In the distant past formal education was reserved for the privileged. Today it is universally recognized as a basic human right. Shortly after its birth in 1945, the United Nations created The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Originally adopted by 58 countries in 1948, the number grew to 170 countries by 1993.
Article 26 of the Declaration spells out the parameters of education as a human right, as follows:
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
In subsequent years, the United Nations established nine more human rights proclamations, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. The CRC added the following conditions to the definition of education as a human right:
• Development of respect for the child’s parents, his or her own cultural identity, language and values.
• Preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance.
• Development of respect for the natural environment.
What is interesting to note about these statements is the fact that buried within the issues of access are ethical concerns regarding education. With the exception of formal ethics classes, few think of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as classroom subject matter. Indeed, in many educational environments, the prevailing practice is to leave the development of individual ethics up to parents, society as a whole, or religious institutions.
In some circles, the imposition of one’s own ethical principles on students of varying backgrounds is viewed as an intrusion. Ethics is not within the province of the educational system, they feel. Yet the UDHR clearly has something to say not only about the right of everyone to get an education, but also about the values education should seek to foster.
In a country such as Australia where heated debates over global warming and climate change are still raging, the notion that education should seek to develop a respect for the natural environment might be seen by some as imposing a particular point of view regarding the validity or fallacy of the global warming and climate change controversy.
What then is the modern teacher to do? Do teachers have some sort of moral obligation to pepper their content presentations with the occasional reference to ethical considerations of the topic at hand? If so, do those obligations apply even in instances where local authority strongly believes ethics training belongs at home, not in the classroom? In industrial educational environments, should ethical and unethical business practices be avoided?
There are no easy answers to these questions. The broader dilemma is this – access to an education without ethics may not be enough to prepare students for living in an increasingly complex world.