Compulsion Revulsion
March 22, 2011 Education

This idea is certainly not original to me, it has its origins at least as far back as JS Mill. My readers will know that I reject on economic and moral grounds public education, certainly the brand of government monopoly we have now. But I also reject compulsory schooling laws, both because of their dubious history and because of their limited theoretical justification. The dubious history to which I refer comes out of the Progressive Era. Some of the impetus behind laws to keep “kids” in school until the age of 15 or 16 (it varies by state) is because kids of this age, particularly boys, were very capable labor market competitors to older workers.

The history that we learn in high school is classic irresponsible romanticism of the period. The Progressives, we are taught, were prudently ensuring that all young men and women acquired the education they needed to survive in the new global economy of the day, and the enlightened progressives were protecting kids from being exploited by their parents’ lack of foresight and interest in having them thoroughly educated. Never mind that young people, in particular the exploding population of young immigrants, were low-cost substitutes for older factory workers.

By “limited theoretical grounds” I simply mean to ask you questions like: do we need compulsory eating laws? Do we need compulsory exercise laws? Do we need compulsory “learning to speak” laws? If you accept the argument that we need compulsory education laws on the grounds typically given, then it is not a far cry to argue that we need compulsion to do a whole host of things people have a natural inclination to do. We will address in a future post the few cases where there are neglectful and indigent parents. But it seems that having compulsory schooling laws would do little to improve the situation of kids in those families. Indeed, it prevents young kids from having the freedom to exit those families by working for wages to support themselves. The other limitation of the theory is that formal education is not the same as knowledge and human capital accumulation. While I am not convinced that compelling knowledge accumulation is ipso facto desirable, it does seem to trump compulsory schooling. We’ll explore the implications of this in future posts.

"2" Comments
  1. It is my understanding that compulsory public education was rooted at least in part, in religious bigotry. I believe the earliest compulsory ed laws can be found in Massachusetts, where Protestants, fearful of Catholic (mostly Irish) immigrants, sought to force all children into public schools, where the Protestant King James bible was part of the curriculum. Parochial schools arose in response, as Catholic parents sought to avoid this fate for their kids. Subsequent “Blane amendments” prohibited use of public funds for religious schools, and today provide the primary legal impediment to school vouchers in many states.

    Yes, this was sold as a means of ending child labor. As horrific as that practice appears to us in the 21st centur US, kids at the time went to work in factories, presumably because that was their best alternative. I have often wondered that compulsory education must have left those families worse off (lower household incomes?).

  2. We have eating laws in school cafeterias, not to mention Mike Bloomberg ( trans-fats, salt) and Chicago ( foie gras). We have pays ed. We have bilingual education. We have money wasted to teach kids how to use computers and smart phones, but not rote times tables.

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