Against Compulsory Schooling

Primary education, according to the United Nations at least, is a fundamental human right. Unlike other rights, though, education is compulsory. The right to free speech doesn’t legally obligate anyone to speak freely. Freedom of religion doesn’t compel anyone to be religious. The right to not be enslaved may prohibit people from contracting themselves into slavery but at least in the U.S. it’s not illegal to try, it’s just that such contracts are unenforceable. No other human right is forced on its putative beneficiaries at the point of a policeman’s gun.

This last phrase apparently strikes some as hyperbole, but in the United States it is not. American compulsory education is compulsory because nonattendance is against the law. The parents of truant children are criminals. When the kids are old enough to prosecute they’re criminals too. If parents keep their kids out of school or if kids insist on skipping someone is going to jail. Eventually they’ll have to submit or the kids will be forcibly taken from their parents and put into foster care or juvenile hall. Police are allowed to kill people for resisting enforcement. Laws requiring school attendance, like all laws, are ultimately enforced by violence up to and including kidnapping and death.

And yet this evident fact is not widely acknowledged. Educational discourse from across the political spectrum for the most part takes the compulsory nature of public education for granted. The questions asked are about what and how all children should learn, never whether anything is so important to know that all children should be forced to learn it at gunpoint, under the threat of kidnapping by police.

Such discussions rely on an often unstated assumption that education has universally acknowledged goals, that we all want the same things from the educational system, that only the details of how to attain them are worth discussing. State-controlled compulsory schooling’s resisters – home schoolers, unschoolers, and so on – typically argue that their substitute systems work better than state schools to attain the same goals rather than that the violence required by compulsory schooling is in itself harmful to children.

This assumption steers conversations on education towards reform rather than radical change, towards finding the most effective pedagogy to realize the putative social benefits of universal education and away from asking who benefits from it. The fact that violence is integral to every pedagogical practice used in compulsory education is left unsaid, unexamined. But I want to move away from this conversation and talk instead about whether the putative benefits of compulsory education are worth the violence required by compulsion.

To ask if these benefits could be attained without violence, coercion, compulsion. To think about the fact that so many people seem to agree that the benefits of compulsory education are ultimately worth the violence, violence enacted for the most part on parents and children, the very people supposed for the most part to benefit from the system, about the fact that so many people are willing to subject their own children to the violence, potential or enacted, embedded in the system.

This violence doesn’t just come from truancy arrests, either. In the U.S. police are ever-present in schools. They regularly physically restrain and arrest children. The system itself enacts violence on children because they’re forced into schools and cared for there by people who don’t love them, one of whose main interests in caring for them is that they’re paid to do so. This is not to say that there aren’t very dedicated, very caring teachers. Of course there are, but they’re also forced to be there in the sense that capitalism forces everyone who isn’t able to live by exploitation to work for money. No matter how well they do their jobs, no matter how carefully and conscientiously they teach and care for the kids, they also have to get their jobs done, to get through their workdays, and if kids stand in the way of this it’s the kids who will have to submit.

Some of the putative benefits of compulsory schooling supposedly help children directly. Education is a natural human activity, joyfully shared between adults and children. Kids naturally love learning and people naturally love teaching one another. Both children and their teachers get exposed to new ideas and learn interesting things. The kids become well-rounded, liberally educated adults, and so on.

After decades working in education I have grave doubts whether this happens on any kind of regular basis in compulsory schools, but for the sake of argument suppose it does. It’s a very strange kind of personal benefit that has to be violently forced on people. If it’s legitimately good for the children, then even if the kids won’t choose it for themselves because they’re too young and inexperienced to see the future, surely their parents will voluntarily choose it for their kids. If it’s naturally joyful, naturally valuable, and I think it is, why must people be forced to accept it? Does not the force itself change the very nature of the transaction?

Legal compulsion backed up by the threat of physical pain doesn’t add anything to the value – it almost surely detracts from it by embedding it in a violent, coercive context. Not only that, but parents, who generally do love their children very much, are obviously better able to decide what’s best for their children than are paid professionals, especially professionals who’ve accepted the need for violence to supply them with the raw materials – children – on whom to practice their work. If it’s true that compulsion is necessary, that parents wouldn’t send their kids to school without it, maybe what happens in those schools isn’t as beneficial as it claims to be.

