Friday, January 26, 2007

Rights and Responsibilities

This past Sunday was Respect Life Sunday. Our new pastor did mention abortion in his homily, for which I give him full credit. In fact, I don't mean the following to be any kind of criticism of him personally; it's just something that has been percolating in my mind all week.

But Father is the sort who, every time he does mention something like abortion, seems to want to balance things by mentioning the death penalty as well. Sunday he added phrases like "the right to health care" and "the right to education" in addition to mentioning the death penalty. It's almost as though Father is afraid that focusing too exclusively on the issue of abortion will cause some in his congregation to label him a Republican.

What's really been bugging me this week is that phrase, "the right to education." What, exactly, does that mean?

For example, I received a fairly standard American education: grade school, high school, four years of college and a B. A. degree. But I have no knowledge of hunting. I can't tell you the right times of year to hunt which sorts of game, and I'd be completely helpless if asked to skin, dress, and cook something that someone else hunted and killed. There was a time when the lack of that knowledge would have been a serious deficiency.

Or, to focus on more 'womanly' arts, I can't sew. I can't do needlework except of the most basic kind, I know nothing of crochet and only a little about knitting. I couldn't render a decent watercolor if my life depended on it, I've had no formal training in any musical instrument, and only the slightest bit of vocal training. Again, there was a time when my admitting this publicly would have been seen as an admission that I wasn't really educated at all; at least, I wasn't properly 'finished.'

The point I'm trying to make is that it's difficult to speak in the language of "rights" about something so nebulously defined, so changeable, so difficult to determine. What is this "education" to which we all, apparently, have a right? Do factors like time period, culture, and family income level affect this "right?" What about personal inclination, or scholarly aptitude? Can people be said to have a "right" to something which some people are not capable of experiencing at all?

It's frustrating to me to have the language of "rights" slapped on to all sorts of things which were never thought of as rights before. But as a Catholic, I don't want to appear to be denying what I think is the true idea here, which is that children should be educated; and that's where the notion of responsibility comes in. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

"2223 Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery - the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the "material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones." Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them:

He who loves his son will not spare the rod. . . . He who disciplines his son will profit by him.

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."

By speaking of education as a "right," we risk all kinds of things. Rights should be equal, after all; and who better to determine our children's "right to (an equal) education" than some sort of massive government bureaucracy?

But by speaking of education as a responsibility that is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the parents, we have restored things to their proper order. If parents have the responsibility to see to their children's educations, then parents also have certain rights in this area; in particular, they have the right to direct their children's education so that their children will not be taught things that are untrue, or contrary to the faith. Parents who homeschool are choosing to exercise this right in the most direct manner, but even parents who choose to share this right with private or public schools should not be intimidated into abdicating it entirely. No government entity has the authority to abrogate the right of parents to educate their children; again, the Catechism:

"2221 The fecundity of conjugal love cannot be reduced solely to the procreation of children, but must extend to their moral education and their spiritual formation. "The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute." The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable."

So, if we are going to use the language of rights, we must say that parents have the right to educate their children, not that children have the right to "an education" which is conveniently left undefined. The latter statement is fraught with peril in this era of unprecedented governmental involvement in the education system.

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