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An investment in a humane future

28 June 2013

The benefits of education are not just for the individual, says Bill Countryman

ON A morning walk recently, a man passed me wearing a jacket with the legend "Education is a right, not a privilege." I took him to be expressing the widespread discontent of young adults hereabouts, but, seen from another angle, he looked to be in his 40s. In effect, he embodied a long-standing debate in California.

As recently as the 1960s, California had a superb public-university system, which was practically free to state residents. Now, fees make it prohibitively expensive for poorer students. Community colleges, which were intended to help those who could not gain entry to, or afford, the more prestigious campuses, are now so overcrowded that students have trouble getting admitted to the classes they need in order to complete their course of studies.

Throughout the United States, higher education is increasingly a privilege that is dependent on the ability to pay. Students whose families cannot afford it have been told for the past couple of decades to finance their education with borrowed money - a policy that has now created heavy burdens for recent graduates, who are entering the job market in a period of economic constraint and high unemployment.

For this generation, the difference between "right" and "privilege" is not theoretical, but existential. And it is difficult not to think that, in this respect at least, the California of 50 years ago was a better and saner place than it has now become.

Still, I doubt that "right" versus "privilege" is the best way of framing the issue. It defines the matter too exclusively in individual terms. I happily subscribe to the idea of education as a right. I am, after all, an academic, and the love of learning seems to me a justification in itself. But I am not convinced that a "right" to education really explains what once motivated California voters to create a free university system.

The early institution of public (in British terms, "state") schools in the US, and, eventually, public universities, rose from a sense that there could be no democratic government without a citizenry that was educated to read, think, and participate intelligently in public debate. The public accepted the expense because it saw it as necessary, not just for personal advancement, but for the well-being of the community.

California has been well repaid for its past expenditure on education. If it has become one of the world's fountainheads of innovation, this is not just because of abundant resources, or a mild climate. It is because of its universities. Its counterpart, found at the other corner of the US, is the small but university-rich state of Massachusetts.

If education must be either a right or a privilege, I prefer the former. But I find it more compelling to think of it as the community's investment in a more humane future - both for its own good, and that of the world around it, from which, after all, it cannot effectively separate itself.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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