Actually, though, I have no doubt at all that if school were voluntary rather than compulsory most parents would still enroll their kids. Even with violent compulsion parents love their neighborhood schools and see the benefits they provide to their children. And even if they wouldn’t send them – even if the lack of compulsion would allow most parents to pull their kids out of school, how is that a valid reason for forcing them to submit their kids to compulsory education?

No one seriously wants to be violently forced to send their own kids to school – they believe that they, at least, are not being forced, that they’re doing it voluntarily because it’s good for their kids, and I also believe they are. Why would this not be true of every parent? If I love my children then in the absence of evidence to the contrary I assume most parents also love their children, that they love them more than school employees do or can, certainly more than the legislators and police who impose and enforce educational compulsion, and that loving caretakers know what’s best for their own kids. Most parents correctly believe this about themselves, so it’s almost certainly true of all parents.

This same line of reasoning applies to all the other results, genuine or not, of compulsory schooling that supposedly benefit children directly. If schools really do facilitate upward class mobility or prepare kids for more fulfilling, more lucrative, careers or anything along those lines, there’s still no defensible case that children and parents should be violently forced to accept those benefits. It’s completely implausible that legislators and paid agents of the states can in most cases make better decisions about what’s good for kids than can families and the kids themselves. Even if there were some argument that their decisions were better, it’s never going to be clear for whom they are better.

It’s clearly true that schools do in fact provide many benefits to children, but no one is more qualified to decide what these are or whether they’re in fact beneficial to individual children than are the kids themselves and people who actually love them. Kids aren’t abstractions – they’re unique individual human beings – but laws, including laws requiring school attendance, only apply to abstractions. They treat people subject to them as members of a class rather than as individuals.

On the other hand, not everyone agrees that parents know what’s best, or even that parents generally do love their children. I think that such cases are very rare indeed and the idea that parents don’t generally know what’s best mostly reflects class interests – in such discussions it’s poor and working class parents who don’t know what’s best. Middle class, educated, cultured, civilized parents know what’s best not only for their own children but for the children of their social subordinates as well. For the sake of argument, though, suppose that parents not having their kids’ best interests in mind is common enough to require state intervention in the form of compulsory schooling.

This idea is the basis for another class of benefits supposedly provided by compulsory education – the idea that children and parents sometimes have adverse interests and that the state can help kids by being ready to intervene in such cases. One such commonly touted benefit of compulsory education is that it gives abused, endangered children some contact with professional non-familial caregivers, who can detect danger and thereby save children. It’s ultimately better, the story goes, for the kids to be forced into schools at gunpoint so that they can be inspected and monitored by government officials and other professionals and helped independently of their families, who are seen as a danger.

That is, if they attend public schools, of course, but also of course it’s assumed that poor people are the ones who need their kids inspected. Very few parents of any social class would tolerate this kind of policy if it were explicit, e.g. if they had to bring their kids into the police station once a month to be interviewed by armed social workers. And yet a lot of people accept it when it’s done via compulsory school attendance laws, even for their own children. It’s even explicitly touted as a benefit, although its supporters assume other people’s kids, never their own, are its beneficiaries.

Another class of purported benefits go to society in general rather than to individual children. One of these is that compulsory education creates a population of informed citizens who share some kind of conceptual common ground. Without such people, we’re told, our democracy couldn’t function. Thomas Jefferson gets quoted a lot in this context.1 In this case it’s not even necessary to reach the question of whether such a goal is worth attaining at gunpoint. It’s not necessary to wonder whether schools actually do this successfully or whether our democracy, such as it is, actually does depend on a critical mass of educated people. Regardless of what people may argue, this isn’t actually a goal of the American system of compulsory education.

Compulsory education in this country means that kids have to be in a school, it doesn’t mean they have to be in a public school, and it doesn’t mean that the school they have to be in covers a universally required set of topics. There are no legal requirements for private school curriculums. Private schools aren’t regulated by the state2 and yet attending one satisfies the compulsory education laws. They’re not required to teach anything at all about citizenship or whatever it is that Jefferson and his intellectual heirs go on about. Producing this probably mythological well-informed citizenry as a bulwark against the destruction of democracy can’t actually be a goal of compulsory education.

