Compulsory Schooling – The Hammer of Educational Equality

Other than paying taxes and attending school when you are young, a human being pretty much decides for themselves how they are going to make a living and lead their life. I understand the taxes part, that’s the “ante” we pay to participate in a larger community that is not just about us but about the common welfare. But why is it so sacrosanct that kids must go to and be in school all day under penalty of law?

So in trying to resolve these sorts of questions I tend to look back at U.S. history to try and start to divine some answers. Compulsory schooling was a new idea in the 1830s when Horace Mann and his fellow Massachusetts educational reformers set up the first compulsory state “common” schools in Massachusetts. From what I’ve read, Mann and his comrades were inspired by the universal compulsory education that had recently been set up in the European state of Prussia. Throughout the 19th century, Prussia was on the leading edge of state-directed K-12 education along with developing the modern state university system that was later mimicked in the U.S. and the rest of Europe.

I think it is important here to come to grips with the reality that huge endeavors like implementing universal mandatory public education for all young people are motivated and justified by the logic of building the state. Helping individual young people with their development is really not part of that calculus. Prussia in the early 19th century was a totalitarian militaristic state rather than a democratic republic. The goal of the elite that controlled the Prussian state was to leverage state directed educational and industrial development to build the country into an unrivaled military-industrial power. A power that would be ready to fight and win the next war, and never lose another war like they did to Napoleon’s French army in 1806. Giving every young person in the country a state-directed “free” education was all about that goal.

Horace Mann and the other educational reformers in the U.S. in the 1830s who were inspired by the innovative Prussian model were also motivated by the goal of building a stronger country. The U.S. at the time was at a very challenging developmental crossroads. It was transitioning from being an agrarian society of small towns with mostly citizen farmers who were of Northern European ancestry with fairly consistent Protestant beliefs in the ethics or hard work and self-regulated morality. It was becoming an industrial society of big cites and massive immigration of people from all over Europe who were not necessarily Protestant, but Catholic or even Jewish.

Though the U.S. was not a totalitarian state like Prussia, I see Mann and his fellow reformers representing a progressive intellectual elite who were uncomfortable with change and felt that they knew best about the appropriate direction for the country going forward. Whether they were just protecting their own privilege or they had more noble motives, one way or another they envisioned public schools as the “melting pot” that would transform the children of these immigrants into American citizens who accepted that path forward around secularized Protestant values. As far as I can tell, it was an idea that was not about a humanistic attempt to facilitate individual young people’s fullest development. It was all about a vision for building the state, the United States of America.

It was an idea that had “legs” and spread across the country so that by the beginning of the 20th century there was compulsory school in every state. (It has become so ingrained in life that I wonder if most people today even think about compulsory school as a deliberate social policy choice and not just the only natural place for people to spend their youth.) But for much of that century schools were still financed mainly by local taxes and run by local school district boards. So poorer communities tended to have poorer schools, and the inherent biases of economic, racial and gender privilege were reflected in how schools “tracked” their students into academic, vocational or other educational paths.

But as our society evolved in the 20th century, including launching a “war on poverty” and movements for racial and gender equality, the role of education as a means to those ends evolved as well. Public schools became the main tool to address and redress economic, racial and gender inequality. Even if other efforts fell short, universal public education could give every child in this country – whether poor, female, or of color – the opportunity to “rise above” their unprivileged circumstances and be given the educational keys to success. Increasingly, that effort to ensure fairness and equal educational opportunity fell to states rather than individual communities. (And in the most extreme cases where the states resisted this effort the federal government stepped in.)

It is the nature of management by remote bureaucracies (in this case state and federal educational policymakers) that the management tools tend to be sledge hammers rather than scalpels. American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said…

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

I guess he’d get a second on that from Peter, Paul and Mary…

If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land

When it comes to federal and state educrats “all over this land”, I think they still feel that the only bureaucratic tool they have to ensure educational equality is the “hammer” of compulsion. If you are given the responsibility of managing an education system remotely from capital cities around the country, and you will never interact with over 99.9% of the 50+ million students and several million teachers that actually engage in that educational process, then I can see how “command and control” seems like the only way to make this superhuman feat anywhere near doable.

So you require communities to open taxpayer funded schools to every kid. You require schools to teach a standardized curriculum. You require kids to go to school, be instructed in that curriculum, and take standardized tests to prove that that instruction took. You may not require them to wear uniforms, but uniformity is what the process is all about. Anything less than that is a recipe for inequality and disaster.

