Should some people be barred from pursuing higher education?
By Luke Davies
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Anders Breivik, the 34-year-old Norwegian man responsible for the death of 77 and wounding of 232 people in an attack in 2011, has been enrolled in political science modules at the University of Oslo. The attack Breivik carried out, which happened on 22 July 2011, was motivated by a fear of the “Islamisation” of Europe and was meant to defend Norway from immigration and multiculturalism. Despite an initial assessment to the contrary, Breivik was held to be sane at the time of the attack, and therefore capable to stand trial. He was sentenced to 21 years in jail.
While Breivik didn’t meet the formal requirements for entry into a degree-granting program, the university was clear from the start that it would assess his application only on its merits. His recent enrollment as a non-degree student has caused some controversy—though, it should be said, he is not permitted to leave the prison. Some survivors of the attack believe that Breivik shouldn’t be allowed to study, and of respondents to a Guardian poll asking whether he should be offered a spot at the university 67% replied ‘No’.
The spokesman for the university itself seemed to have two replies to those who oppose Breivik’s enrollment. The first is simply that there is a policy that determines the way in which applications are assessed, and that policy will not be changed for any of the individuals who apply. In Norway, inmates are allowed both to study and work (according to Wikipedia, they are even allowed internet access, though Breivik is not). Second, there is some indication that members of the university believe the actual modules Breivik will study are a reason for him to be permitted to enroll. Ole Petter Otterson, the Rector of the University of Oslo, said the following in comments, titled “Why Anders Breivik is welcome at our university,” published in The Guardian:
Having been admitted to study political science, Breivik will have to read about democracy and justice, and about how pluralism and respect for individual human rights, protection of minorities and fundamental freedoms have been instrumental for the historical development of modern Europe.
It seems clear from the first reply, however, that the second is meant only to assuage lingering concerns about Breivik’s entitlement to enroll. It seems to say, ‘If you aren’t satisfied that there is policy followed for every prospective student, maybe you’ll be happy to know that the subject he has chosen will bring him into contact with material that might change his mind.’
The question I would like to put forward here is: Is there anything a person can do that would take away his or her entitlement to pursue a higher education? To my mind there are two possible interpretations of this question: 1) Is it possible that some act would justify a prohibition on future pursuit of education? And, 2) Is there some use of education that would warrant prohibition of its pursuit? Breivik presents an interesting case both because he committed a violent crime, and because he is open about wanting to continue to promote his cause from prison.
That being said, I don’t think that the first question really warrants extended discussion. What possible connection could there be between committing a crime, albeit an extremely violent one, and pursuit of education? By virtue of the fact that we are talking about prison inmates, it is a given that basic liberties will already have been taken away. To assert that other entitlements should also be waived would require some significant argument. I for one can’t imagine an argument for such a restriction that is not excessively retributivist (though I would be keen to hear).
The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 26(2), which covers education can be read as presenting us with an interesting ambiguity. It reads:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
While I am inclined to believe that the authors of the Declaration would like us to read this as a guide for educational institutions and their employees (as an indication that the right to education is served only if that education promotes human values) we can also read it as a requirement on those said to hold the right. That is, we can read it as stating that a condition of having the right to education is that it only be used to further certain aims. If we use education to further a hateful cause, we forfeit our right to that education. Read in this way, the right to pursue higher education is not inalienable; and, arguably, Breivik would be a candidate for loss of his right. This would amount to a positive response to the second question.
I doubt that this is the right way to think about education. The pursuit of an education in a certain subject doesn’t seem amenable to a consequentialist analysis in the same way as the use of that education is. I am hesitant to say that knowledge acquisition can, in itself, be a bad thing (though it can certainly be good). The way in which subjects are taught can have bad consequences, or be wrongful, but learning itself cannot. But, if this is the case, then there is no reason to restrict a person’s access to education itself.
To return to Breivik: Given that he will not be permitted to leave the prison, and has not been granted internet access, I don’t think that the fact he committed a violent crime should bar him from enrolling as a non-degree student at the University of Oslo.
 Though I’m unable to spell out how this would work here, I think that ‘learning’ in this context should exclude anything a person comes to believe as a result of prejudicial or hateful motivations (on the part of the person himself, or whomever is teaching him). Certainly people learn to act prejudicially if they are around racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., people, but I think this can be distinguished from the more formal, institutional learning of higher education (at least, I hope that it can). Can the latter form, learning for its own sake.