It may well be a goal of compulsory public education, though. There are some private schools available to children not from the ruling class, but for the most part being enrolled in a public school is a good proxy variable for not having a rich and powerful family. Public school curriculums are in fact tightly controlled by officials, and they’re certainly not teaching kids to smash the state or even to be mildly noncompliant with government demands. Probably public schools are generally successful at producing citizens who will go along with the governnment, which is probably what passes for being an informed citizen in this context, but this doesn’t benefit the children other than maybe negatively by making them less likely to be subject to state violence.

It does benefit the ruling class by protecting their exploitative projects from disruption by a too-free-thinking working class. It also benefits people not of the ruling class but aligned economically with their interests.3 As above, though, it’s impossible to justify the compulsory nature of the process without appealing to raw power. If being trained as a complacent, compliant citizen stabilizes and preserves a given government then people will choose it voluntarily if the government serves their interests. If it doesn’t serve their interests then violently forcing them to learn compliance and complacency isn’t justifiable.

Again, it’s much more likely to be better for the kids themselves to leave their participation up to them and their families – to people who love them – rather than to people paid by the state to manage them, to handle them, to legislators whose overriding goal is to protect the interests of capital.4 Somehow, maybe because the training actually is effective, the horror of such a policy of state interference in raising children up to be functional citizens is easy enough to see with respect to, for instance, mandatory membership in the Hitler Youth, but not so much with respect to compulsory school attendance in 21st Century America.

I’m sure there are many other such benefits that compulsory education supposedly provides, and I’m equally sure that the compulsion doesn’t add to the beneficial effects, if any. Those which really are beneficial to children will be chosen voluntarily. Any of them which require the violence underlying the compulsion aren’t worth that price. There’s no need to consider them all individually. But there are two more big ones which are worth talking about in detail.

One of these is that compulsory education creates a well-trained workforce. Society, this argument goes, needs literate, orderly people to carry out its various functions, especially the economic ones. The economy requires able workers and schools produce them. If education isn’t compulsory not enough parents, not enough children, will choose to let kids be molded into work-ready citizens and the economy will suffer, shrink, potentially collapse. I have no argument with the claim that compulsory schooling creates work-ready citizens. It clearly does. This function as clearly benefits some social classes.

First, those people who live off the labor of others – capitalists, landlords, bosses – reap immense benefits from a reliable supply of well-disciplined workers – workers already accustomed to arriving on time, obeying meaningless commands, submitting their desires, their personal preferences, goals, whims, and even their bodily functions – eating, drinking, fucking, shitting – to externally imposed rules, schedules, and management. Workers ready to comply with these demands, which would seem unbearable to free people, are essential to capital’s exploitative project. When capital’s additional demand, that workers quietly surrender most of the value their work creates, that they take that value out of their own mouths, out of the mouths of their children, are included, a revolution seems likely without thorough preparation of the workforce. It’s implausible that parents would choose this life for their children without compulsion, that children would choose this for themselves without being forced.

This function also benefits people who don’t live entirely from exploitation but whose work relies on exploitation nevertheless – teachers, lawyers, police, managers, and so on. They need service providers to do things they can’t or won’t do themselves and they need productive workers to manage as well as children to serve as raw material for the worker-creation machines they operate. They’re the petite bourgeoisie, the semi-exploiters, the same people I mentioned above whose economic interests align with those of the ruling class.

This aspect of compulsory education can only be said to benefit children in a very limited sense. Given that capitalists have foreclosed every possible way of surviving that doesn’t let them forcibly skim a share, there’s no future for kids other than to work for them or to become one of them, an option which isn’t available to most people. When the choice is to be exploited or to starve or be killed it’s better in this sense to be exploited and therefore better to be properly exploitable, to be able to choose better exploitation conditions, but the inevitability of this choice is hardly an unqualified benefit for the children.

