UN Convention on Rights of The Child: Why is Education Compulsory?

29 November 2009 Categories: unschooling

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.

5 Responses to “UN Convention on Rights of The Child: Why is Education Compulsory?”

  1. Anonymous 3 December 2009 at 12:24 am (PERMALINK)

    I don't understand why this document has gained widespread acceptance in the alternative education movement. Moreover, what does "compulsory" mean for the children in countries that HAVE ratified the declaration?

    I agree with you, Laurie, that the word compulsory should be expunged from the declaration. It would seem to nullify the human rights of children otherwise delineated!

    Of course, HSLDA and parentalrights.org may oppose the declaration because of this word as well, but they also believe that parents should retain the right to "spank" their children. In other words, what they describe as "reasonable" assault on children is acceptable to this cohort within the homeschool movement.

    Louise Gordon

  2. Anonymous 8 December 2009 at 5:53 am (PERMALINK)

    Thanks to AERO — http://www.educationrevolution.org — for including a link to and excerpt from Laurie's UN Convention on Rights of the Child: Why is Education Compulsory? in today's AERO e-newsletter.

    Louise Gordon

  3. anon 8 December 2009 at 10:18 am (PERMALINK)

    The post and comment raise large questions about who should decide what happens with children. Unschoolers believe children should have the right to choose their own paths, perhaps with some guidance. Homeschool parents of the HSLDA ilk believe parents hold that right. Both agree the government should stay out of it. Some European countries do not allow any homeschooling; however, some other countries around the world do not value the education of children, particularly girls. In a home where a mother cannot read it is vital that the child leave the home to become educated and break the cycle of poverty. The UN document is important because it recognizes the rights of children around the world and forces us (Americans) to examine what lies beyond our own homes. Compulsory education does not seem to honor the rights of children, or parents. I am grateful, however, that in our country, our government allows families to decide who gets to make those decision about who controls the educational decisions. A family can access public education, access private education, access democratic/progressive models (though choices may be regionally limited), homeschool in an unschool or traditional model, etc… The choice of how, where, when is up to the family. That is pretty remarkable when you think about it!
    J. Foust

  4. Platypus 13 December 2009 at 7:36 pm (PERMALINK)

    First off, thanks Laurie for taking to the time to write this, and thanks to AERO (edrev.org) for the link.

    I think it's worth pointing out what the reason for the word "compulsory" was. At least I think this was the reason, and though I don't agree with the logic, I understand the use of the word.

    Compulsory was adding to that section to protect children from being pulled out of school to work. In poor countries that were targeted by this declaration, it was commonly known that children will refuse school in order to work on a farm when their parents tell them they must. For Parents who are living in extreme poverty and need their 7-year-old's labour to help ensure the survival of the family and the younger children, it's hard to imagine sending their kids to school. Making it compulsory has the effect of taking that decision away from them.

    However, the effect, here in North America, is totally different. Here in Canada, where we have signed the declaration, it stands as a constant risk to homeschooling families and those who choose alternate forms of less-institutional, but still central, learning.

    In the US, I suspect (with no proof or solid footing), that there is a hidden reason behind the US's refusal to sign the declaration. Two in fact. First that child labour and exploitation are still common and that no one in government wants to have to take it on (as is also the case in Canada). Second that the highly conservative majority of homeschooling families have more power than we think they do. Lets remember that many (and likely most) homeschoolers are not choosing to stay home to promote free thinking and individuality, but rather because their parents are unable to find a school which will provide an education that they feel is appropriate. For example, I don't know of a school in my city that teaches Creationism, but there are thousands of parents who want/insist on that teaching for their children.
    This group of people has enormous political power and is likely using it to ensure that their right to educate their own children isn't challenged.

  5. Platypus 13 December 2009 at 7:37 pm (PERMALINK)

    The unnamed responder said:
    "In a home where a mother cannot read it is vital that the child leave the home to become educated and break the cycle of poverty."

    I feel the need to comment on this as well, just to point out that literacy has very little to do with that cycle. While it has become a means for individuals to escape poverty, that is merely a system that was set up to convince the rest that they are not good enough to deserve better than poverty. It's really quite brilliant, from a colonialist point of view. If you want an entire nation to start exporting most of it's food production and starving it's people, you need a large army to repress those people, or a clever scheme to convince the people that they are staving and poor because they deserve to be.

    Teaching more poor farmers to read is not a solution (unless they decide to read up on revolutionary tactics). Ultimately a labour force must be in place and be poor to sustain that system. If everyone knew how to read, the system would have to change to require something else, like a grade 12 diploma. If everyone got a grade 12, the system would shift again. If this sounds familiar, look out your window. We live in a society where everyone suddenly thinks they need a university education. The vast majority of people who can afford them are getting them, and we (here in Vancouver at least) are already in a bad spot were no one wants to be a carpenter because everyone has a masters and thinks they deserve better than a labour job. The solution is of course to bring in immigrants, devalue any education they already have and get them to work cleaning our shops and building our homes.

    But lets come back to those poor people in Africa for a moment and the original question of children's rights. Unless some giant organization with power takes the time to enforce children's rights, it won't happen in the majority of /poor/ countries. In order to protect the rights of children, their countries have to stop starving. And the solution to that is surprising simple. Stop pulling resources out! Do what ever you possibly can to stop goods from flowing out of poor countries, even if that just means that you stop buying African beans and silk. And if you really need a product from a poor country, find it fairly traded from a local seller that you can talk to about how they sourced the product.

    And finally, coming back to the UN declaration, it clearly needs an edit. Even if it is being enforced somewhere to get kids off the farms and into school, the way it was intended, it's not the right way to do it. The "compulsory" should come out and a new clause should be added that addresses the complexities of poverty and farm life and labour.

    And while on the topic, somewhere else in there it says that parents have the right to choose whatever kind of school they like, based on their religion, philosophy, etc, so long as it is approved by the state. This could be the last nail in the coffin for hundreds of alternative schools. And it's too much power for the state. The clause should read: parents have the right to choose any form of schooling, so long as that school understands and respects the right of the child according to this declaration.

    That would be a great edit!


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