Is Education a Right or a Privilege? What Your Answer Says about You


“A Right or a Privilege?” — a new monthly series on Fed Up With Lunch starts now…

Awhile back I watched a little bit of a TV program on PBS that compared high school students in the United States to high school students in India. All I caught was the part where the students discussed what they did on Saturday mornings. While many American high school students sleep in, Indian high school students attend four-hour-long mathematics tutoring sessions starting at 7:30 am. On what was supposed to be a typical Saturday morning, I watched as a high school boy got up late and hung out, while a young Indian girl sat in a study group to prepare her for advanced mathematics. If she didn’t pass the test, she wouldn’t be able to achieve the next level. My impression was that her future hung in the balance. At least that was how her face looked. The American kid was laughing and sitting in his room.

That clip comes to mind when I see students here in the US not taking full advantage of the education laid out in front of them. In the US there is a spot for you if you work at it, but in other parts of the world, there is no spot for you if you don’t work for it — and even if you work very hard, you might not make it.

That clip comes to mind when I see parents receiving their “rights” or the procedural safeguards before an IEP meeting is conducted for their student. If you have ever read the parent rights, you know that parents are in the driver’s seat. By the way, I wish more parents read their rights and advocated for their children’s education.

That clip comes to mind when I asked my husband if he thought education was a human right or a privilege. He thought that education is a privilege. Keep in mind that his viewpoint as a Chinese-American is most likely viewed through a similar cultural lense as the students from India.


I view education as a basic human right. I’m going to bet that most Americans view it that way, too. Our culture is built upon the belief that education is the key to success in life. I completely agree with that, though I wonder if turning education into a right has changed the way people value it. I’m concerned that education is being taken for granted.

I see parents getting unprecedented rights and access to their children’s education. Working with children who have special needs, I believe this is fantastic. Plus with a kid starting kindergarten in seven months, I’m excited to get involved on the other side as a parent. I believe the direction of education and teachers’ roles will be shaped by parents. That’s where the trend lines are going. This could be good or bad, but I’ve noticed that parents really do make things better. When parents advocate, things get better for their kiddos.

You know what I’d really like to see? I’d like to see more American kids get invested in their own educations. It’s hard to get some kids to understand how important and valuable school is to their lives. Education is a right AND a privilege.

What do you think?

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15 thoughts on “Is Education a Right or a Privilege? What Your Answer Says about You

    1. That is a profound admission. I’ve been learning that and other things unique to the Korean. It is important to understanding Koreans, and why Koreans and Black Americans cannot bridge the gaps of perception to see who the other truly is and why and how Koreans thrive in the US.

  1. This is a very interesting topic. i grew up in Alaska. As a child I tested as gifted and was in several gifted programs. however by high school my mother (single parent) left my education mostly in my hands, due to a combo of a stubborn teenager and the time she had to take to keep a roof over our heads. At which point I really stopped caring about grades and did the bare minimum to graduate. I was supposedly so smart, and did have a quick understanding of topics, that i did not feel the need to work for it, and only did enough homework to pass classes. I tested extremely well in SATs and ACTs. I could answer all the questions of my peers and teachers in my science, math, and english courses. One of my peers who was in all the same advanced classes and eventually class valedictorian asked me my college test scores. When i told her, she was very upset i had scored higher than she did, yet I was a C (or below) student. She was upset because she had worked very hard for the best score possible, and truly could not understand why i did ‘better’.

    Fast forward a few years when i decided to enter college. imagine my surprise when I was not eligible for any scholarships. Didn’t they know my brilliance?
    Once I did get into college with a combo of state loans and my McDonalds income, suddenly grades mattered. now I was literally invested in my own education. I was very involved in all aspects of my classes; setting up study groups, asking questions of all my teachers, providing feedback when I felt the quality of teaching was not what it should be for a college course.
    For the first time I got A’s by making an effort. It felt much better than a high SAT and ACT score.

    I do think we do not appreciate the free educational system. I also see college students who do not pay for their classes sometimes have the same lack of initiative. I have often thought it sad as they will find the work world to be a shock if they do not start to apply a work ethic to following a syllabus in a 101 level course.

    I also learned – the smart student isn’t the one who scores well in tests. The smart student is the one who works for that score.

    1. I am the same, gifted, brilliant, but lacked initiative in high school….I was a B and C student.. I even slept in class some. I was not aware how important those scores were for my future… In college I had a child.. And in college I had a 4.0 bc I was doing it for my daughter. Wish I could have had the thirst for knowledge back then that I do now.

    2. Your story is compelling and interesting. There are some similarities in your story I share. But, I feel the inability of school to hold the interests of many students rests upon the reluctance of the system to focus on the way five of the seven ways children learn.

  2. Reading your post, I kept on thinking to myself that education is both a right and a privilege. Then I get to the end and see that you have come to the same conclusion.

    My children have a right to an education. They are privileged to go to a very good school with great teachers. They have the right to go to school, but it is when they look at learning as a privilege that they succeed.

