Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Letter: Bernie Sanders should clarify his opinion on higher education


(Alex Hanson/Flickr)
(Alex Hanson/Flickr)

Dear editor,

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.

Richard Egan,

UMass ‘16

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  • D

    David Hunt 1990Feb 23, 2016 at 9:30 am

    When you say that something is “A Right” then, implicit in this, is the duty of someone to provide that.

    If you have “a right” to an education, then SOMEONE has to pay for it. How do they pay for it? Taxes. What are taxes? A confiscation of money by the threat of force from the government if you don’t pay. It is a co-opting of someone else’s income – the product of their labor – for your own purposes.

    There’s another term for using forced labor to benefit yourself: slavery.

    Congratulations, Liberals… you’re living up to your Jim Crow Law-passing, KKK-founding roots.

  • S

    Soren HoughFeb 22, 2016 at 11:17 am

    I don’t understand this article. Bernie Sanders has said multiple times that money should not be an obstruction to getting a higher education. You can debate the semantics of the word “right” but the truth of the matter has been made clear time and time again. Saying it in this speech – which he may well do – will just be a repetition of what he’s said before.

    And to take this even further into “challenging the Founding Fathers” seems like an even bigger stretch. How are the two even distantly related? Moreover, is there a taboo on challenging the old slave-owning white guys who helped found the country? I should think not; that’s why we’ve made amendment after amendment to the Constitution, a living document.

    In sum, perhaps it’d make the author happier if he said “the right to pursue a higher education” with the subtext being “despite personal wealth” instead of “the right to a higher education.” But again, semantics.

  • T

    The_ChairmanFeb 22, 2016 at 9:41 am

    I think if you look at the other “rights,” that are included in, say, the Bill of Rights, you will find that none of them are unlimited. We have a right to free speech, but I can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded theater. We have a right to “bear arms,” but I can’t go out and buy a nuclear bomb. In practice, the right to education would not be any different than the other rights.

    That said, I also do not agree with this mindless Constitution worship. The Constitution was a very progressive document for its time, but in practice it isn’t any more than a set of ideals. Some of them are good, some of them aren’t, and the various political factions have always ignored them when they conflict with other interests. Moreover, Thomas Jefferson himself was skeptical that one generation could make laws that applied to subsequent generations in perpetuity. While I’m on the subject of a Founding Fathers, I would say that some of the men in that group were great thinkers. Most of them weren’t, and the views that they implemented delayed progress in this country for a long time.

    And even if you do worship the Constitution, you also have to accept that it can be amended. But to take it as the be all, end all of political life in this country is a grave mistake in my view.