The Role and Purposes of Public Schools and Religious Fundamentalism: An International Human Rights Law Perspective

By Hodgson, Douglas Charles | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Role and Purposes of Public Schools and Religious Fundamentalism: An International Human Rights Law Perspective


Hodgson, Douglas Charles, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


I. Introduction

The concept of education can be variously defined. Education occurs in its widest sense in the interaction of the individual with the social and natural environment to which he or she belongs. Education can be defined in the broad sense to encompass "all activities by which a human group transmits to its descendants a body of knowledge and skills and a moral code which enable that group to subsist". (1) In this sense, then, education is primarily concerned with the transmission to the younger generation of the skills necessary to effectively undertake the tasks of daily living and with the inculcation of the social, cultural, religious and philosophical values held by the particular community.

Education can, in turn, be more narrowly defined to refer to formal or professional "instruction imparted within a national, provincial or local education system, whether public or private". (2) It is generally the case that the term 'education' is used in international instruments to refer to formal institutional instruction. For example, the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (hereinafter referred to as 'U.N.E.S.C.O.') has defined the term 'education' for the purposes of its Convention against Discrimination in Education 1960 to mean "all types and levels of [formal] education, and includes access to education, the standard and quality of education, and the conditions under which it is given". (3) The European Court of Human Rights has distinguished education in its wide sense from education in its narrow sense in the following terms:

   [education in the wider sense refers to] the whole process whereby,
   in any society, adults endeavour to transmit their beliefs, culture
   and other values to the young, whereas teaching or instruction
   refers in particular to the transmission of knowledge and to
   intellectual development. (4)

For the purposes of this paper, 'education' will refer merely to State-sponsored and taxpayer-funded formal teaching or institutional instruction comprising the primary (elementary) and secondary levels of education. (5)

It is generally accepted that formal education is an important function of the State. In its famous 1954 desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, (6) the United States Supreme Court construed the Fourteenth Amendment as prohibiting the deliberate separation of the races in public schools. In the course of its judgment, the Court also confirmed that the public interest is broadly served by education:

   Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state
   and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the
   great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition
   of the importance of education to our democratic society. (7)

The French and American Revolutions had established the concept of education as an essential task of the State as a means of enlightening the citizenry and pursuing democratic ideals. (8) In his famous treatise On Liberty John Stuart Mill asked "Is it not almost a self-evident axiom that the State should require and compel the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen?" (9) The pre-eminent role of the State in the provision of education has received both constitutional and conventional recognition. (10) Article 1 of the Central American Convention on the Unification of the Fundamental Norms of Education I960 (11) acknowledges education to be "a primary function of the State, which shall offer maximum opportunities for education". The State is generally the chief provider of education which involves the commitment of substantial budgetary resources to the education system as well as its regulation in the interests of efficiency and fairness. (12)

Although children are the main beneficiaries, the right to education belongs to all individuals. …

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