Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


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Is Education a right or a commodity?

Wasserkopf, the disgruntled protagonist in the 1938 play 'Refund' by Hungarian author, playwright, poet, journalist, and translator Fritz Karinthy, comes back to his school and demands refund of the tuition fees as he feels his education is worthless.

What is education? A right or a commodity without a money back guarantee?

  • Dec 29 2013: Here is the question that needs answering: "Can you consider yourself to be an advanced civilisation if you purposely restrict certain members of your own civilisation so that only the wealthy can be educated?"
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    Dec 14 2013: Even lesser animals engage in some form of "education" of their young. Birds, cats, wolves/dogs and primates all teach their young. Humans enhanced this basic survival education with enculturation, socialization and a breadth of knowledge. Education will happen whether a person attends a school or not or that person will likely perish, even in our modern world. Formalized education MAY happen to those fortunate enough to have access to same.

    Therefore, I believe there is no "right" to formalized education. It would be a far better world if everyone had access to meaningful, unbiased, secular and enlightened education. That, however, lies far into our future.
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    Dec 30 2013: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." (DoI 1776)

    Education is NOT a right, it is a privilege. One that every American can attain if they are willing to put in the effort. I came from people of scarce means but now hold a BS, and two graduate degrees. America is the land of opportunity but no one will or should insist that you have a "right"to better yourself. That is entirely in your soul.

    More to the previous point, Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, China, Aztec and others were great civilizations. Clearly only a very few were ever formally educated. Education, especially today, is a tool of civilization but it is not the foundation stone.
  • Dec 6 2013: Pabitra,

    Lets break this up into 4 cases:

    Case 1: K-12 education public school
    Case 2: K-12 private school
    Case 3: post high school at non profit institution
    Case 4: post high school at a for profit institution

    Case 1: I believe education in this case is a right. The ACLU has sued States when they felt there was an imbalance of support of education by school. The education is being paid for by the State.

    Case 2: Education becomes a commodity because the parent is paying money to have the school help educate the student. The tuition can be from 13k to 40k. (Check out Phillips Academy Andover)

    Case 3: Education is a commodity but the consumer chooses the school and the area of study. Most do not mention the job prospects but they do mention in their literature and in interviews how many of their graduates pay off their loans so quickly

    Case 4: Education is a commodity and the consumer chooses the school and area of study. This one really does push the fact that their graduates get jobs but they do not guarantee it.

    In all 4 cases, there is an understanding that the student has responsibilities also.
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      Dec 8 2013: Well there is always that understanding of responsibility in anything one buys. It's called fair use clause. That does not make money back guarantee inapplicable.
      • Dec 8 2013: I have seen the fair use clause used only in copyright law, not sure how it applies here. I do not think it applies here. What does apply is the concept of implied contract and equal responsibility. If the student or parents do not support the student and the educational system does a reasonable effort, the right to sue is lost or they will lose the case.

        What is interesting which has not been tested in court is the student graduates summa cum laude and is well educated but can not get into medical school due to the courses taken.
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          Dec 9 2013: In India all purchases that come under warranty (replacement/free repair) assume fair use. The seller has the right to deny replacement if it is seen that the goods have been used unfairly (for purposes other than intended for).
      • Dec 9 2013: Interesting, thx -
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    Dec 5 2013: Pabitra.
    You keep playing to my weaknesses.
    OK, Didn't see the play, but heard the story. Yes....
    You pay for a good education and you are not given a good education... you should get your money back.
    Paid for education is a commodity. Here in the US, we actually have "schools" , where you send a check and they send a diploma. There are others that handout badly printed syllabuses along with the diploma...

    We also have free "Public Education" here in the states which is paid from taxes of the citizenry. So it is free to the students. It used to be a fairly good education.... but, now days, as the joke goes... it is worth just what the student paid for it... nothing. However, it is free daily childcare for children.... if you include the pre-schoolers, from 2 to 16 years old. If the little ankle biters learn a little something, all the more the better.

    So, my analysis.

    Everyone who can has the responsibility to be a fully functional adult. Everyone who can has a native curiosity about his environment and how things around him work or do what they do or are they edible...
    etc., etc. Education is simply an organized methodology of information that societies present to help it's citizenry acquire the knowledge (aka the processing of information into understanding) to become fully functional adults and continue the society.

