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Abolish Compulsory Education

Laws that force children to attend school should be scrapped and thrown where they belong: to the ash-heap of history.

Anyone who has followed the case of the Romeikes, a German family seeking asylum from Germany’s oppressive educational laws, will know how dismal are many modern attitudes regarding education. As Jayme Metzgar wrote here at The Federalist last year, the Romeikes immigrated to the United States due to the persecution they faced from the German government for wishing to homeschool their children—an act not merely frowned upon in that country, but one that is for all intents and purposes illegal. The Obama Administration, evincing the warmth, compassion and geniality for which it has become famous, decided to reject the Romeikes’ asylum, leaving them bound to return to Germany. The Romeike children are far behind on their homework, after all.

It would be bad enough if this were an isolated incident or an aberrant opinion, but the Obama Administration’s offensive rebuke of the Romeikes’ fundamental rights is indicative of the broader mindset that informs the very notion of compulsory education. For over a century and a half, the United States has been home to mandatory education laws, beginning in Massachusetts (where else?) in the middle of the nineteenth century and spreading across the amber waves of grain and purple mountains, finally arriving in Alaska three decades before it even became a state. In other words, from the cradle of American independence came one of the more offensive and deleterious notions ever evinced by, and wholly in opposition to, the American experiment, and to freedom itself. There is no dignity in such an institution. Laws that force children to attend school should be scrapped and thrown where they, and a great many other government failures, belong: to the ash-heap of history.

The roots of public education

Compulsory education is simply impossible to reconcile with a free people, which is presumably why it is enforced so strictly in places like Greece and Serbia. In the United States—a nation, one recalls, where liberty is held to be not merely vital but inalienable—it is altogether puzzling and dismaying that it ever reared its ugly head, or that it ever became an acceptable state of affairs.

Currently, every state has mandatory education on its books, many of them enacted during the heady early days of American progressivism, when liberal ideas seemed great and liberal failures were not yet readily apparent. It should come as no surprise that many compulsory education mandates came about during the fight to abolish child labor, when one camp was attempting to remove children from the back-breaking factory and another was attempting to lock them into the soul- and mind-breaking brick house for several hours a day: out of the industrial frying pan and into the benumbing educational fire. The heroic efforts of the compulsion crusaders were often undertaken in the name of a kind of aggressive “socializing” or “Americanizing” of the nation’s children, or the children of immigrants in the case of the latter, in a perverse (though admittedly ancient) effort to mold a country of individuals into one of One. Perhaps the best summation of this philosophy was to be found at the National Education Convention held in Los Angeles at the end of the 19th century; in support of the reprehensible Richard Henry Pratt’s deplorable Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an institution bolstered by the nascent compulsory education movement, the Convention proudly declared:

RESOLVED, that the true object of the Indian schools and of Indian management is to accomplish the release of the Indian from the slavery of tribal life and to establish him in the self-supporting freedom of citizenship to take his place in the life of the nation, and that whatever in our present system hinders the attainment of this object should be changed.

Nowhere in this text is it evident that the Native Americans might have a “place in the life of the nation” outside of that imagined by the National Education Convention, the “nation” in their eyes being not merely a single political entity but one composed of a single human element. Pratt’s and the Carlisle school’s primary aims, of course, were to snatch the savage Indian children from the uncivilized grasps of their parents and make them into lockstep Americans; such a thing could not be left up to mere chance. Assuredly, if it were good enough for the Native Americans, it would be good enough for everyone else—and today every state makes government-approved education compulsory for anywhere from ten to twelve years of a child’s young life: for a decade or more, you belong to the state in one of the most intimate and crucial ways possible.

It is a uniquely queer system, and one would probably struggle to explain it to an extraterrestrial visitor.

It is a uniquely queer system, and one would probably struggle to explain it to an extraterrestrial visitor, if he ever saw fit to come to our planet: every day, we are required by law to send our children to nearby buildings for several hours a day, where they will sit and listen to things whether they, or we, like it or not. There are penalties if we do not comply. We can try to get around this noxious arrangement, but there are all sorts of restrictions and regulations that make it fairly hard for us to do so. And not only is this bizarre structure extant, but it is virtually unassailable; for many people, to abolish compulsory education would be equal—not analogous—to establishing lawless anarchy. What, after all, will our children do for eight hours every day, if not forced to attend school? How will they learn? How will they “take their place in the life of the nation?”