Not very interesting or innovative, but bureaucratically speaking, what can be fairer than that? The rest is just funding and administration.

If you live in a society that was designed to be governed by the democratic process, but that society is still wedded to various forms of economic, racial, gender, sexual orientation and age privilege; it is hard to trust people with that privilege not to manipulate the system to protect it. If the college-prep curriculum is optional, can you trust the local school districts to offer it in all schools, even in the most underprivileged neighborhoods? And even if you make it available to all students, can you trust school counselors not to routinely council underprivileged kids to take the vocational track instead?

But in the 21st century is this sort of standardized compulsory one-size-fits -all schooling really an appropriate developmental path for fifty-two million American kids with a range of life goals and learning styles?

John Taylor Gatto, a thirty-year veteran of New York City public schools (three-times NYC Teacher of the Year) turned radical education critic is quoted to have said…

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

But lacking that learner-driven educational empowerment, Gatto laments that…

A handful of social engineers – backed by the industries that profit from compulsory schooling: teacher colleges, textbook publishers, materials suppliers, et al. – has ensured that most of our children will not have an education, even though they may be thoroughly schooled.

Gatto’s thinking is echoed by Jack Hassard, a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education at Georgia State University. Hassard was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and implementation of a clinically based masters program for mathematics, science, and engineering majors. He was director of the Global Thinking Project, an Internet-based environmental program linking schools in the U.S. with countries around the world. He also conducted seminars around the country on science teaching, inquiry and technology for the Bureau of Education and Research and for school districts’ staff development programs.

In his May 6 blog piece on the “Art of Teaching Science” website, “Are the Common Standards & Assessments the Antithesis of Progressive Values?” , Hassard writes…

We think that Common Standards and Assessments are the antithesis of the progressive values upon which this nation was founded. The idea of having a single set of standards and associated assessments appears to remove individuality, creativity and innovation from American classrooms.

Common standards and assessments were conceived and developed in an undemocratic and authoritarian manner, and have minimized our freedom to have an education system that empowers its citizens to a life that is rooted in progressive ideals. Instead we have enabled conservative thinking and conservative think tanks, acting in their own self interests, and those of their corporate partners, especially publishers and testing companies, to take over pubic education and open it to for-profit corporations and privatization.

It’s not the 20th century anymore. Maybe conservative corporate interests took over the management and direction of the U.S. public education system in the early 20th century (see my piece on that subject) and continued to hold sway throughout the century through A Nation at Risk in the 1980s and No Child Left Behind at the century’s conclusion. But now in the 21st century we can take a fresh look at whether compulsory school serves any sort of truly egalitarian societal purpose or just perpetuates an outmoded system of top-down control of human development.

After that fresh look in this new century, maybe there is no longer that same need, at least not in every community, for compulsory schools to ensure a bureaucratic equality. Maybe we have evolved enough as human beings to have developed the sophistication to treat individuals differently but still fairly. Maybe we are ready to change the public education paradigm from “you must” to “you may”, and make schools community centers where young people can come when they want to learn a particular body of knowledge that they are not able to learn on their own. Maybe we are ready to have gatherings of youth and adults in those educational venues where everybody is there because they want to be, rather than have to be, and the zeitgeist will truly be about the joy of learning and not compliance with far-away bureaucratic rules.

And then again, maybe we are not ready. Maybe there is still too much inequality within our communities to trust people to treat each other fairly in a more evolved way, without the heavy hammer of the state hanging above them.

But if we are not yet ready, maybe we should at least be starting to imagine the day when we will!

9 replies on “Compulsory Schooling – The Hammer of Educational Equality”

  1. I enjoyed this piece. It is somewhat more polemical that your usual “can’t we all get along” view but it should get the blood moving. In this piece, as well as a number of previous ones, you make a great case for the folly of one-size-fits-all education, (in my case you’re preaching to the choir) but your proposals for alternatives need to be more specific.

    Also, if public schooling is offered but not compulsory, will it make matters better or worse?

  2. Reuben… It is more polemical! I’ve been thinking about this so I wanted to kind of crystallize my thoughts into written paragraphs so I could share and perhaps get more perspective on it myself.

