Starting to Imagine Non-Compulsory Schools

As I have mentioned before, I’ve been involved in an ongoing email “forum” over the past five years with fellow members of the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO). Topics revolve around youth, learning, and our societies educational institutions and possible alternatives to those institutions. Admittedly, we forum participants can be guilty of arguing perhaps from more of an ivory tower rather than from the trenches at times, but then again you have to be able to see the entire forest at times to best take care of all the trees.

One of the topics that keeps coming up and engenders a lot of impassioned prose on our forum is the reality of compulsory education for youth and the possibility of making it non-compulsory instead. The opinions on what would result from this change run the gamut, even among this self-selected group of alternative educators and other supporters (like me) of learning alternatives. Some of the forum participants (like me) take a more left-libertarian position and argue that our schools and the formal education process in general would be transformed for the better by shedding coercive elements of compulsion. Other list colleagues think that though in some ideal world this would be the way school should be, in our all too real and non-ideal world ending compulsory school attendance would be a disaster, and particularly for poor families that live in dangerous neighborhoods with little other infrastructure to offer youth.

My forum colleague Leo put forward a version of that latter argument in his recent post…

Schooling without compulsory law would still exist, that I have no doubt, and it would still have the selecting function. It would just be that those attending would be the children of the upper classes making their way in the process of maintaining their class status.

I appreciate his point and it is a very compelling line of thinking that is shared by most progressive legislators and other progressive people. To have a truly egalitarian society where all our children have the opportunity to succeed and make a better life for themselves, we need to have an education system where all kids are required to go to school. The thinking is, without that requirement, too many of our disadvantaged families would choose not to send their kids to school and encourage those kids instead to perhaps get much less robust training to take low-wage menial jobs instead. Or even if these parents sent their kids to school, the kids given the chance would exercise their right not to go to class and would not engage in the “hard” study that they needed to be successful adults.

Though Leo supports more learner-driven alternative curricula within the context of compulsory school attendance, most progressives take a big step further in terms of compulsory education and advocate that there is a singular “best practice” academic curriculum that all our youth need to be trained in if those youth are going to be successful adults in contemporary society. The fear of these progressives is that if given a choice, a sizable number of these disadvantaged kids and their families would not choose this rigorous academic training in favor of other pursuits that are easier, more fun, or more strictly vocationally focused.

There is certainly good reason behind their concern. Back in the days when schools had both academic and non-academic (vocational) tracks, too many school counselors and teachers were guilty of tracking the disadvantaged kids (mostly of color) into the non-academic track and the advantaged kids (mostly white) into the academic one.

In a hugely bureaucratic education system managed at the state level far removed from the actual participants in the schooling process, the simplest most easily implemented solution to this racist/classist “tracking” was to exercise more top-down control of the learning process. Eliminate the vocational training path and require that all kids go through the rigorous academic training (including all that abstract math that so many kids in school seem to be struggling with these days). If counselors and teachers could not be trusted to present the educational options fairly to all kids and their families, and the disadvantaged families perhaps could not make a fully informed choice, the state needed to compel a universal choice for everyone’s “own good”.

Please correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe this is the basic progressive argument for compulsory schooling and standardized academic curriculum. Without mandatory attendance and mandatory academic curriculum, it would be mainly the kids from privileged families that would be pursuing the curriculum that led to high-paying professional jobs. That is the hard reality of the real world and any other course would sacrifice too many of our youth to a perpetual underclass.

So given all that context, I have come to a place based on my own life’s experience (as a former youth and current parent) where I think we need to start reconsidering both standardized curriculum and compulsory school attendance. I am cognizant of the problems with this approach in terms of enforcing fairness, but I think all this compulsion is seriously weakening our democratic society, founded on the principles (in theory at least) of both liberty and justice for all.

So I continue to make my case as best I can on the AERO forum for what I call “many paths of learning” as a better path forward for our educational system than the current OSFA (one size fits all) compulsory approach.

In response to one of my recent posts grinding my “many paths” ax, and mentioning that my own kids unschooled rather than going to high school, Leo responded to me with this question…

Do you really believe the overwhelming number of children in this country are in a family where parents can afford to stay home and, like Gatto wants, teach their children to read and to write? Yes, there are unschooling means of education. But children have become so dependent on others, whether in the form of electronic technology or on “authority” they find it difficult to self-regulate, no less self-direct. Setting these children free to their own devices by waving the magic wand of compulsory repeal without a massive infrastructure of other opportunities such as drop-in centers the likes of which were in the late ’60’s is setting them up for even greater harm than the toxic school environments already existing.

