Privilege Essay

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Many approaches can be taken to better understand the relationship between privilege and education. A foundations of education approach assumes multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary applications and explore the relationship by using historical, philosophical, political, and sociological perspectives. A legal approach that may look at case law argues that education is either a right or a privilege in both the private and public domain. Still another approach would be to look at the relationship between privilege and education with a global lens whereby different countries are assessed as to their regard for education and who receives it. This entry makes a quick survey of thinking in all of these areas.

U.S. Values In Conflict

In the United States, Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most articulate spokesperson on behalf of free education for all children. He believed that a democracy depended upon a literate and informed citizenry. Another icon of early American education was Benjamin Franklin, who advocated education as the mechanism by which individuals achieved self-improvement. Such noble ideals primarily privileged affluent White male children, however. The story of American education tells of the struggle for inclusion by the poor, girls, slaves, and children of color, along with immigrant, disabled, and other marginalized groups.

If philosophy involves questions of values, beliefs, and visions of possibilities, then scholars should ask how a society uses philosophical guidance to inform activity around the relationship between privilege and education. In American society, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence espouse belief in individual freedoms and rights; they value equality and encourage pursuit of happiness. People are free to adopt idealist, realist, pragmatist, or criticalist philosophical stances on issues. Ultimately, each school of thought must respond to the question of whether it is right or wrong to privilege some over others in education.

Perpetuating Position And Power

Schools are not the only place where those in society get their education. Schooling refers to the academic and extracurricular activities and socialization process that occurs in schools. Education, on the other hand, involves reason, intellect, intuition, and creativity; elements that contribute to human (re)creation. Hierarchical arrangements in society tend to be politically constructed along racial, class, and gender lines. Some scholars accuse schools of “educating” individuals according to their “assigned” position in society. A first-class citizen (White, affluent, male) is expected to get a first-class education whereas a second-class citizen (Black, poor, female) may expect to get a second-class education. The point of these scholars is that people’s respective educations are designed to reinforce and perpetuate their social positions. Disproportionate power relations among politically formed groups underscore the relationship between privilege and education.

Sociologists are concerned with the issue of whether external forces determine an individual’s actions or whether individuals are capable of freely shaping the world. It is difficult to imagine an individual who has been “educated” to assume a powerless second-class position in society and who also believes his or her contributions to society are valued by the world. Groups that lack power are somewhat justified in their belief that external forces determine their mobility and access to privilege and education. Dominant groups are privileged to adopt a hegemonic attitude, one that allows their worldview to prevail over subordinate groups. The common, often subtle, message connecting schools and society is that individuals from subordinate groups can rise above their circumstances to enjoy the benefits and privileges of first-class citizenship if they too adopt the worldview of those in power. A merit system that requires skill at passing tests is promoted among all groups as an equitable and just way of awarding benefits and privileges. This aristocracy of intelligence, or meritocracy, is then touted as the reason why some make it and some do not.

What The Law Says

The Constitution of the United States is more explicit about protecting rights than it is about protecting privileges. It does not determine that anyone has a right or a privilege to an education, but instead assigns the task of educating citizens to the states where they reside. In 1973 the Supreme Court declared in San Antonio v. Rodriguez that education is not a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. North Carolina, on the other hand, states in Section 15 of its constitution that the people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the state to guard and maintain that right. Still, movement toward establishing the concept of education as a fundamental right at the national level remains a goal for some legal, policy, and educational research advocates.

A number of state legal cases, for example, Edgewood v. Alamo Heights in Texas and Baldwin Park v. Beverly Hills and Serrano v. Priest in California, have piqued national consciousness around several issues including the fundamentality of public education, the struggle of haves versus have-nots, and the battle against discrimination. Great disparity in public educational quality is a result of the formula used to fund public education based on property taxes. Some states have attempted to remedy the funding disparity between affluent and poor districts by consolidating school districts, arranging contractual agreements between districts, and allowing for creative transfer of commercial property and retail sales taxes. The fact is that lengthy legal battles over the last several decades have yielded tenuous victories at best. Some equal educational opportunity research advocates have concluded that “adequacy” has appeared to replace “equity” as the organizing legal concept for judicially assisted school finance reform.

Apparently the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown has offered minimal definitive direction for the legal battles that have followed it, leading Brown critics to declare the decision more of a symbolic victory than a substantive one as far as equal educational opportunity is concerned. American society has been historically structured along racial lines, where Whiteness confers privilege and Blackness either negates or questions the suitability of privilege. In systematically unjust societies, differential possession of basic human and political rights becomes a privilege. Racialized social privileges such as education then become a highly contested politicized issue that forces equal educational opportunity advocates to fight to move education from the realm of privilege to the realm of human and civil right.

Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recognizes the right of everyone to an education that contributes to the full development of the human personality, its sense of dignity, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It further affirms that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society; promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic, or religious groups; and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. The differential regard for education as a right or a privilege among states within the United States and among countries throughout the world indicates the amount of work to be done to bring about compliance with the International Covenant’s belief in the redemptive value of education in the world community.


  1. Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity. (2005, June). Rethinking Rodriguez: Education as a fundamental right. Available from ez_call_for_papers-4_ce_june_8_2005.pdf
  2. Cullinan, C. (1999, Spring). Vision, privilege, and the limits of tolerance. Retrieved September 1, 2006, from
  3. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (1976, January). International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. Retrieved on September 1, 2006, from

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