If one were to take the implications of these often-asked questions at face value, then one would be under the impression that, barring the state’s mandate, education would simply cease to exist, or its existence would be rendered so fragile and fleeting as to be essentially moot. There are a number of problems with this narrow-minded worldview, chief among them that it ignores the insatiable appetite for learning and knowledge possessed by almost all children and young people, as well as the sincere desire of most parents to see them well-educated. It also ignores the fact that bookstores and libraries exist, and that teaching and learning can and do occur regularly—and almost always better—outside of the government’s control. And, of course, to do away with mandatory schooling does not mean that we must do away with public schools—we should only scrap the requirement to attend public schools, or any kind of school, and we should do away with any kind of state-prescribed curriculum which students must follow. It takes a truly unimaginative and frightened mind to assume that government-required education is the only way in which widespread education is possible. If compulsory education were abolished, the only thing that would not exist would be compulsory education.


It is possible, with some wrangling, to get somewhat around this sad state of affairs, but it can be fairly difficult, and all the ease in the world would not mitigate the offensive notion that one’s education is the indomitable purview of one’s government; it is deeply, unavoidably insulting that one even has to ask to opt out of an educational system.

Nevertheless, there are a few options under the compulsory regime. If one does not wish to attend the local public school for any one of the legitimate reasons endemic to public schools, there is usually a private school nearby. The cost of private schools, however, can be prohibitive, which is why many states have proposed school vouchers as a way to expand educational choice and opportunity—and yet it is axiomatic at this point to point out that the entrenched educational interests of our political system are savagely hostile towards the very idea of school vouchers, and to educational options in general. There are many who not only demand children attend school, but demand that they attend a very specific school, the desires of students and parents notwithstanding.

There is a large, almost puritanical moral dimension to the whole debate. A writer at Slate last summer claimed that sending your child to private school was bad—not that it was merely a bad decision, but that you were a bad person for doing so. Opinions like this reenforce the obvious conclusion that, for many, compulsory education is less about the latter and more about the former: it’s not merely or even mostly about education, but instead about iron-fisted control of something important.

Then there is homeschool, the tremendous redoubt of those who wish to control their own fate as much as possible without the government’s seal of approval.

Then there is homeschool, the tremendous redoubt of those who wish to control their own fate as much as possible without the government’s seal of approval. Homeschooling is generally not so much an alternative path to education as an outright rejection of the worst aspects of Western-style pedagogy, and homeschooling is the quickest way to baffle and confound the enforcers of the stultified compulsory framework under which most of American children now labor.

I must confess to a small amount of bias concerning compulsory education in general and its home-based opposite in particular: for eleven of my formative years I was homeschooled, a gift immeasurable in its value and in its utility. There was a good deal of breathless worry from third parties as to whether or not homeschool would see my brother and me “properly socialized” (one of the great benefits of homeschooling is that you get to offend a lot of people who have delicate sensibilities); still others wondered if we would receive adequate education under our parents (a question that is virtually never asked in such a knee-jerk fashion of the teachers to which we send our children every day, at least not until it is too late). All of these fears were grossly misplaced, and though I will not say that homeschooling is for everyone, the choice to do so certainly is—as is the offense to be taken at having to even ask the state if one may do so.

In Virginia it was and is comparatively easy to homeschool (even if parents are still required to educate their children in a manner approved by the all-knowing state). In some places it is not so simple, or it threatens to become more difficult. In Florida last year, a judge ruled that a divorced couple’s children should be put into public education, asking, “When are [the children] going to socialize?” In Ohio, after a particularly brutal instance of child abuse that resulted in the death of a young boy, a legislator proposed a law in which the parents’ desires to homeschool their children would be subject to the draconian examination of state officials: had the law passed, public officials would have been empowered—indeed, required—to interview both parents and children (separately), as well as conduct background checks on parents, before the right to homeschool was granted to the family—and if it were denied (if it were not “in the best interest of the child,” as the law puts it), then officials could stage an “intervention” in an attempt to mediate whatever situation they were convinced needing fixing. Had the bill become law, Ohio would have become the first state in the nation where families who wished to homeschool were looked upon as a bizarre combination of drug users, child abusers, and otherwise dysfunctional and broken families in need of the state’s loving embrace—all before any of it had been proven. Quelle horreur that a family should steer itself according to its own desires, and its own values, rather than those demanded and imposed by the government.

Compulsory education is a noxious idea underwriting a noxious set of ideals. It should strike anyone as deeply vulgar that the state should presume the power to tell us where to go and what to learn for so long, or indeed for any amount of time. The system as it stands is one in which everyone’s rights are violated, it is difficult to get out of a rotten educational arrangement, and any motion to even discuss the scrapping of the system is ruled as “preposterous.” There is a great deal of entrenched interest in keeping children bound by the law to attend school. And yet it is not unreasonable—it is not preposterous—to hope that one day we may wish to control our own educations, and those of our children, without first supplicating to the state and asking meekly, “May I?”

Daniel Payne blogs at Trial of the Century. You can follow him on Twitter.

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