In the United States, K-12 education is (theoretically) a right and in fact an obligation for residents, who are required to go to school unless they’re homeschooling or they successfully pass waiver examinations. The idea of free public education open to all is supposed to lie at the core of this country’s values, creating a framework for a more educated, engaged, happy population. Educated populations tend to have longer lives and better health outcomes, and they participate in the renewal and revitalisation of their nations — you never know which promising student has the potential to invent something amazing, so you’d better invest in them all.
In practice, of course, the truth is more complicated. Not all students in the US have access to K-12 education, and among those that do, there are considerable racial and class disparities when it comes to the quality and consistency of that education. For example, low-income communities have underfunded schools that don’t provide as many opportunities and can stick students in dead ends. Meanwhile, students of colour are trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline, which yanks them out of school and throws them into the justice system, sometimes at a very young age. Immigrant students may be afraid to pursue an education, fearing profiling and potential deportation of themselves or family members.
Some students attend high-flying public schools in wealthy neighborhoods with every possible advantage, while others attend schools in condemned buildings where the toilets leak all over the floor and the district can’t afford janitorial services. This is hardly a state of educational equality, though it is a profound comment on the dream of education for this country and the children who live in it — evidently only some merit the benefits of a good education.
Outside the US, though, conditions are even worse in some countries. I was infuriated to read that a recent UNESCO report estimates that it will take 70 years to provide all children around the world with access to primary school. In other words, kids who are growing up now without the ability to go to school in some regions of the world will likely die before public education is freely available to all children in their communities. That’s appalling, horrific, and disgusting, because early childhood education should be an important priority worldwide: without education, children have dramatically fewer opportunities, and a much poorer quality of life.
The report notes that problems are particularly acute in Africa, where it estimates that in some impoverished rural communities, girls in particular may be among the last to be educated worldwide. With aid for education decreasing, the number of teachers not keeping pace with the number of students, and a growing number of conflict zones, considerable obstacles lie between universal access to education along with universal literacy. The report specifically targets social and gender gaps, looking at which communities are most likely to meet target educational goals and why.
These numbers are incredibly upsetting. Throughout the 20th century, education was touted as a priority, including by international aid organisations, agencies, and NGOs. Supposedly we were building schools and promoting early childhood education and providing textbooks and reaching out to disadvantaged communities around the world to help them get educated, while working with global governments to achieve education and literacy goals. The report indicates we’ve fallen woefully short in that department, and, moreover, the situation may well get worse before it gets better.
As someone who benefited tremendously from free public education, the thought that other people don’t have access to it in my own country is incredibly enraging, as all people deserve equal rights and equal access to fundamental human rights, of which education is one. The fact that education inequalities and disparities are even more acute across the globe makes me want to start kicking a tree stump or something, especially when I probe deeper into the report and look at the roles colonialism and pressure from the West has played in these educational disparities.
Western nations, of course, position themselves as superior because of their greater educational achievements (as measured by school testing and certain other arbitrary measures), and suggest that we have all the solutions to those poor countries filled with ignorant brown people rolling around in the dirt. What we don’t acknowledge is the fact that these disparities are caused in part by our own actions: we are the ones making the war zones, we are the ones making aid conditional on concessions, we are the ones who are actually making it harder for other nations to provide consistent, targeted education to their populations.
And this disgusts me, for it is a strange reminder not simply of the way the West thinks it gets to rule the world, but also of the old saying that we all like to see our friends get ahead — but not too far ahead. What kind of threat would an educated Global South pose? What kind of world could we live in if all people, everywhere, had access to high quality education and the social, political, and cultural tools it provides? Western dominance would be much more difficult to maintain if those we attempt to subjugate could fight back using the very tools we’ve been subjugating them with.
By the time I die, we will not have achieved the goal of equal and free access to education worldwide, unless my lifespan is much longer than anticipated. The West has attempted to transition itself from cruel colonial master to ‘enlightened mentor’ but all I see is more of the same, wearing a different suit.