On the nature of rights

Readers are probably aware of the home educating parent who fled the country a few months ago, with the assistance of Maire Stafford, Neil Taylor and others. She is now settled in Ireland, from which country she writes a blog detailing the persecution which she claims to have suffered in this country. Reading this provides a perfect example of the sort of disordered thinking which afflicts so many British home educators. Here is an extract:

You may THINK you have the right to freedom, privacy, autonomy of thought & deed... water, food shelter... a vote, equality, peace... education, heath care, social welfare, free speech... to not be victimised or offended or endangered or killed... but the 'rights' you believe yourselves to have are not written in stone... & I actually gravely doubt the reality of many of them... they are but a mirage. They are merely privileges accredited to us by others... they are hard won & can be easily lost.

Now there is nothing actually wrong with this; it is more the construction that she places upon the facts that is a little out of kilter. We will leave aside the idea that any of us have a right not to be offended, surely a strange idea, and examine her surprise at the possibility that the ‘rights’ which we are accorded might change over time. This is clearly of course a cunning piece of special pleading. Like so many home educating parents, she believes that she is possessed of a ‘right’ to educate her own children and believes that this ‘right’ could be under threat. It might help if we considered the general idea of rights.

‘Rights’ are not of course a natural phenomenon like gravity or light. It would be absurd to talk of an oak tree’s ‘right’ to water and light. Rights exist only in the human world and are something devised by humans. That is the first point. The second is that ‘rights’ are constantly changing; some appear, while others vanish. So far, I agree with the exiled home educator whom I quote above. Where I differ from her is that she seems to regard this as some alarming discovery to which she must draw our attention so that we can join her in being opposed to the situation. To me though, this continuous varying of rights  it is a very  proper activity. Why is it a good thing? Let us consider a couple of rights which, thankfully, no longer exist.

Until 1991, a wife could not be raped by her husband. A man had a ‘right’ to have sex with his wife, even when she withheld  her consent. This had been tested a number of times in the courts and upheld. I wonder how many readers were sorry to see the loss of that ‘right’? Helping a slave to escape in this country was as one time a violation of the ‘rights’ of the owner of the slave. It was tantamount to theft of his property. Here again is a ‘right’ which has been abolished. Most of us are glad about this. The right to an education was only guaranteed by law to children in this country in the late 19th century. This right has been modified in the past, with regard to school leaving age and other things and will certainly be changed in the future.

I have remarked before, that many home educating parents in this country are reactionaries in this question of rights. They are fearful of change and see any change in rights as being a bad move and one likely to harm their interests. I am sure that slave owners in the 18th century felt just the same when their ‘rights’ were under threat! Those of us with a more open view of the matter are glad to see change and recognise that rights and duties in a society are always fluctuating in this way; some increasing and others diminishing. New laws about education, immigration, work, social security and many other things will confer new rights and remove others. This is how history progresses. It seems to me that a lot of home educators, like the one in Ireland mentioned above, wish only for things to remain as they are. If they had had their way and a change in the law had been resisted by interested parties, then the 1991 judgement which had the effect of outlawing marital rape would not have taken place. At every touch and turn, they oppose change and ask nothing more than for the current collections of rights to remain fossilised. You will observe that she expresses regret that the rights which we now have are not set in stone. Nothing would be more terrible than for this to happen.

The rights of parents and children with regard to education are not a special catagory which should be immune from change. Sometimes they are extended and at other times restricted. Each change is advocated by some and resited by others. There can never be unanimous approval of any new right or abolition of an old one; the best we can hope for is wide agreement, following which those of us who differ in our view of the matter must go along with the majority.  Instead of digging our heels in and stubbornly fighting against any extension to children's rights or diminuation of the rights of parents, we should  ask ourselves only what best enhances the rights of the vulnerable party in the case. To give one final example, until fairly recently parents had the 'right' to beat their children. This right has now largely been removed. I think that removing this parental  'right' was a good idea, because it had the effect of increasing the rights of children. This is precisely how I see the current debate about home edcuation; as an attempt to decrease parental 'rights' and increase those of their children.

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