    Not a right.... it's a responsibility for societies to provide education. And if it is a paid education, a refund is due for bad goods or services.
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      Dec 5 2013: Mike, you run the risk of being dabbed as a bitter old man but I won't call you one! :) You seem to talk from your honest experiences and do not play lovey dovey. I like that.
      You know all the questions I ask may not have to be philosophy. I am paying through my nose for my son's education and presently feeling some empathy for Wasserkopf.
      • Dec 5 2013: Pabitra,

        I feel for you, 2 children went to very expensive schools.
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        Dec 5 2013: Pabitra....
        Bitter old man? .... Cold.... it may be true, but that is beside the point.

        Seriously, I consider myself pragmatic.... only a little bit sour about all the weeping and gnashing of teeth for those who want someone to take care of them... like adults who live off the government teat or students who sit there and wait to be overwhelmed with knowledge and never open books.

        Like all parents, I helped my boys with their education too, they had to put in the school work for it. I taught them there is no free lunch. Reward is a function of effort. All those old clichés ...
        You'd wonder if they are still speaking to me... surprisingly, they do.
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          Dec 8 2013: I can guess as much Mike. I am old school too.
          'sit there and wait to be overwhelmed with knowledge and never open books.' Apt, because I find information pouring in these days from vertical rather than horizontal.
          It is though provoking when you say Education is a responsibility for societies. But it may be quite a different scene when society allows it to be sold (at quite high prices) just like any other product.
          Imagine a society where people live under 2 dollars a day and schools shut doors to people who refuse to pay a 50 dollar per month tuition. Is that a responsible act?
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        Dec 8 2013: Pabitra,
        I see society as the bunch of people, it's a title.
        If that bunch of people allow/vote for such a school system, there you are.
        I have seen such where children could not/where not/etc. attend schools found alternatives.
        Could the economically deprived band together, finance one bright child to the school and have that child come back and teach the other children... a home school?
        What am I saying. Economic depravation doesn't mean mental depravation, I am sure in the poorest of neighborhood, there are people who can plan, organize, and accomplish.
        Sometimes, it is just a matter of someone turning on the lights...

        My son, the historian, tells me that when people have banded together.... democracies...
        most often that group degrades onto the lowest level of morality and intelligence... He calls it a group mind thing. He is a little cynical... he gets it from me.
        My knowledge of India is limited to having a co-worker from a town south of (Mumbai? sp.)
        He has led me to believe that there is still a cultural... bias that could be an influence in the $2 per day citizens getting education for their children. Even so, I am still betting that someone in that society can figure out a way... the power of determined individuals never ceases to amaze me.
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          Dec 8 2013: I don't think your son or you are cynical. :)
          I understand what you mean by the group mind thing - we call it 'crab mentality' here. Have you seen crabs in a bucket? If one tries to climb out of it, the rest pull it down. A society that does not value personal excellence only breeds mediocrity.
          I can see that you have not lost hope on human determination and .struggle and I appreciate it. Thank you.
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      Dec 6 2013: Hi, Mike, I agree with you a lot that education is not only a right but an obligation and resposiblity too.

      I also want to get refund if as an individual I feel my education in certain school is bad. But how can you provide some evidence to verify you didn't benefit from it? I think generally only after a group of people unite and expose the school's bad educational service through the media can people succeed. Mostly it's a power wrestle, I think. Could I ask how do you think you can get refund effctively in your country? :) Usually, in my place, the schools/institutions will prefer to agree to change their teachers or extend your learning time than to refund the tuitions to you.
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        Dec 6 2013: There have been suits brought against educational institutions for failure to perform, but probably not as many as could have been. Usually, the only recourse for students who feel that they are not receiving value for their tuition is to find another school to attend. Most often, solutions as you have mention are also offered here by the school to dissatisfied students.
        Sometimes that is a solution. In the end ii is how the student determines the ethics of the educational institution to provide what he needs.
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    Dec 5 2013: It's -or it ought to be- a fundamental right, sacred into a Constitution.
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    Dec 4 2013: I think universal free public schooling through high school is a socially productive value. Literacy, numeracy, and the critical thinking skills schools are designed to impart offer people the basic tools to construct a life for themselves in adulthood, to participate in civic discourse with an ability to assess options, and to contribute meaningfully to community in a variety of ways.

