Letter: Bernie Sanders should clarify his opinion on higher education
I have followed the last two pieces by Erika Civitarese and Lucas Coughlin on the debate over free higher education. This is easily one of the most relevant issues to us Minutemen, by nature of the vast support for Bernie Sanders here and that we are students with debt as a major concern.
In the last article by Civitarese, she claims that “higher education is a right” and subsequently explains the hardships that she and others are facing to deal with student debt. I have heard and seen people say that higher education is a “right” many times. Bernie Sanders, a proponent of this idea, said in a Huffington Post interview last April that “higher education should be a right. Not for everybody, people who have the ability, people who have the desire, because that makes our country stronger.”
Sanders is saying two conflicting things here. On one hand, he says that the option of free “higher education should be a right” and for “people who have the desire,” but on the other hand, he says “not for everybody” and for “people of ability.” On the surface, a right is something that is considered by the vast majority of people as fundamental to every person. So Sanders is not making any sense. If I were a high school senior with very poor qualifications, but with a desire to go to college, then could I go for free? Or, since higher education is somehow only a right for some people, then would I not receive free higher education? Since there is a qualifier (on the basis of merit) to higher education, it is not a right.
Regardless, it is important to decide if higher education is a “right.” There is no mention of education anywhere in the Constitution, except that the government will provide for “general welfare.” And opinions on what is good for general welfare change constantly.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 26, elementary and secondary education are a right. Now, I might agree that people have the right to understand the world around them, which is achieved via elementary and secondary education. But even then, higher education takes a step beyond that basic right. The Declaration also says that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” This is exactly what Sanders says. Both the United Nations and Sanders are confused. Higher education is a core American principle without a doubt, but still a reward for those who work hard. It is clearly not a right.
Then, we look at current public education. No one would disagree that public education is critical for “general welfare.” It is mainly out of necessity for society that there is public education, not out of necessity for the person. In fact, it is required by law for people to go to school until age 16. The last time I checked, a right was the choice or option to do something freely. But is higher education too important to society now not to make it accessible for everyone? I think this might be true. Without a doubt, we are all connected in a network and all should respect the power of this system. But the point is that this is a public policy issue, not a rights issue.
I believe that Sanders is conflicted with himself. I would ask Sanders, “Are you campaigning for free higher education because it is a right (inalienable to all)? Or do you believe that it is not a right, but that it is for the better of society?” Honestly, I don’t think he would dare challenge the Founding Fathers, who made a country that has accomplished so much.
To conclude, higher education is an issue of public policy and socioeconomics, not an issue of rights. The word “right” is too powerful to just throw around when times are tough, such as with student debt. If you search on YouTube for his other speeches, Sanders says that free higher education should be provided to the people who work hard. His message is consistent, and consistently inaccurate and misleading. This clearly means that higher education is not a right. If it was, it wouldn’t matter how hard you work. People certainly have the right to what education grants them, which is economic mobility, but not to higher education itself.
I think Sanders meant to say that “higher education should be more accessible to those who have the merit to deserve it.” But this is clearly not the radical idea that millions of people are envisioning. I wish Sanders would correct his vision for his followers. This Monday would be a great opportunity for him to do so when he visits campus.