By Gatto, Leo is referring to John Taylor Gatto, former award-winning public school teacher who soured on compulsory education and now criticizes schooling and supports homeschooling and unschooling. Though I would admit that Gatto can be extreme in his thinking and is a major league provocateur, his provocative ideas and more left-libertarian approach to thinking about education from the learner’s (rather than just the state’s) point of view have been transformational in my own thinking. Based on reading his ideas and using them as a lens to look back at my own experience, I clearly see that much if not most of my own most profound learning happened outside of my extensive formal schooling. (See my piece “My Schooling vs My Job Skills Provenance” for details.)

In my reply to Leo I acknowledged that he had a point. Other than schools and some home environments, most of the venues in our society are not youth friendly and the kind of places where youth can congregate and engage in interaction, activity and exploration are few and far between. To suddenly wave a magic wand and make all schools and all standardized curricula non-compulsory could easily destabilize our current education infrastructure (that is our schools) beyond and kind of creative dissonance into total disintegration. In an institution built for 180 years on the bedrock of compulsion, true liberty and choice is profoundly frightening and probably beyond that institution’s ability to process.

But not being willing to surrender my vision of what I see as the evolutionary step forward away from compulsion and towards self-direction, what I proposed was doing things incrementally rather than all at once. Pragmatically, we could at least start to dial down (rather than up) compulsory schooling and standardized curricula. I cited what I feel to be pragmatic reasons for doing so…

1. With the professional skill level and experience needed to be a truly effective teacher, and all the extensive physical infrastructure we’ve come to expect from a full-service academic educational venue, it has become very expensive to create and maintain these sorts of schools and have them be effective learning centers. Adding in that schooling is compulsory which gives the adult staff the added burden of managing a significant percentage of their students that don’t want to (or otherwise shouldn’t) be there, I think that pushes many of our schools over the brink into ineffectiveness.

I keep thinking of my own kids’ cousin who pursued the standard high school curriculum at home and found that he could master all his academic subjects in less than half the time he would have at school, successfully graduate, enroll in and graduate from college. That has got to speak to an institution that is not optimized to learning and I feel the fact that so many kids are there against their will is a big part of that.

From my reading of American history, the same sort of problem happened with penitentiaries, which were originally conceived as utopian venues, for criminals initially, but that every person would eventually want to live in, because these venues represented the best practice of social engineering. It was later due to the expense of this utopian endeavor and the inevitable tightening of public budgets that these institutions had to be scaled back to their current mostly human warehousing function.

2. Forcing people (youth in this case) to live their lives a certain way 180 days a year for up to 13 years with no recourse to due process or representation is in my thinking a form of tyranny. We would never dare subject adults to this same kind of compulsory attendance (unless they were convicted of crimes). You might say people are forced to work to make a living, but at least if you quit your job the truant officers don’t come after you. People used to be perhaps more accommodating to external control from above, but I think as the human consciousness develops over the generations the passivity to accept external control is diminishing.

3. In this contemporary world which advertises and purports to (if not necessarily delivering) “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, a very “old school” regimented, standardized, externally controlled education is increasingly more at odds with that and a source of increasingly debilitating stress for both student and teacher.

So if you accept my argument against compulsion (and I expect many of you will not) how do we begin to get from where we are now to this new paradigm? Maybe we start out by making attendance on the site of the school mandatory, but what you do at school during your day (as long as you stay on site) your choice. Maybe we just offer this kind of choice at some schools so parents and kids have options of learning environments – those with mandated classes and those not. Maybe we also enlarge the small but growing number of virtual schools that are focused on facilitating “remote learning” or more academic homeschooling of one sort or another (like done by my kids’ cousin).

So like John Taylor Gatto at his best, I am trying to be provocative here and hopefully create some creative cognitive dissonance to push some folks off their perhaps ossified thinking that “kids should be in school” and need to know geometry and advanced algebra… end of argument.

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2 replies on “Starting to Imagine Non-Compulsory Schools”

  1. reuben says:

    Is it possible that the compulsory education requirement was originally intended to apply to the authorities rather than to the children?

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Reuben… I think it actually applied to both authorities and children, to everybody. As our society began to leverage the burgeoning new fields of social and other sciences, research-based best practice, “expertise”, and certification in ones area of knowledge became the new conventional wisdom of the day. Best practices would be developed by the experts in the field and then others wishing to attain that knowledge would follow the approved curriculum to become certified in that knowledge.

    Though we think of this process more in terms of adult experts, a similar thinking was applied to children who were mandated to go to school so they all could learn the approved curriculum developed by those experts. School was not so much a venue for self exploration and development, rather an opportunity to be “schooled” in the “great books” or other sanctioned knowledge and show ones cleaving to the approved knowledge conventions by seeking and receiving the certification of a diploma.

    Not sure I’ve really captured what I think is the underlying gist of what’s going on, but so be it!

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