Manuel Espinoza

Distinguished Faculty Lecture: Ethnographer Manuel Espinoza on Education as a Fundamental Right

February 3, 2020

What might it mean for all students in public schools to be treated as “dignity-bearing” persons? What does it mean to dream socially? Along with members of the Right to Learn (R2L) undergraduate research collective, Manuel Espinoza, PhD, associate professor in the School of Education & Human Development, will explore the origins and meanings of dignity in education in his talk, “Masterpieces Made Visible: Educational Dignity, Social Dreaming, and the Colorado Constitution,” for the Distinguished Faculty Lecture on March 4 at 5:30 p.m. in the Student Commons 2600. 

A Chicano ethnographer and philosopher of education, Espinoza grew up in Five Points, just 20 blocks from his office at CU Denver. His work as an academic has focused on how we define “dignity” in law and education.

“We need to think about [dignity] as a verb, not just a noun,” said Espinoza. “It must be enacted. In education, it’s all the ways a person values substantive learning experiences. Think about what happens in an environment when someone asks a question. We’ve all been in those situations when we’ve been disregarded, misunderstood, or glossed over. Now think about the difference when we are taken seriously.”

In 2007, he founded the Right to Learn Undergraduate Research Collective (R2L). Now comprised of five generations of undergraduates, the group is developing a novel variation of the argument for education as a fundamental right of personhood based on their empirical study of dignity. To that end, they’ve created a handbook on the usage and criteria of “dignity” in two landmark court cases (Tennessee v. Lane, 2004 & Lobato v. Colorado, 2013) and presented their findings at the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities conference in Washington, DC, in April 2018.

On March 4th, Espinoza will introduce his idea to amend the education clause of the Colorado constitution. When Colorado became a state in 1876, the government mandated a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools.” But back then, “uniform” only meant guaranteeing 100 days of school for each child.

“We want to replace it and talk about the moral duty that we have toward every person in public schools,” said Espinoza. “Education should be in harmony with the inherent dignity, the supreme value of the human person. Its current definition in the constitution has outlived its usefulness.”

Espinoza received his BA in Chicano studies from Metropolitan State University and his PhD in education from the University of California, Los Angeles. From 2012 to 2013, he was a postdoctoral fellow for the National Academy of Education & The Spencer Foundation. In 2014, he published the essay, “Perceiving Learning Anew: Social Interaction, Dignity, and Educational Rights,” in the Harvard Educational Review.

The Distinguished Faculty Lecture is sponsored by the CU Denver Chancellor’s Office. Registration is recommended for the event, which is free and open to the public. For more information about the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series visit our event webpage.