Educational Equality Among Whom?

3 May 2017 | 18:37

 Educational Equality Among Whom?

Stockholms Stadsbibliotek. Photo: dilettantiquity.


The idea of educational justice is a powerful critique of educational public policies oriented primarily towards economic efficiency via human capital formation. Rather than fetichizing aggregate economic growth, the idea of educational justice prioritizes individual rights to education. Because education is of both intrinsic and instrumental value for each and every individual, educational justice calls for an equal opportunity to education for all. If that means re-distributing educational resources from the most talented and most ambitious to those less well-endowed and less eager – so be it. “No child must be left behind.” This is the mantra of educational justice.



Unfolding the critical idea of educational justice in this manner seems straightforward and uncontroversial. But it’s not. The reason for this is the implicit domestic bias in the articulations of the idea of an equal opportunity to education for all. Commonly, “equal opportunity to education for all” is shorthand for “equal opportunity to education for all co-citizens of a state.” It is this domestic bias that renders educational justice Janus-faced. Realizing educational justice at home sometimes means sacrificing the realization of an equal opportunity to education for all human beings wherever they reside. The duties vis-à-vis distant strangers clash with demands of domestic equality. Thereby promoting educational justice can be good from a domestic point of view while being bad from a global point of view.


To illustrate, consider first that aiming at an equal opportunity to education for all co-citizens is a bottomless pit. Due to inequalities in talent and ambition, there are always going to be ways in which educational opportunity can be further equalized among co-citizens. Hence striving for domestic educational justice represents an infinite task that can dry up all motivational and monetary resources that would otherwise be available for achieving global educational justice. Co-citizens who have lesser educational opportunities due to cognitive or physical impairments, for example, would always benefit from additional tailor-made educational programs that support their learning. But resources invested in such programs could have also been spent on educational initiatives abroad that focus on basic education of the extremely poor and disadvantaged globally.



In addition, consider the lesser linguistic capabilities of migrants in wealthy Western societies. Due to the pivotal role of language for educational success, advancing migrants’ linguistic capabilities effectively reduces domestic inequalities in educational opportunity. But such advancement is not just extremely costly, but almost never fully realized. Similar considerations apply to building up migrants’ cultural capital, which is another key factor for success in education.




Thereby the full realization of educational justice at home can blind educational policy-makers for basic concerns of global educational justice. Fixated on equal opportunity to education at home, these policy-makers have neither energy nor money left for fulfilling even the most rudimentary educational needs of individuals living abroad. While children in certain countries lack fundamental skills such as reading, writing and basic arithmetic, educational policy-makers in wealthy Western societies are still absorbed by honoring the extremely demanding egalitarian requirements of domestic educational justice.


What is more, motivating citizens to stand up for justice at home requires cultivating a national ethos of responsibility for domestic justice through education. Educational public policies that determine, for example, the curricula in history and civic education, play an important role in the formation of such an ethos. Yet nurturing simply such a national ethos means to neglect the cultivation of a transnational ethos of responsibility for global justice. That is, the emphasis on special responsibilities among co-citizens can crowd out concerns for global injustices beyond the state.



What follows from this Janus-faced character of educational justice? Two extreme implications consist of giving up either on educational justice at home or on global educational justice. In the former case, the importance of global educational justice is considered to be so great so as to justify sacrificing domestic educational justice. Since providing students around the world with most basic educational opportunity already demands all available resources for education, there is no point in achieving equal educational opportunity at home. In the latter case, the equal opportunity to education for all human beings is discarded as a hopeless pipedream, which effectively obstructs the eventual realization of domestic educational justice.



But there is a more moderate, sensible implication to be drawn from educational justice’s Janus-face. This implication consists of striking a fair balance between the demands of domestic and global educational justice. Such a fair balance could mean, for example, prioritizing the achievement of a fundamental threshold level of education globally and, correspondingly, promoting an ethos of responsibility for global justice that is conducive to its realization. Only once this threshold and the corresponding ethos are achieved would the question arise, again, how to weigh domestic vis-à-vis global educational equality of opportunity and a domestic vis-à-vis a global ethos of responsibility for justice. Perhaps the ideal of global educational justice is regarded as less important than domestic educational justice once this threshold and the corresponding ethos are achieved. But, in fact, whether this or the reverse is right need not be decided today, given that getting that far will require a lot of energy, money, and time. In the meantime, focusing on realizing a fundamental threshold of education for all, wherever they reside, seems appropriate, even if that means sacrificing, at least for the time being, educational equality of opportunity at home.



This moderate position requires specifying further the global threshold in terms of concrete but flexible educational inputs and outputs. How much money and staff should be allocated to education? Which skills should everyone possess – logical reasoning, technological competencies, or something else? What is more, educational procedures and institutions that work best for realizing this global threshold need to be determined. Should e- and distant learning become more influential? And should public or private players take the lead? These questions are difficult to answer. But they are the most important questions about education once we fully grasp the present irrelevance of domestic and global educational equality.



Other forms of striking the balance between domestic and global educational equality of opportunity might exist and be equally sensible. The threshold solution is not the only one. But the crucial point is to understand the importance of striking such a balance rather than concentrating exclusively on either domestic or global educational equality of opportunity.



Dr. Julian Culp is a philosopher and political theorist and currently writes a monograph on transnational democratic education as Research Associate within the Leibniz Research Group Transnational Justice at the University of Frankfurt. As Postdoctoral Fellow he has done research and taught at the Centre for Ethics of the University of Toronto and the Hoover Chair for Economic and Social Ethics of the University of Louvain (UCL). He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Frankfurt and studied philosophy, economics and politics at the universities of Bayreuth (BA), Bern (MA) and São Paulo as well as at Duke and Princeton universities.


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