  3. I think educating a child is part of the process of developing a child. It is a natural part of child rearing. But, I know, or assume you are talking about the system of education, and the standards of privilege in comparison to a natural tendency of parents to teach their children?

    Well, my problem with American education is that the history of it is one of privilege. Educating white men in colonial times and principally property owners was the primary purpose of education, and Europe is well known, by its histories, for making education exclusive to the privileged few, and it is a continuing spirit within the American education system. That system of thought, in the 21st century, has not changed its substance, only its appearance. Today, homeowners stand to get better attention towards their children’s education than renters in every state, as far as I know.

    The legacy of slavery and neo-slavery are a constant paradigm and demon in the educating of Black American children. It doesn’t go away. In the Black communities school policy makers think lotteries are good for getting children into talented and gifted programs in public schools, and the private schools are always posturing and advertising their exclusivity as privilege for a select few. The ‘track system’ is still in place in Washington DC, for example.

    Across the ethnic groups and racial lines American schools are in league with pharmaceutical companies, the prison industrial complex, the police, and judgement is the most persuasive teacher in the system! In the Black community is education a privilege, an obligation, a requirement of law, or a place to brood under the expectation of failure? In the Black community and the Hispanic community education is not a simple question of privilege; it is often a question of survival. Getting an education is as dangerous as selling drugs in many communities, so the question to ask is not asked in this environmental toxicity.

    “The best education is a privilege.”
    “Race matters.”
    “Money matters.”
    “Status matters.”

    These are selling points of the American system of education. Maybe well off white Americans don’t, or do, or can’t hear it, but poor whites, Blacks and so on hear it all of these sales pitches all the time.

    On Indian reservations education vacillates between brutality, excellence, indifference, and modest education. The reservations have to deal with the centuries long government policies of stealing children to eradicate the Indian in them by placing stolen Indian children into well off or wealthy white family’s homes across the country. Without going into all of that education, good education on the ‘rez’ is different from the general American population in significant respects. There are colleges and school systems on many reservations, but the general American population is often taught in their schools that Indians don’t exist. Percpetion effects education. In tangible and intangible ways poverty often makes good education out of reach. So, generally speaking is education a privilege on Indian reservations? If it isn’t then we are dealing with treaties, and government promises and education isn’t a right, or a privilege. It is part of terms of agreements between sovereign nations.

    I think education, by itself, is an illusion when it is toted as an answer, a cure all for social inequities. A major problem with American education, and how American’s educate their children is centered on the notion of separation, judgment and punishment. There is great cultural pride in separating church from state, and so on. But, this view of the world has consequences the world suffers from deep in its souls, institutions, governments, etc. and it is and has always been at odds with the traditional worldview of American Indians, and African’s indigenous spirituality.

    When the American education system does not give children the skills to make a living anywhere in the world it fails because skills and education are not one and the same. One enhances the other, but without skills and a sense of purpose children and later as adults, will flounder. Since at least the beginning of the industrial revolution children were educated according to the needs of the reigning industries. People had to be trained out of an agricultural state of mind, and means of income to become workers for large industries taking dominance: steel, cars, and the manufacture of other goods, and commodities. It is the same today. The education system is pushing what the industries of sophisticated technologies needs to the exclusion of the millions who are not gifted in that arena, but are our scholars, thinkers, producers, poets, etc.

    So, is education a privilege, or is it a tool to manipulate lives, and perceptions for the benefit of corporations? I think that question right there should be asked understanding that the United States itself is a corporation!

    – Gregory E. Woods, Keeper of Stories 2.5.14

  4. I strongly agree with your statement” You know what I’d really like to see? I’d like to see more American kids get invested in their own educations. It’s hard to get some kids to understand how important and valuable school is to their lives. Education is a right AND a privilege.” For me it is also right and privileged.

  5. I feel that education is both, a right and a privilege. However, we, whom have completed our trek through grade school and high school, probably have varying opinions on whether it was any, either, or neither of these choices. It could be possible that the consensus might vary depending on where you are located within the country. Some have the view that school is a complete waste of time, another tool for the government to control, a form of punishment. I have heard similar opinions, that school serves a purpose to learn the basics of reading, writing, etc. but only until around 6th or 7th grade and then everything else is redundant and not likely to be of any use in a “real” job. I have to at least entertain the idea that the majority of our education, past a certain point, doesn’t serve a great deal of purpose other than meeting standards of the government to graduate and receive a diploma. Also, very few people have an idea of what they want to do for the rest of their lives after graduation high school. Education, again, may be relative in some ways to your particular location, social class, etc. etc. Someone in a remote location in a foreign country may thing that I am a complete idiot for not being able to use a pistol and mortar (not the pistol you fire either), or in a more relatable way to the U.S. that I might not be able to go out to the field and operate the machinery necessary to plow, plant, harvest, etc., or maybe I can do those things but I’m not able to other things that are common to certain regions. This, in a small way, shows that people are different. Why should we all receive the same standard education for so many years? Are we, as a country, able to compete as a nation, with our current standards of education? Should we implement a completely new form of education? One that caters to an individual’s personal learning needs more, one that would allow more variety, one that would prepare you for a particular career earlier in life, or at least allow you to have an idea of what your likes and dislikes are pertaining to a career in something. Job shadowing is not the most efficient at this since time is limited. Could we have an education more like job shadowing though? One where a group could be taught by a veterinarian, or nurse, doctor, police officer, firefighter, accountant, engineer, etc. etc. Is our current system broken? Do we really even care that our system might be broken or do we have herd mentality? To some, maybe school is a means for keeping the kids out of trouble, “out of their hair”, and in the hair of someone else who is (to defend teachers) underpaid, overworked, disliked, liked, loved, hated, etc. and given very little room to teach students anything, other than what the government requires. In some cases, the S.O.L. studying takes precedent and that’s all that is done, study for the S.O.L. test and if you have any time left whatsoever maybe you can teach/learn about things that really matter. I went off subject and I will stop my rant but an education should be considered a right and a privilege but the privilege aspect can certainly be ignored or overlooked by a student that is getting absolutely nothing more than a standard education.

