The Right to an Education —
What Does it Mean?
May 31, 1977 — H. Grady Spruce High School Commencement, Dallas Memorial Auditorium, Dallas TX
In approaching this occasion which is so memorable for both parents and graduating students, it is nearly impossible to avoid recollection of my own graduation from high school and the expectations I held for the ceremony. Perhaps my biggest expectation was that the speaker would take the time to interpret exactly what the last 12 years was all about and also put into perspective that foggy path looming just ahead called — “the future.” I suppose that my choice of a topic for tonight, “The Right to an Education — What Does it Mean?” may well be a subconscious attempt to project those same expectations onto this audience. I hope that my attempts to break down the various elements of the “right to be educated” and examine it clearly under a prism of light, will yield those results: a succinct interpretation of the past and a prediction of what the future expects of you.
It was on December 10, 1948, that the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 26 of that Declaration states: “Everyone has a right to an education”. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of our respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.
In a country such as ours, so ripe with education opportunities and institutions of higher learning, the right to be educated has long since come to be taken for granted. But the occasion we are gathered here to commemorate tonight seems an appropriate time to stop to consider for a moment what it all really means — this right to be educated. Most assuredly it entails the right to be free. No society has yet reached a high level of civilization without knowledge of itself, its culture, its people and knowledge of those around it. The survival of a free society does indeed depend upon the ability of the majority of its citizens to make literate and rational use of information regarding the political process and its relationship to their lives. So, in a very real sense if the right to education perishes, so does democracy and freedom of choice.
A free society such as ours affords the opportunity for input from all citizens by legal and legitimate means which can eventually effect necessary changes. A system of making choices called “voting” is, of course, the primary vehicle for change and for allowing citizens to register their preferences in our democratic system. Although this mechanism is criticized from time to time as inperfect, [sic] it does seem to provide for more input, by more people, than any other system practiced in the world today. It is your age group, statistics show, that utilizes this vast decision making vehicle least. For the sake of the survival of a free society, I encourage each of you to become part of the solution by exercising this right from this time forward.
A second element is the right to development. Those of you who leave this room tonight will scarcely notice the immense freedom of choice that you will exercise in selecting the path in life you wish to pursue. For in American society, selection of an occupation is a freedom almost too commonplace to announce. But let me remind you that in earlier societies the development of each individual was already decided at birth by a caste system. However, the right to development combined with education opportunities will allow each of you to be what you choose to be, rather than what your ancestors have chosen. I hope that no one in this audience tonight considers graduation an end in itself. For it is really a means of achieving the developmental goals you must now pursue. The right to an education is perhaps meaningless without freedom to choose how that knowledge will be used. Without choice of development we become trapped in a confining role — like a mouse in a maze who can only only reach his goal by following a predetermined route.
To ignore any of the aforementioned aspects of the right to education would be a mistake, however, to ignore the third aspect, responsibility to society, could be fatal. I know that tonight will be a point of reference which will remain in your memories throughout your lifetime. But it is my sincere hope that it will also be a night of reflection. Reflection upon the things you have received from others, for indeed, you represent a 12 year investment by Americans in the future of America. America committed present resources to achievement of a future goal. That goal was to develop each of you to a point of self sufficiency and the ability to contribute to society. Education like all the other vital resources in which our society is experiencing scarcity, is an expensive resource to reproduce. Each of you seated before me tonight is like a high yeild [sic] bond which has finally reached maturity, you have reached an intermediate plateau in life at which you are capable of yeilding [sic] the benefits of this massive investment and returning many of its benefits to society.
The society in which you live has decided that education is a merit good. Therefore, everyone in our society contributes collectively to the education of America’s young. Now that you have reached the point of maturity, on which side of America’s balance sheet will you appear, the debit side or the credit side? It is your choice.
There is yet another aspect of the right to education — the socializing role. It is described very accurately in section two of the United Nations Article 26: “Education shall be directed to the full development of human personality and to the strengthening of human rights and fundamental freedom. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and racial or religious groups.” The United States of America more than any other civilization on earth is an example of the concomitant socializing benefits of education through society. Education has been the bridge that links the chasms of ignorance between its diverse cultures and population. Moreover, modern transportation and communication systems have brought the world literally to our doorsteps, making even more vital the reconciling effect of education in promoting a fraternal relationship with the inhabitants of the rest of the world.
In the final analysis, it is up to each of you to recognize the things I have outlined as perhaps not really rights at all, but privileges. The present generation must fulfill the challenges left by our historic leaders who fought to make available to everyone the opportunity to experience the American dream, for the endless privileges you and I enjoy. The educational system is only one of the tools left behind by our predecessors with which we can prepare ourselves to confront the future.
Source: Dallas Public Library, Juanita Craft Collection. Published by permission of the library.