Jan 25, 2021 1:05 PM

EDUCATION FRONTLINES: Rights versus responsibilities

Posted Jan 25, 2021 1:05 PM
<b>John Richard Schrock</b>
John Richard Schrock


If you translate the Western term “rights” into many Asian languages, it comes out meaning “responsibilities.” This becomes obvious when we contrast our different responses to the pandemic.

Education Week described how Taipei American School (TAS) addressed the pandemic early last year. TAS was a sister school to Hong Kong International School where I taught for three years. So I paid attention to how their faculty and students were handling the coronavirus.

TAS serves PK–12 students and closed for one month last February. It then re-opened and kept a regular school schedule until the summer break. They reported how “masks are now a way of life at the Taipei American School, and that has eased the pressure of maintaining social distancing....”

The Taiwan government “...provides all adults nine masks every two weeks, and all children 10 masks every two weeks. During the school year, [TAS] gives staff members an additional five masks every two weeks so they can have a new mask every day.”

The deputy head of TAS explained: “In this culture, a majority of people are very used to putting on a mask any time they’re sick—it's the concept that I’m actually protecting everybody else, not myself; I’m more concerned about the community as a whole instead of my own personal preferences. With this pandemic, it was very easy to tell the entire community, masks on at all times.”

The Taiwan government recommended citizens stay five feet apart indoors—unless wearing a mask. The deputy head explained how the school’s mask requirement meant classroom desks and chairs did not have to be spaced so far apart. They checked student temperatures; only ten students had a fever the rest of that semester. Student meals were packaged and they ate outside in a courtyard. Students were allowed to play during recess, but masks were to remain on. If they got short of breath or overheated, students could step away and take a “chin break” with their mask down for a short time.

Student music classes continued, but with percussion and string instruments only. The deputy head explained her strategy “to give people the facts and the transparency and the data and all the information behind certain decisions. Hopefully, they’ll then make the best decisions they can.”

While Taiwan is a democracy similar to the United States, Taiwan’s success in controlling the pandemic is embedded in an Asian cultural concern-for-others that puts social responsibility above any idea of selfish “rights.”

In contrast, some American protesters claim that the U.S. Constitution provides a “right” to not wear a mask. This is addressed by John E. Finn, a constitutional law scholar at Wesleyan University. He explains why “The Constitution Doesn’t Have a Problem With Mask Mandates” available online as a scholarly article published by The Conversation. Finn explains the false claims that mandatory masks violate 1) a “First Amendment right to speech, assembly, and especially association” and 2) a “person’s constitutional right to liberty and to make decisions about their own health and bodily integrity.”

Finn cites a lawsuit filed by four Florida residents against Palm Beach County mask mandates where “...on July 27, the Court declined to issue an injunction against the mask mandate. Citing Jacobsen v. Massachusetts, the Court found that ‘no constitutional right is infringed by the Mask Ordinance’s mandate…and that the requirement to wear such a covering has a clear rational basis based on the protection of public health.’ More to the point, the Court continued, ‘constitutional rights and the ideals of limited government do not…allow (citizens) to wholly shirk their social obligation to their fellow Americans or to society as a whole…. After all, we do not have a constitutional right to infect others.’”

Finn likewise explains why “the 1905 case of Jacobsen v. Massachusetts shows why mask mandates don’t violate any constitutional right to privacy or health or bodily integrity. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld a smallpox vaccination requirement in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The court said that the vaccination requirement did not violate Jacobsen’s right to liberty or ‘the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health in such way as to him seems best.’ As the court wrote, “There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis, organized society could not exist with safety to its members.”

This responsibility is obvious to folks in Taiwan.   

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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities in 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.