Federal Court Rules:
There’s No Right to Literacy Under This System

How They Look at Education... and How We Will, After the Revolution

| Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader:

Some years ago I had a friend in Detroit who taught elementary school, and struggled every day to try to help her students rise above the horrific conditions in the schools. Every week she took part of her salary and bought toilet paper to bring to the school, because otherwise there would be none. Once a month she and her husband drove to a discount bookstore in the suburbs to buy books so her students would have them in their classroom.

I thought of her when I read that the Federal District Court in Michigan ruled last week that “access to literacy is not a fundamental right.” The court issued an order dismissing a class action lawsuit brought by the Public Counsel law firm and others on behalf of students in Detroit, a lawsuit requesting the state be required to provide evidence-based literacy instruction in all schools, and to provide the teachers, training, and tools to do so.

What are the conditions in the Detroit schools that led to this lawsuit? Detroit has the lowest literacy rate for elementary-age children of any city in the country. Of the six schools highlighted in the lawsuit, at least 90 percent of the students read below levels for their age, and at one school 100 percent of the sixth graders read below their levels. One of the lawyers for the lawsuit wrote when it was filed:

At the schools we feature in our Complaint, students returned from summer break to find that there were no teachers in many core curricular subjects, no books for them to use individually in their classrooms or to take home to do homework, classroom temperature hovering around 100 degrees such that school had to be dismissed early on the first day and students and teachers threw up and passed out. We have documented that, in some of these schools, individual teachers had to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars from their meager salaries just to stock their classrooms with basic supplies. The teaching of seventh and eighth grade math classes was assigned to an eighth grader. Teachers were provided a handful of battered history textbooks dated 1998 when the president was Bill Clinton, and during winter students had to huddle in overcrowded classrooms wearing layers of winter clothes, shivering and seeing their breath if they spoke. (Statement of Mark Rosenbaum, available at www.detroit-accesstoliteracy.org)

The class action complaint documented these conditions and much more, and included pictures from classrooms with roaches and feces, and with water buckets catching the rainwater coming through the ceiling. The lawsuit argued that the differences between conditions at these schools with largely Black and Brown students, and the nearby wealthy and mostly Caucasian community of Grosse Pointe, constitute racial discrimination that reinforces and exacerbates the inequalities between the communities.

How did the court answer this? After acknowledging that such conditions cause tremendous harm, it compared the problem to those who have no sanitary place to live, or live in abusive homes, but do not have a fundamental right to have those conditions dealt with.

There is so much wrong here it is hard to know where to begin. But for the purposes of this letter, think of the horror, in terms of the human potential of tens of millions of children—to learn, to create, and to think critically—squandered, suppressed, and snuffed out, embodied in the oh-so-logical reasoning of the judge. This is the reasoning of monsters—or more accurately, the tools of a monstrous system.

Bob Avakian has often referred to Marx’s comment that “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.” In a capitalist-imperialist economic structure, the right of all people to learn how to read does not rise above the most basic right of the capitalist system—the “right” of the capitalists to accumulate ever more capital. There is no right to literacy and decent education—just as there is no right to decent housing, to meaningful jobs, to being free of sexual violence and degradation, to being free from racism and national oppression, etc., etc.

Marx’s statement also applies to socialist society. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America—a concrete and visionary blueprint authored by Bob Avakian for a radically new society that would be built after the revolutionary overthrow of this system—says that:

The most basic right of the proletariat, together with the broad masses of people, in the New Socialist Republic in North America is to be enabled to have the fundamentally decisive role in determining the direction of society, and to join in struggle with others throughout the world, in order to finally abolish relations of exploitation and oppression; and to bring into being, and increasingly play the determining role in regard to, government which will be an instrument toward those ends. (p. 63)

So how will a revolutionary socialist society answer the question, “Is there a right to access to literacy?” Because it is proceeding from abolishing all oppression and exploitation, and the political and cultural structures that enforce oppression and exploitation, it answers the question with an emphatic “YES”! From the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America:

1. Education in the New Socialist Republic in North America shall be based in accordance with, and contribute to, the principles and objectives set forth in this Constitution. All education shall be public education, provided for financially through the allocation of funds from the central government and other levels of government, under the overall direction of the Executive Council of the central government.

Education providing not only for literacy and other basic skills and abilities but also for a grounding in the natural and social sciences, as well as art and culture and other spheres, and in the ability to work with ideas in general, shall be provided, at government expense, and shall be compulsory for all youth (both citizens and residents) within the New Socialist Republic in North America, in accordance with policy and guidelines that shall be adopted by the appropriate government bodies for this purpose. Advanced education, combining specialization with the continuance of overall, well-rounded learning, shall also be provided at government expense for those who meet the criteria and standards for this more advanced education, as set forth in policy and guidelines developed by the appropriate government bodies, in accordance with the principles and objectives embodied in this Constitution. And, on the basis of and in tempo with the development of the socialist economy and society overall, it shall be the orientation of the state to provide such advanced education to increasing numbers of the adult population. In furtherance of these ends, museums relating to history, natural history and science, art, and other spheres, as well as other institutions and programs, shall be developed in accordance with the basic principles and objectives set forth here, and shall be made available widely to the population as a whole....

Overcoming, in society (and ultimately the world) as a whole, such antagonism relating to the division between mental and physical work, which is deeply rooted in the development of societies marked by oppressive and exploitative relations and which is itself a potential source of such relations, shall be a concern of the state overall, and attention shall be paid to this in all spheres of society. (pp 31-32)

YES! When there is a fundamentally different economic structure, a different culture, a different political structure, there would indeed be “a right to literacy.”

One example that I’ve cited before...is the question of the “right to eat.” Or why, in reality, under this system, there is not a “right to eat.” Now, people can proclaim the “right to eat,” but there is no such right with the workings of this system. You cannot actually implement that as a right, given the dynamics of capitalism and the way in which, as we’ve seen illustrated very dramatically of late, it creates unemployment. It creates and maintains massive impoverishment. (To a certain extent, even while there is significant poverty in the imperialist countries, that is to some degree offset and masked by the extent of parasitism there; imperialism “feeds off” the extreme exploitation of people in the Third World in particular, and some of the “spoils” from this “filter down” in significant ways to the middle strata especially. But, if you look at the world as a whole, capitalism creates and maintains tremendous impoverishment.)

Many, many people cannot find enough to eat and cannot eat in a way that enables them to be healthy—and in general they cannot maintain conditions that enable them to be healthy. So even right down to something as basic as “the right to eat”—people don’t have that right under capitalism. If you were to declare it as a right, and people were to act on this and simply started going to where the food is sold as commodities and declaring “we have a more fundamental right than your right to distribute things as commodities and to accumulate capital—we have a right to eat”—and if they started taking the food, well then we know what would happen, and what has happened whenever people do this: “looters, shoot them down in the street.”

Bob Avakian, BAsics 1:20

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