    I am less certain that offering free public education through professional school should have the same priority, as there is not a social need for everyone to be a doctor or an engineer. The result of such a policy would be many frustrated people who expended at least many years of effort on getting an education or training for which there is great excess supply and no opportunity to use their skills in practice. I think it makes sense for those with the best qualifications to do work in these fields to have priority access.

    The issue of getting money back because one deems ones education to have been useless is, I think, a different question. Many people cannot recognize what their schooling did for them or that how much they gained, or didn't, from it was, in fact, in their own hands. I worry about young people talking themselves into the idea that education is useless or of adults talking them into that. Young people who are encouraged to make the most of their schooling opportunities will almost always be much better off in terms of leading interesting lives than those who don't.

    People hold up Bill Gates as if his case represents what people can expect to accomplish without education, not realizing that Gates was from a privileged family, got a superb high school education, and did over two years at Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg got a high school education that prepared him adequately to be admitted to Princeton.

    These are not uneducated men. And the importance of education is increasing. If we listen to our most innovative TED speakers, one sees the value of their educations.
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      Dec 5 2013: It is interesting to note that all TED talks are freely downloadable. If one thinks that TED talks (not actually participating in those) are meant to be education in innovative ways, there is a clear message in distributing the talks completely free.
      I understand that right to education is recognized as a human rights by international conventions of nations who stand for liberal, modern and democratic values. Whether this right is enforceable through laws is a different debate (refer Kristzian) but that nations are under obligation to maintain infrastructure to impart free and compulsory primary and secondary education is a direct derivative of the right.
      Education is ofcourse an enabling social practice. If anything, it is supposed to help people develop suitable values commensurate with modern and civil life and critical thinking abilities. It is an observed fact that the social progress is directly proportional to the number of girl child educated in developing countries.
      But what beats me is that a part of education is also flourishing as a business. Such education is considered as an investment (in clear economic terms) so that banks can finance it. When one goes through such education, well the expectation is not simply literacy, numeracy or critical thinking abilities, but surely a high paying job. When one buys such education at a high price, the idea of money back guarantee is only rational.
      I graduated from an Engineering University three decades ago. Even then there was a placement office in my university. And now a days ranks of educational institutes offering professional degrees/diplomas rise and fall with their abilities to send students to industry.
      Should we not very clearly differentiate between education that is a right and education that is a business?
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        Dec 5 2013: When you write that the expectation is surely a high paying job, this may be true in India but I have neither seen nor heard of a university making such a promise or pledge in the United States. I went to university and my eldest two both applied to many universities and each graduated from the one they attended. I never saw in any of these schools' materials any promise of a high paying job. I can see no way one could represent there having been an implicit contract of that nature either.

        If I buy something with expectations that the seller did not promise, I don't see how I could reasonably demand my money back.

        There are, of course, many colleges in the United States and it is possible that some suggest the likelihood of lucrative employment. But even if a school promotes itself by saying that 90% of its recent graduates found employment within a year of graduation, that could not be construed as promising that every person, or even 90% of graduates in the future would find such employment.
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          Dec 5 2013: I am not implying a legal contract enforceable by law, but that education is a means for career and financial security is almost a social contract in India. All educational institutes in India run under the common understanding that it is aimed at pulling people out of poverty and unemployment - that it gives values and an ability to think critically is considered as a bonus. I think the reality of education of a developing 1.3 billion people country is different. Moreover when professional institutes sell courses at prices almost at annual income of a middle class Indian, the promise of employability is very seriously taken.
          My son is preparing for a national level medical entrance exam where the total intake is about 20000 and 10 million compete to get a seat, and he does a prep course (in addition to his senior school curriculum) that costs the family almost half the annual income.
          The allowable margin of error is thin in this country.
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        Dec 5 2013: College costs in the US vary widely, but there are so many colleges and so many seats that people who want to go to college can typically get in somewhere. I work with some college students locally who struggle with reading at the level of the newspaper and middle school level math. Some colleges admit only 7% of applicants, some 30%, and some 100%. One of my former students intends to apply to medical school in a state in which residents with qualifications are automatically admitted.

