Child advocate Louise Gordon sent me a message on Facebook today asking me my thoughts about the contradictions in The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child related to compulsory education and children’s rights to freedom of thought and pursuit of knowledge. I’ve been familiar with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for at least a decade, especially concerning the international child advocacy work I have done with Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE) for the past 12 years in efforts to abolish corporal punishment of children. The UN Convention is a universal, global children’s rights declaration meant to protect the rights, freedom, dignity, needs and vulnerability of children in every country. Any child advocate knows children of all ages need protection from the exploitation they receive daily in our society from adults, which includes everything from the common day-to-day ageist subordination to the outright physical, psychological and sexual torture some children endure. Child advocates all over the USA have decried the fact that the USA is alone with Somalia as the only two member countries in the UN who have refused to ratify the UN Convention. This fact no doubt reflects a similar hypocrisy of the “Land of the Free” refusing to join the 25 other countries that abolished all corporal punishment of children in homes and schools starting in 1979 with Sweden.
The Preamble of the UN Convention beautifully, almost poetically, outlines that the UN affirms “their faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person”.. and that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein, without distinction of any kind…”, which would include children. The Preamble goes on to affirm that “childhood is entitled to special care and assistance”, that the family is the natural, rightful and fundamental place for children and that the child has the right to “grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding”. The Convention is then paced with 54 articles, broken into three parts, all declaring basic human rights for children.
Articles 12, 13, 14 and 15 protect a child’s natural human rights to their own view points, freedom of expression, and freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice”; freedom of thought, conscience, religion and “peaceful assembly”. The Articles protect parents who exercise their duties to assist children with these necessary aspects of learning and expressing. Article 27 protects children’s rights to live in conditions that are “adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development”; Article 31 recognizes and protects children’s basic biological need and right to play, rest and engage in the arts; Articles 34-37 protect children from physical, psychological and sexual assaults of all types. Article 37 emphasizes that a child should not be “deprived of liberty”.
This document sounds like the Utopian, deity-like validation that children everywhere, for centuries, have fantasized about behind their tears of frustration and rage. However, Louise pointed out to me the one little word that insidiously slithered its way into Article 28 of the UN Convention– This word, in effect, virtually nullifies and makes trite Articles 12, 13, 14, 15, 27, 31 and 37 plus much of the Preamble relating to equality, liberty, freedom of thought, freedom to pursue knowledge, freedom to play: That word is compulsory— meaning “mandatory”, “enforced” or “coerced”. The word is powerless by itself. However, when that single word is preceded or followed by the word education, this document of childhood equality and freedom suddenly has the power to imprison and hold hostage every child in the world under adult whim and authoritarianism.
Let’s examine Article 28 a little closer: It begins, “States… recognize the right of the child to education… they shall, in particular: (a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all… [Italics mine].” If we put aside and remove the word compulsory for a moment, the Article simply states that children have the “right” to an education and that States and nations must make it available to children free of charge. By removing the word compulsory, this Article would be in congruence with the Preamble and the rest of the Articles– It would simply state that children have the right to partake of some type of instruction offered to the public, free of charge, and that they could not be denied access to this instruction. This would support, affirm, validate and enforce children’s right to freedom by making something available to them, free of charge, if they so chose it. Article 28 would be a democratic decree supporting children’s right to pursue knowledge, instruction, education, thought, idea and creative venture in any buffet-style medley that they choose. However, by inserting the word compulsory next to the word education, the medley rots into an ugly, dictatorial, one-size-fits-all force-feeding tube crammed down children’s throats by adults who think they best know the passions and purpose of each unique individual child.
In other words, by inserting the word compulsory, children are not even given “the right” to refuse their “right” to education! Nor are children allowed the basic right of all human beings to explore, inquire, learn, grow, think, imagine, invent, wonder and pursue the means to satisfy their curiosities in a way that is right for them individually. Judging by the manner in which compulsory education has behaved towards children since the days of Prussian rule, compulsory means that instruction must be done by force, whether or not it goes against the nature of every neuron, cell, fiber, need and dream of most children… Compulsory in this context has proven that the only instruction that will be free of charge and made easily accessible to all will be an option so mediocre, so joyless, so mechanical, so Capitalistic, so developmentally inappropriate and so contrary to every instinct of childhood that the only way to keep children there and to make parents keep them there is to enforce it with the threat of the law.
That is one “right” that children would never wish to have if they could understand how much of their childhoods would be abducted and tainted by that “right”. Is the “right” to be held hostage, confined, graded, compared, programmed, indoctrinated, surveilled, labeled, belittled, subordinated, disrespected and denied of basic bodily needs, play, family time, socialization and free time a “right”? That is a “right” that children must be wondering, “where’s the punchline?”, what dark satirical comedy sketch did that accidentally fall out of?
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is a critical declaration that has the potential to challenge world governments to recognize children as fully human citizens. It has the potential to insist that world governments ensure that children have the right to bodily, emotional, mental, cognitive, social and spiritual integrity and protection from abuse, harm and exploitation. However, in order for the water to be pure, the drop of arsenic must be removed; the UN Convention is just another patronizing token to children’s lack of political power as long as the UN considers it to be a “right” for children NOT to have the right to refuse compulsory education.