article 13 goes on to require that the State "pursue" "the development of a system of schools".
Now, these are very ambitious provisions, and they envision an active and extensive role for the state. However, for our purposes, it is important to note none of this is to be undertaken by the State in a way that undermines the rights of the family, or of the parents within
the family, to direct the education of their children.
Subsection 3 of article 13 states: "The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum education standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."
This is a highly significant provision. The ESC Covenant clearly affirms the primal right of parents to direct the education of their own children.
Of course, as common sense dictates, such parental education (or parentally-established educational bodies) must meet "minimum education standards". But once this obligation is met, the parents are to be left free by the state to establish such schools and to take such steps as ensure that their own children are educated "in conformity with their own convictions".
The second of the two treaties that were envisioned as securing the rights enunciated in the Declaration is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which I shall refer to hereafter as the "Civil & Political Covenant"). As did the ESC Covenant, the Civil & Political Covenant recognises the primacy of the family in the life of society, and as the foundation of the state. Article 23 of the Civil & Political Covenant repeats, nearly verbatim, the provisions we have discussed from the Declaration and the ESC Covenant.
Chief among this "second generation" of human rights treaties is, of course, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (what I shall call the "Child Convention"). The Child Convention was, of course, first set before the nations of the world in connection with the World Summit for Children in 1989. But let us look to the second
such world summit, which was held at the UN in 2001/02. The nations gathered there recognised that it was parents who are "the primary caretakers of children" and they pledged to "strengthen their capacity to provide optimum care, nurturing and protection".
Returning to the Child Convention itself, we see that it reaffirms many of the provisions regarding education and the family that I have already discussed. The Preamble makes clear that the family is the fundamental and natural unit of society, and that the family "should be accorded the necessary protection and assistance" by the State.
Article 3(2) notes: "States parties ... [are to act for the child's well-being], taking into account the rights and duties of [the child's] parents". This clearly establishes the correct priority - parents first, the State as an aid, when and if needed.
Consequently, it is appropriate for the State to establish a state-wide education system. But it may not do so in a way that deprives the parents of the right, should they deem the state system to be deficient, to ensure that their children receive education in non-state schools. Accordingly, subsection 2 of article 29 provides that the "liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions" is affirmed.
There are many tangible benefits that flow from this approach. The State, unable to claim an absolute monopoly, is forced to compete. That is, if the State fails to provide its citizens with an educational system which meets their needs, or which contradicts their values, the parents can, as an international human right, establish alterative schools, which are more in conformity with their own values.
Of course, under the international human rights documents I have been discussing, such education must meet minimal standards - it must be about educating the child, not merely indoctrinating him or her. And such education is, generally speaking, to prepare the child to live in a world where persons of different views live, and to respect the basic human rights of such others.
But that goal can be achieved in many diverse ways. A one-size-fits-all state school system is not required. For instance, in the United States, a steadily growing number of parents are "home-schooling" their children, rather than send them to a public school system which they believe ensures neither the safety nor the education of their children. This is perfectly congruent with human rights standards.
In the West, at least, parents also often establish alternative schools or engage in "home-schooling" for reasons having to do with religious faith. Let me spend a moment on that by returning to the Civil & Political Covenant, the second of the treaties putting into law, by treaty, the provisions of the Universal Declaration.
Article 18 is concerned with "freedom of thought, conscience and religion". It contains an important provision concerned with education, one that illumines the reason why the international community was concerned about this subject. Subsection 4 states: "The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents, and when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."
In this context, let me return to Professor Glendon's magisterial book on the Universal Declaration, A World Made New
. Since the European and Asian totalitarian regimes, whose actions sparked the Second World War, came to, and remained in, power by a systematic denial of political and civil rights and freedoms, it would surprise none of us to learn that the framers of the Universal Declaration believed the maintenance of such freedoms to be at the heart of their project to secure both peace and justice after WWII. In other words, we are not surprised to learn that, after WWII, the world would value freedom of conscience and freedom of the press, for example. But what about education?
Here Professor Glendon provides a crucial, and often forgotten, point: "In the article on education  ... [the drafting committee for the Declaration] made an important change, influence directly by recollections of the National Socialist regime's efforts to turn Germany's renowned educational system into a mechanism for indoctrinating the young with the government's program. ... [A]fter Beaufort of the Netherlands recalled the ways in which German schools had been used to undermine the role of parents, a third paragraph was added: 'Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.'"
In other words, one of the most important lessons drawn by the framers of the Declaration from the experience of the Second World War was that parental choice in education is a fundamental element of international peace and security.
This is a crucial lesson to keep in mind, particularly in the West, where a state-monopoly over education is often asserted, and "religious" values and viewpoints are sometimes denigrated in favour of (sometimes militant) secularism. Note that it is in religious and moral matters that the human rights documents emphasise the role of parents.
We do well to remind ourselves that the religious person, and the religious point of view, is hardly the enemy of reason. In fact, the two inform one another in mutually fruitful ways. On this point, John Haldane of St Andrews University in Scotland. Professor Haldane, one of the most eminent philosophers in the world, argues, in An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion
(2003), that the reasonable, the rational, the sensible position for an intelligent person to take is one in favour of, not against, religious faith.
Still, some proponents of the modern position of State (secular) monopolistic control of education would surely substitute their judgment for that of parents if they could. But they cannot.
The international human rights documents emphasise the fundamental truth that the family is the foundation of society, and that it is the State who serves the family, not the other way round. These documents emphasise that it is the parents who have the right to decide what education is best for their children, not the State.