  6. This is an interesting article. You can ask a thousand people and they will each give a thousand different answers. Personally, I feel that educating a child is both a privilege and a right. It’s human instinct to pass along our skills and knowledge to our children – to help nurture them to better understand the world. This is a basic human right. Like our ancestors teaching the next generation on how to build a fire. It’s about survival.

    However, a privilege is when a child goes to school, sits in a classroom among peers of the same age and have someone instruct them. It’s not a drop off baby sitting service. It is a social system based off taxes that mandates every child learns the basic, math, science and reading skills.

    Most parents in America may think their education is a right by taking advantage of the “free” public school education. The teachers are there to instruct their children in the basics, not every little thing in life. After all, the average teacher to child ratio is 1:27. Parents must supplement the knowledge of what the child doesn’t learn in class.
    I truly believe that parents are there to truly pass on their knowledge to their children. 70% of what your child learns (habits, skills, language, arts, history) will come from the parent and not the teacher.

    After all, it is the parent who better understands the child and on how that child learns. Yes, I’m referring to the 3 basic learning types and how not everyone learns the same way. I myself am a primary Visual learner (I learn by reading) and had to suffer for years as my teachers insisted we should take turns reading out loud and even the Auditory learners (the ones who primary learning was by listening) would cringe at hearing a child with a speech impediment problem or a child with a poor vocabulary mispronouncing basic words.

    I learnt the basics in school. But most of my education has come from outside of school (my parents and my basic drive to read anything I have an interest in – which is a lot). I’m 35 years old today, and I still learn new things every day. I never stop reading and I love to learn new things. Sometimes, I have backtracker to compare what is new today. Yes, I have made a point to read my school-age nephews literature, science and math school books cover to cover so I can see what changes they have made in education, what they are learning, compared to what I have learnt in my school days. And yes, the education in schools has become very redundant and is getting even more ridiculous. For example, my nephews covered the civil war in both 6th grade and 9th grade. They insist on teaching Common Core math system exclusively and grading down school work if the child uses the simplicity system to solve math problems. Does it matter how a child solves a problem as long as it is correct? Forcing a child to learn one way is like forcing a Visual learner to become a Kinesthetic learner only. It’s no wonder that most of the world tests higher than kids in the US. Other world countries probably identify the students by learning type (Visionary, Auditory and Kinesthetic learning), split them into different classrooms, this way at least 70% of the material is delivered to the student in the best way they can absorb it. That would truly be an educational privilege.

    But school is not a bad thing. Yes the child will learn math, science and reading skills. Sometimes redundant skills over and over again since not everyone learns at the same pace. The truly invaluable thing a child will learn is to socialize among his/her peers. They are there to develop their interpersonal skills and other social functions. This is a priceless skill in life.

  7. Unlike the more recent topic of school lunches, I feel education should be a right and should be free….at least all the way through two years of college so one could have the option of getting an Associate’s Degree. More schooling could be at cost to the student/student’s parents.

  8. I feel the education is a basic right in the sense that only obstacle you encounter should be yourself, not others. As far as a “free” education that doesn’t exist; there’s always some cost whether it’s monetary, labor, or discipline. Furthermore to expect otherwise is just foolish. Keep in mind that I’m not just limiting the education to what most would call a traditional school, it could be things you learn from reading, trial and error, parents, friends, co-workers, or even a complete stranger. Your whole life should be a continuous form of education.

  9. Regarding education, I truly believe it is the RIGHT of every human being to have access to education beyond secondary school and not a PRIVILEGE as privilege is a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor granted to someone – a prerogative of a few.

    Also, education is a wanton of some people to better themselves to acquire knowledge – although the net results are to become economically and socially better off.

    Education might become a PRIVILEGE in some countries which erroneously do not have free education beyond secondary school and is prohibitively expensive – the USA is a good example at present time.

    So, in the context cited above, education can be a RIGHT or a PRIVILEGE depending in the society the individual lives in but not necessarily correct.

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