    I would hope ending the compulsory part would make things better, but I acknowledge there is a line of reasoning out there that many people are just not ready to run their own lives and the “nanny state” is still necessary to force them to do the right thing and send their kids to school where the state can insure they are not deprived of a conventional education.

  3. Nothing is going to please everyone. Having been a teacher, and a homeschool parent…I can see two sides. I don’t believe it is the intention of those in the trenches to make things more difficult for children, but they do have pressures to make them do what they may not feel good doing.

    I do believe for profit schools are a bad idea, because the child will become even less important, and the institutionalness (word?) of schools will be even more striking. I’ve seen what it does to hospitals and nursing homes. It will become even more a pipeline to prison…speaking of, there’s another for profit institution! When you are sucking off the government tit, there is no way you can fail. AND, there is no way you will quit sucking. Eventually you’ll take money meant to care for those who need a little help to get by, and pretty soon the whole nation is beholden to a giant, sucking vortex of greed.

    God, I’m depressed.

    I don’t know what the answer is for society. I do know I will do what is best for my child, and as schools become testing centers, more and more parents will, too.

  4. Thanks for your comment! My piece was not intended to imply that school should not be compulsory because it is failing or teachers intend to make things difficult for students. The point I’m trying to make the point that other than paying taxes to support the broader society, nothing should be compulsory. Making school compulsory changes the dynamic into a place where people are forced to go rather than a place they have the opportunity to go to. For perhaps half the kids, school is a positive experience. But for the other half, they would probably be better off someplace else.

    I generally agree with you that for-profit schools are a bad idea, though I’m not sure how it relates to rethinking having schools be mandatory. I do think in that bureaucratic mindset I talk about, that some people think that if schools are not mandatory that the public education system will fall completely apart. Enough families will choose to send their kids that the system will collapse. I don’t think that’s the case, but is that why you raise the issue?

    I hear you are demoralized by for-profit schools, but from what I understand they are such a small percentage of the public or private schools out there. I don’t think they are any sort of trend.

    Sorry to hear you are depressed. I hope you take heart that you were able to give your own kid a path forward into adulthood.

    I think the key is to move away from all this standardization of education, which is what the high-stakes testing you are concerned about emanates from. I wanted to put it out there that maybe mandatory school attendance was part of that whole standardization fetish.

  5. I was kidding, kind of , about being depressed. The thought of corporations heading schools…does not put me in a good mood.

    It is heading that way, a bit. Online schools, usually employing public school teachers, are for-profit organizations that the state reimburses. Although it’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it may be a foot in the door because thousands of students are beginning to use it. My son took French classes, which the state (Georgia)paid for. We are moving away from government employees to contracted work with private companies. I just woke up to how many former governmental institutions are doing that, and that is depressing. Greed is a powerful motivator, and the quality goes way down with contracting. For profit secondary education sucks up 24% of Pell Grants. ( ) Do you think they are going to stop there?

    Making schooling non-compulsary, I think, could lead to a very interesting dynamic. The first thing that came to mind was the idea of vagabond children roaming the streets…England in the 1800’s. I know…silly. If that were true, it would be that way every summer.

    There is a pressure cooker of sorts endemic in schools. Making it non-compulsary–allowing those who see their way far more clearly in an alternative way, makes me think of previous forms of teaching: guided apprenticeship or exploration. It’s an interesting concept, but could society deal with not warehousing their children?

  6. The havoc my own perfectionism has caused in my life has made me want to teach over and over that it’s not a matter of perfect/lousy, but “good enough”. You don’t want to lose high standards, but paralyzing obsession.

  7. I enjoyed your post. I found this site as I was researching for a paper, and I find your views refreshing. My question to you: If schooling is not compulsory, what do you propose society does with the children? Have them stay at home? Go to work? Volunteer their time? Who will supervise these children? I have seen first hand what young people do with their time when they have nowhere they have to be. I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this.

  8. Susan… thanks for the comment and good question!

    What I would imagine is that if school was not compulsory, more than half the kids would go to school anyway because they wanted to or their parents wanted them to. Others would be out in the community volunteering or otherwise being mentored by adults and/or staying home or participating in family or friend’s businesses. Others would be studying on their own or launching projects thru the Internet (like my own unschooled kids). The point is they could do a range of things including going to school all or part of the time because there were classes they wanted to take.

    IMO this would make schools much more fun and engaging places to learn because kids would only be there because they wanted to be and the teachers would have a much more rewarding teaching experience, not having to be jailers as well!

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