Published in the July 2003
Libertarian Party News

"Compulsory Education": A Contradiction of Realities

Something happened the other day at the learning center where I work, something that I had never before witnessed. A young lady of about fifteen stood up, told the attending floor teacher that she wasn't "going to do this anymore" -- and then walked straight out the door into the reception area, where she waited until her parents picked her up

Working one-on-one with another student at the time, I didn't involve myself in the situation, nor have I inquired about it since. Only a few things could have happened. The center director might have met with the young lady and her parents and a) convinced them that she should stay in the program, or b) failed to so convince them. Alternatively, the director, deciding that the girl's disruptive presence was not worth whatever the parents were paying, could have just called and told them that she was not welcome back. One thing, however, would not have happened: the student would not have been compelled to return by force of law (that is, the law and rule of force).

And yet it is exactly that last that happens in public schools throughout this country, and it is indeed becoming a national problem. In its mildest form, there is the incorrigible class clown, who never stops performing, never stops interrupting the lessons, and never stops taking up a disproportionate amount of the teacher's time. But in its worst, there are students -- sometimes gangs of students -- who are without exaggeration a violent and dangerous presence in that school. They are there only because the government commands that children their age be there. Time and other resources that could be spent on teaching -- education -- are instead spent on discipline and (literal) policing. And the test scores tell the results of all this: the children in question remain in school, but have learned nothing.

Many will here interject, "But can a fifteen-year-old really determine whether she'll remain in school?" To which our example responds: evidently, yes. The intrinsic flaw of "compulsory education" is that compulsion can keep a child's body in school, but not his mind. All restraints -- from the physical (truant officers and armed guards) to the pharmacological (Ritalin and its competitors) -- cannot compel the student, the designated learner, to play his part in the educational equation. Without that participation, all the teacher's efforts are ultimately as useful as chalk without a board. "But what about communication?!" Well, of course we want to get through to the child, to instill the importance of an education, but all such attempts at "persuasion" (in a context of coercion) can go only so far. If we cannot convey the importance of an education, how then can we convey that education itself? Once a child has shut himself down, only he can turn himself back on. Who else controls his mind?


Even if we did nothing else, abolishing compulsory "education" (that is, school attendance) would at the very least put an end to such mockeries of pedagogy. It would allow schools to once again devote their resources to the students who want to be there and want to learn (and who obviously don't require compulsory attendance laws, which leaves us wondering exactly who does). And what would happen to those children who do not go to school? Much like our original example, it would be a matter for the parents to deal with -- and that's precisely what it should be. It is parents, not school principals, who are children's legal guardians, the ones responsible for their care and upbringing, which necessarily includes issues of education. Here we come to what is, interestingly enough, not a radical armchair theory, but largely a case of settled law.

In the 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court addressed the position of the Amish, who did not wish to provide their children with any secondary education. As political scientist and constitutional attorney Darien A. McWhirter (The Separation of Church and State, The Oryx Press, 1994) explains, "[t]he Amish believe as part of their religion that people should lead a simple life on the farm" -- and therefore that "any further education would only corrupt their children." This was not a conflict of public vs. private education: "[t]he Amish were not asking for the right to send their children to a private Amish high school; they were asking that their children be exempted from the compulsory education laws altogether...." In an 8-1 decision, the Court recognized the right to be free from these laws. However, that right "would not be granted to everyone," but to only those "people who held very strong 'religious' beliefs" that influenced their decisions concerning the education of their children. The problem with this, as McWhirter keenly points out, is that in such earlier cases as United States v. Seeger and Welsh v. United States, the Court ruled

that laws could not grant privileges to members of organized religion that [they] did not grant to others in the society. If government granted a privilege based on religious belief, then it had to grant the same privilege to others who had similar beliefs, even if they did not belong to an organized religious group, and even if their beliefs were not based on anything that could be called religion.

McWhirter opines that instead of focusing on religion, the Court should have granted the right to all "people who dedicate themselves to living a unique way of life outside of the mainstream.... Of course this would mean allowing the children of the members of hippie communes to enjoy the same privilege, but that is the point." Is it? How is "way of life" any less unjustly exclusionary than "belief"? And why speak of "privilege" when our Constitution speaks of "the equal protection of the laws"? Wouldn't the most just ruling have been to extend this right to all parents -- religious and nonreligious, "mainstream" and otherwise? Fundamentally, aren't constitutional rights the rights of all?


So, without compulsory attendance laws, what will parents do with an unschoolable child? The most likely option: provide him with an education in the value of hard work, a wise choice for those youths who will find a paycheck more motivating than a report card. Entry level positions are almost always available in the manual labor and service sectors of the economy, especially when government mercifully refrains from erecting such barriers to employment as minimum wage laws and compulsory unionization. And it would be very shortsighted indeed to dismiss the responsibilty, socialization, and skills that he will learn, lessons that might well help him to climb the job market ladder. Ah, but what happens if maturity comes with age, as we all certainly hope it does, and one day he realizes the necessity of an education? What happens, considers McWhirter, to those Amish children "who decided when they reached adulthood that they did want a high school education"? The answer: "Most communities have adult education programs and other programs designed to help all kinds of people who for one reason or another never finished high school ... They might have some difficulty, but with hard work they could integrate into mainstream society."

Compulsion and education -- force and thought -- are related like darkness and light: the presence of one is the absence of the other. The folly of bringing together both can be nothing less than manifest ignorance of the nature and reality of each.

Barry Loberfeld
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