Education: Is it 'earned' or a right?

On Monday I heard a fascinating CBC interview with Chris Mburu (left), a lawyer with the United Nations Human Rights Agency.

Chris is the focus of a documentary film -- A Small Act -- about how a $15-a-month sponsorship from Swedish teacher Hilde Back enabled him -- a young Kenyan living in a mud house -- to go to school and eventually Harvard. Chris decides to find the stranger who changed his life and creates a scholarship program in her name: The Hilde Back Education Fund. The fund provides scholarships to the brightest students from poor communities in Kenya. A Small Act follows top students in Mukubu Primary School competing for a scholarship.

It's a story about how one small act of generosity can have a ripple effect, changing lives. In the CBC interview, Chris talks about how he calls on scholarship recipients to go back to their communities and 'lift them up' with their own charitable projects.

But as I was listening to this fascinating story, I couldn't help wondering why only the brightest students in poor communities were candidates for scholarships.

The fund says it promotes access to education as a fundamental human right. But apparently that right hinges on intellect -- which many would argue is something a person is born with.

If the fund aims to focus on those who are disadvantaged, why does it only recognize and reward the most exceptional, the students who are most advantaged academically to begin with?

Such a thought would never have entered my mind before I had a son with an intellectual disability. The brightest students 'deserve' to be rewarded with scholarships, I would have thought. But now I wonder how much of being smart is genetic and 'gifted' to someone at birth? Is it true that the most brilliant students are the ones who work the hardest, and have somehow 'earned' their intelligence?

I wonder about the Kenyan students who struggle to learn, despite best efforts?

What about those who have intellectual disabilities? I haven't seen the movie, but I imagine they aren't educated in the same classes as the ones vying for scholarships.

When the scholarship students return to their communities to "lift them up" -- will it just be elite students who benefit? At what point will access to good education be for every Kenyan and every Canadian -- regardless of IQ?