Education and Social Rights Some of the basic achievements of the Enlightenment political thought are related to the establishment of principles of freedom of thought and speech and to the promotion of religious tolerance as fundamental rights of the citizen. The political discourse on rights is not any sort of humanitarian utopianism that ignores power relations in society. It is constructed in the context of Enlightenment thought as the institutional vehicle for the limitation of power of the monarch within an agreed social contract. It does not presuppose the existence of equity, social justice or even democracy, in a sense of a representative system. The social contract only implies that political power is mediated by ‘volonte generale’, so it cannot be ruthless, unlimited, unconditional and beyond a generally acknowledged system of rules. The agent that addresses this issue is the particular social class, namely the bourgeoisie in the 18th century and the working class in the 19th and 20th century. The political implications of the Enlightenment project is the construction of principles of political rationality that put an end to the system of ‘in the name of God Monarchy’.
The place of religion in public schools confronts us with fundamental questions regarding the social role of education institutions in modern representative democracies. To whom do schools belong? Whose interests should they serve and satisfy? Does the school have the right to adopt a specific religious faith and disseminate it through systematic education? Does the dominant religious majority have the right to dogmatise through public education? What are the implications of such a position for those students who do not adhere to this specific religion, or for those secular families who irrespectively of their religious believes, or non-believes, would not wish to receive a denominational type of instruction? Certainly the answers to questions such as these are quite complicated and are far from consensual in modern societies. These answers are critical for the conceptualisation of democracy, religious freedom and social rights. The fact that social consensus with regard to the content of education is extremely hard to reach sometimes leads to an easy adoption of a relativist argument that encourages diversity: since there is no consensus on what is to be taught in schools, let us leave it open to the choice of the local community. If there is no consensus among the local community, then let us allow diversification in schooling. The withdrawal of public engagement in the construction of social cohesion through social services, such as education, represents one of the major political dilemmas that educational institutions and current states anticipate which is related to the rational of education as such. Education systems, funded through public taxation, are perceived as a form of redistribution of income aiming at public welfare with universal provision for all citizens. On the other hand, education is also perceived, and not only on the part of liberal political thought, as a social right related to identity formation protected by international treaties that safeguard the right of the individual to receive education according to his/her own faith.
Education has been the critical institution for the appropriation of social goods and a key to social rights in the past (Marshall 1994). The dissemination of literacy and the combating of superstition and naivety has been one of the achievements of public education systems, which have facilitated the access of the poor and the less socially advantaged to the social heritage. No matter how severe the critique of public education can be for its many failures in combating inequality and social exclusion, it is hard to envisage a more effective institution for the dissemination of knowledge than the public education systems. In contemporary times, however, the cohesive capacity of educational institutions is jeopardised not only by the fact that other agents of socialisation, such as mass media, fashion, sports et cetra, tend to become more influential in shaping young people’s consciousness, but also because of the blossoming of new forms of religious fundamentalism (Coulby 2005). The establishment of fundamentalist faith schools or schools that teach creationism and “intelligent design” is becoming quite common policy in Europe and the USA