Access to Literacy Is a Fundamental Right

Society has laws for five basic reasons: preventing people from harming others, preventing people from harming themselves, promoting morality, granting goods or services to those in need, and protecting the government. Laws are, of course, often imperfect and end up being misinterpreted and even abused. It is therefore quite dangerous to use existing laws to define what is right and what is wrong. The ninth amendment of the United States Constitution recognizes its own limitations: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." A Federal District Court judge in Michigan should probably have taken note of this when deciding whether access to literacy is a fundamental right or not.

The New York Times reports: "Judge Stephen J. Murphy III rules "that “access to literacy” — which he also referred to as a “minimally adequate education” — was not a fundamental right. And he said the lawsuit had failed to show that the state had practiced overt racial discrimination."

Access to literacy is obviously a fundamental right. How can basic education be compulsory if access to basic education is not a right?

Above copied from Read Educational Trust

Judge Murphy III is correct that the US Constitution does not specifically state "access to literacy" as a fundamental right. The first eight amendments do not include a "right to education". It is certainly much easier to enact and implement laws that state what a government cannot do. The right to religion, free speech, privacy, and bearing arms are much more straightforward. But when it comes to what a State must do to promote life and liberty, the task is harder. Providing access to literacy requires good schools. Good schools are not possible without resources and manpower. Basic education needs adequate infrastructure and resources as well as effective teachers. People who are born with privilege need not worry about a government lacking in helping its people in need. Socio-economic status therefore acts as the main source of inequity when a government fails to provide the necessary channels for development and even survival. Only those who are not fortunate enough to be born in a well-to-do family need to rely on government intervention. Seeing inequity through an individual lens can never expose the public good that relies on equity. Access to literacy must be a fundamental right because that is what economics and science tell us. A society thrives when each of its members thrives. Otherwise, society is deeply encumbered with crime, unemployment and a poorly informed electorate.

Obviously, having laws that tell what a government should do exist in other countries. The Philippines is an example. Its constitution is full of obligations that the government must do. Starting with its second article, it has the following section: "The State shall promote a just and dynamic social order that will ensure the prosperity and independence of the nation and free the people from poverty through policies that provide adequate social services, promote full employment, a rising standard of living, and an improved quality of life for all." The Philippine constitution even has an entire article on education, science and technology, arts, culture, and sports. Yet, after thirty years, the country remains in a sad state in all of these areas. It is obvious that will is not enough.

Working for equity requires not only the letter of the law, but its spirit. And the spirit is not even enough. It requires a deep commitment and competence. Judge Murphy III maybe right in saying that "access to literacy" is not a fundamental right that is stated in the US constitution. After all, there are defendants in this case, the state of Michigan, which actually thinks education is not a right.


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