January 04, 2006

Rights . . . and Responsibilities

If you've been following my personal weblog (Nate Against the World), you know that I've begun the process of applying for the spring quarter at a local university. Part of that process was filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) which I've already filled out, and today I received the results of my application. It said that our Expected Family Contribution (EFC), meaning the amount that my family will be expected to pay toward my education, is nothing. In one sense, it was exciting, because my family really cannot afford to pay for my education -- we usually just scrape by -- and this ensures that our economic situation, which I currently am powerless to change, won't prevent me from receiving an education.

In another sense, though, it was sobering.

I believe with the Church that the right to education is a human right (cf. Gaudium et Spes, #26; Economic Justice for All, #80), but I do not believe that this human right somehow entitles me to have my education subsidized by the government. Rather, I believe that the government's responsibility is to provide a stable economic system so that families can afford to pay for education. I believe that the government's responsibility to provide financial aid for education only comes into play when it fails to provide such a stable economic system and in the case of citizens who, because of disability, are unable to pursue work in order to pay for their own education. I don't believe that the right to education is a right to be handed an education on a silver platter without working for it. I am as responsible for securing my own rights as anyone else is.

In my own circumstances, there are several good reasons why my family and I are unable to pay for my education. For starters, my mother is disabled and has little income, sometimes none at all. For some time during and after graduating from high school, I was also unable to work because I had to help my mother with her day-to-day life and I also had to help with the round the clock care of my grandmother, who suffered in the advanced stages of Parkinson's Disease until she passed away in October 2003. After her passing and after helping my mother and grandfather through the mourning period, I did get work -- but the best I could do was a job that paid slightly above the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, and it was only part-time work. I live in an economically depressed area, and that's often the best one can do with only a high school diploma under one's belt.

Eventually, I had to give that job up when my mother's disabilities got worse and when my grandfather's health deteriorated, and soon I had to care for him as I had cared for my grandmother. In September 2004, our house was destroyed as Hurricane Ivan came through my area in the form of a tropical depression and caused the most serious flooding the region had seen in decades. For a while, my mother and I lived in cheap motel rooms with help primarily coming from the American Red Cross. Even that eventually became financially impossible, and soon we were forced to move in with my grandfather -- into a two bedroom, one floor home, and I slept on the couch, when I slept. My grandfather's health continued to deteriorate, and as many of my longtime readers will remember, he died in February 2005. Not long after helping my mother through the mourning period, I began again to look for work, and that is where I'm still at. "Looking For Work" could be the title of many people's stories in my region.

Despite it all, I don't feel entitled to having my education subsidized by the government. That's why I've never had a problem with the bulk of my financial aid being student loans that I'll have to pay back, and why I have in fact preferred it that way. That's also why I have no problem with the idea of work-study; in fact, I hope I can get involved in the work-study program. I don't want my education handed to me by the government.

Why not? After caring for both of my dying grandparents, don't I deserve to have my education paid for by the government? After helping and continuing to help my disabled mother, don't I deserve to have my education paid for by the government? Since I live in an economically depressed area, in which the government has failed to provide a stable economic system, don't I deserve to have my education paid for by the government? Some would say yes, but I don't feel that way. And I don't feel that way because I don't conceive of the government and its money as some independent entity: the money that the government will use to aid me in paying for my education didn't form in a vacuum, it came from other American families, some in similar circumstances or not much better. Many of them are worrying about how to pay for their own children's education. How can I possibly say that I "deserve" their money?

I don't deserve their money, but I am grateful for it, because without it I would have no further education. Even if that came to pass I would have nothing to complain about, because there are children in the developing world who will never even receive the level of education that I've already benefited from; there are some who will never receive any education at all. If I receive an education, I don't think I could look upon it as anything other than a blessing to be thankful for; I don't think I could ever look upon it as an entitlement, something I deserved. I think I would feel a responsibility to pay back every cent that I received in loans, and to do everything I can with my education in order to give something back to society for what I received in grants. With rights, I believe, come responsibilities; when our own rights are provided for, we have a responsibility to society -- not only to help ensure that other people's human and civil rights are provided for, but to give back to society in a spirit of gratitude.

This brings me to my point, which I hope I've fleshed out with the personal tone this has taken, more personal than the posts I usually share here at Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. What would our society look like if we looked upon our human and civil rights as blessings to be thankful for, rather than entitlements that we deserve? What would our society look like if we responded in gratitude and with a sense of responsibility, rather than responding as if we're only getting what's owed to us? There is no question that there are inviolable human and civil rights which must be protected, but that doesn't mean we can't fundamentally change the way we look at those rights. So much of human history, right up to the present day, has been marked by societies and cultures which either had no concept of human rights or refused to comply with their demands. When our own human and civil rights are provided for, and when so many others' rights have not been, are not now, and will not be -- how can we respond with anything other than gratitude to our fellow human beings and to God? How can we look at such a stunning gift, so rare in human history, and say simply that we deserved it?

I believe that one of the fundamental flaws in our society today is that we have lost a sense of what human and civil rights truly mean, because we have abandoned our belief that there are corresponding responsibilities which we must live up to. How can we value our rights if we don't value the responsibilities which are drawn from them? Like the money that will help pay for my education, our rights are not formed in a vacuum -- God has endowed human nature with inviolable rights in order to give us a means by which to fulfill our responsibilities to one another and to him. When we cease to value our responsibilities and thus cease to fulfill them, the value we place upon our rights is also eroded, leading to a society which no longer has any concept of responsibility to each citizen nor any concrete definition of the meaning and purpose of rights. Lacking the responsibility which forms the meaning and purpose of our rights, how long can it be before our rights simply fade away, without our even noticing?

If we wish to preserve our rights, we must once again respond to them with gratitude and responsibility. It is only when we once again value our human responsibilities that we will recover the value of our human rights.