        Colleges are certainly expensive, but again there is a huge range and financial aid available. Financial aid at competitive universities is often excellent for a well qualified student.

        The situation changes in graduate and professional schools. In the United States one cannot enter medical or law school without a college degree in hand. Both medical schools and law schools offer only loans, I believe, rather than scholarships, but I am not certain of this. A well qualified MD-PhD student or a doctoral student in science would not expect to pay for graduate schooling but may need to be a teaching assistant or research assistant to defray the cost. Admission is extremely selective for those spots.

        People going into law or medicine obviously aspire to careers in those fields, but it is clear to all that their going gives them the opportunity rather than the certainty of procuring a position on graduation, with the higher odds at a top school. In law, for example, the graduates of the top five or six law schools likely have little to worry about if they can be flexible about location and so forth. Schools share their placement rates for recent graduates, data potential applicants surely consider before accepting a school's offer to them.

        I have two in post-graduate institutions right now. One will have near certainty of placement immediately upon graduation and the other, because of her field rather than her institution, we will have to see.
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    Dec 4 2013: For purposes of your question, are you referring specifically to formal schooling? For example, when Sugata Mitra put a computer in the wall beside his building for kids to use to self-educate, does such access count as education for purposes of this thread?
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      Dec 4 2013: Good question Fritzie :) !
      I am referring to the formal schooling including professional degrees, diplomas and whatever goes with the name education in common parlance. I am quite impressed with Sugata Mitra's work, but I think it is more learning than education. Have you heard of Barefoot University? I am not sure that will be considered as mainstream education either. You may like to read my reply to Krisztian below too.
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    Dec 4 2013: I think it's both. It's a right that our laws protect and an intangible commodity that can be some idea or skill or course presented or sold to people who need it.
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      Dec 4 2013: Like food, you mean?
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        Dec 5 2013: Yes, we sometimes also call it" food for thought". And I think it's a right because it's human's advanced desire to be a kind of intellectual social animal. So people want it and establish the law to protect it. I think different countries may have different laws and understandings of this right just like freedom.But the basics are the same.

        I think the example you have provided is a little special and usually people can't demand a refund of their tuition if they haven't any agreement in advance on what measurable results the school should ensure when the students graduate. In addition, it's been a long time after his graduation. And measurable results could be some tests one can pass or skills that one can master or even some authoritative diploma(stepping-stone to success). Otherwise I think it's hard to get refund and complain about it as an individual.
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    Dec 4 2013: obviously neither. it is a service.

    if it is a right, tell me who violates the rights of the children of 1200ad, or the children of the poorest countries now.

    if it is a commodity, give me a jar (ton, piece) of it.
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      Dec 4 2013: Service can be a commodity too. Education is packaged, advertized, promoted and sold as a marketable commodity.

      The right to education is a law in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 13 and 14 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
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        Dec 4 2013: if you use this broader sense of the word "commodity", then education is by definition a commodity, since i can offer you an hour of council for a sum of money. it is by definition.

        it is important not to confuse the two meanings of right. right can mean something that should be, regardless of what there is. for example human rights don't come from laws, they extend over north korea, where in practice there are none. but there should be, because freedom is a human right, independent of laws and rulers. the other meaning of right is something granted by law. this is not a meaningful question to ask, unless you want legal advice. whether education is a right at a given time in a given country can be best answered by a lawyer, and bears no relevance in a theoretical debate. education is NOT a right in the former sense, and therefore any laws making it a right are wrong, and against moral laws.
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          Dec 4 2013: If you are saying that right to education is not a human right, I am happy that neither UNESCO nor European Convention of Human Rights think like you in this matter.
          I think rights precede justice and justice precede laws, with rare exceptions.
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        Dec 4 2013: at the end, you believe that rights precede laws, and it is my point too. but then, you can not refer to laws, since laws might be wrong and not in sync with rights. dictatorships have laws too, but they have very little to do with rights.

        so when we talk about morals (rights) we should never ever refer to laws or government organizations like the unesco or any EU money sinks. whatever they advocate or do have no bearing on rights.

        to uncover the inner workings of the issue, you are welcome to answer my question asked in my original comment.