Review of McCowan, T. (2014)

McCowan, Tristan. (2014). Education as a human right: Principles for a universal entitlement to learning. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Reviewed by Tarsha Herelle

In Education as a Human Right: Principles for a Universal Entitlement to Learning, Tristan McCowan engages his readers with compelling arguments urging policy makers, scholars, and especially professionals in international organizations to reconsider our ingrained views of both human rights and education. McCowan’s major arguments address broad questions including: What are human rights? What principles define education? And the focus of this book, Is education a human right? He addresses these questions in reference to Education for All (EFA) and urges his readers to look deeper into its purpose and consider how it is being implemented in policy and practice. This book provides a great overview, perhaps attracting busy graduate students seeking a broad understanding of Human Rights Education (HRE) or policymakers or professionals taking a glimpse into scholarly literature around HRE and EFA.

Although the reader can get a good sense of McCowan’s stance on education as a human right simply through the title and the fact that he has enough of an interest in the topic to write a book about it, McCowan refrains from taking an absolute stand on either side of the debate until halfway into the book. The author poses many thought-provoking questions and sets up his arguments around defining a right and discussing various views on the purpose of education. After laying down the foundation of the purpose of education and providing his readers with an understanding of human rights, he stakes his claim that education is a human right.  This inductive style of writing worked well for me because he presented the overall picture of human rights and education before unveiling his perspectives on HRE. Although McCowan does not directly state his stance, his selection of vignettes and statements toward some interpretations and perspectives of human rights and education are indirectly communicated to his audience. McCowan also references the similarities in thoughts that he shares with and draws from Paulo Freire and Amartya Sen.

Each of the nine chapters coalesces to build a convincing case that education is a human right. The author begins with powerful vignettes describing three children’s very different experiences of education in Brazil, India and Africa. The descriptive vignettes exemplify “the great possibilities of education, and the current realities of educational injustice” (p. 2). During McCowan’s overview of the right to education according to the law, he avoids merely listing the laws and explains the relevance of each law in relation to understanding education as a human right. This is a great resource for readers seeking a general overview of the basic laws that established education as a right; however, readers seeking a comprehensive understanding would need to research alternative sources.

Halfway into the book, McCowan powerfully justifies education as a human right and addresses diverse understandings of the purposes of education. His argument proves thought provoking as it undeniably calling readers to dismantle preconceived notions around human rights and education. McCowan engages his readers around a conversation on the justification of rights. Although he provides many justifications worthy of exploration, the main justifications were status based, instrumental, socialization, autonomy and understanding.  He argues, when education is viewed solely a means to a better society or to reduce poverty, it is not a right because rights have intrinsic value. McCowan offers socialization, autonomy and understanding as better options for viewing the right to education and these three justifications are cornerstones to the foundation of his argument that education is a human right. Education is a human right because it offers socialization: the basic skills to navigate our local and broad world including the language and other skills necessary to function alongside others in a society. Education also provides us with autonomy, also known as the ability to critically analyze our surroundings and make rational decisions while navigating our world. His brief discussion on understanding as an element to the right to education is worthy of a quote. “Reflexive consciousness and the capacity to understand is a fundamental human characteristic and the ability to pursue enhanced understandings must be cherished for all people” (p. 63).

McCowan reinforces the idea that a complete belief in education as a human right would require us to rethink our singular focus on compulsory primary education. Although he acknowledges possible hindrances, such as costs, he argues higher education and perhaps lifelong learning should be a part of the conversation of the human right to education. He concludes his argument with a discussion of the capability approach and principles and implications to consider as we move forward.

This book serves as a great introduction to human rights and education and the overall question: is education a human right? However, for readers looking for an in depth understanding on either area of interest, additional research will be required. Fortunately, McCowan recognizes this and recommends resources to learn more about different areas.

I intentionally read this book through two lenses. First, as a doctoral student convinced that we need rethink the way we minimize the purpose of education as a mere means to an end. Through my student lens, I gained an understanding of education as a human right. Further, I closed this book with more knowledge about Education for All, the capabilities approach, and Human Rights Education (HRE). My second lens was through the eyes of a parent of four boys who are privileged to live in a space that provides choices of education for children (albeit, more of the same choices). As a mother, I applauded McCowan for reminding us of the beauty of an education that is created as an end and not a means to a global economy.

Overall, McCowan provided an organized and well thought out inductive argument for education as a human right. Graduate students seeking to get a general overview of this topic or policy makers with limited time could easily read this book and glean powerful insight into HRE and EFA.