This is the very function of compulsory education that justifies the compulsion to those with the power to impose it. This is the function whose loss would really hurt exploiters and semi-exploiters, at least economically. If you’re one of them – and I am too – this is the most shameful function of compulsory education. It’s really not possible for me to support it and still have self-respect, to think of myself as a decent person and yet be in favor of forcing kids into schools at gunpoint so that I’ll have enough exploitable people to support my ways of making a living. Can you? The knowledge that it’s virtually impossible to live in capitalism without relying on exploitation to some extent – it’s possible that only the homeless and destitute can avoid it completely – doesn’t comfort me. I do it because I don’t see a choice, but I don’t like it, I think it must end, and ending compulsory schooling is an essential element of that process.

All of this negativity, all of this talk about violence, may suggest that I’m opposed to free public schools, but I’m not at all. I’m just opposed to the compulsion – let’s make public schools not only free but entirely voluntary as well. Which brings us to the last aspect of contemporary compulsory schooling I want to discuss – its broad communitarian functions. These include every genuine benefit provided by free public schools to children, to their families – everything that happens in a public school that doesn’t rely on compulsion, on violence. Public schools in the U.S. act not only as educational institutions but as daycare centers, food sources, places for families and their local communities to come together, to strengthen social and political connections, to help one another with the neverending, impossibly hard, immeasurably valuable labor of caring for and raising up children.

American public schools function very effectively as centers of community. They were absolutely not created for this purpose, and attendance certainly wasn’t made compulsory because of it. I hope I’ve argued convincingly above that the compulsion, the violence, work against genuine benefits and these communitarian benefits are genuine indeed. This communitarian dimension of public schooling evolved over time through the voluntary efforts of everyone involved. It wasn’t decreed or directed by any central authority, not even by local school boards for the most part. It has been built from the bottom up, by parents, students, and teachers, generally with school boards and other state officials being led rather than leading. It meets the needs of the community because the community made it to meet their needs. It is a direct and unmediated good thing for everyone involved. It is anarchism in action.

And it includes community-driven education. Parents and sometimes other community members are deeply involved on a voluntary basis in educating kids in American public schools, mostly at the primary level, but occasionally in middle and high schools. This communitarian aspect of contemporary American schooling is a model for what our public schools could be without compulsion, what directly interested community members could grow them into in the absence of the universal damage done by the violence necessary to force kids into them.5

  1. “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education, this is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

  2. At least they’re not in California. I assume other states are similar.

  3. It harms them in some ways as well. Not everyone whose economic interests are aligned with the ruling class sends their kids to private schools, or attended private schools. It’s possibly, probably harmful to some of their interests on a large scale to subject their children to state propaganda, but one must choose one path or another and taking all these factors into account they choose their economic interests over the others. It’s easy for parents to sympathize with this choice. Regardless of the harm involved people tend to choose the most immediate benefits when it comes to their own kids, as have I in the past.

  4. Legislators may or may not do other things than this, but nothing they do is inconsistent with the interests of capital, whether in the short or the long term.

  5. The question of funding voluntary public schools might seem like a viable objection to removing compulsion. American public schools are presently funded by formulas based very strictly on how many kids attend. If they were voluntary, a counterargument to my proposal might go, attendance would plummet and funding would evaporate. Leaving aside the larger question of what society would look like if schools were voluntary given the intrinsic support they give to capitalism I don’t think it’s so clear that attendance would drop – it might easily increase for a number of reasons – but regardless of that I don’t think the objection is a strong one.

    The choice to fund schools on a very strict per-child basis is a political choice, one which incentivizes educators to enforce compulsory attendance, an aspect counter to the pro-child instincts many of them share. It is intimately tied to the also-political choice to make school compulsory. The problem of funding seems simpler than the problem of removing compulsion. If we find a way to solve the harder a solution to the easier will probably be feasible at that time.

    Also, I didn’t discuss charter schools at all. In California at least, which is the only state whose charter schools I understand at all, they’re essentially scams relying on legal affordances to divert public funds to real estate and financial operatives. Public schools are also used this way but the process is less efficient because they’re more directly exposed to political controls, being more directly run by elected officials than are charter schools. Without compulsory attendance charter operators will lose most of their incentives. If schooling becomes voluntary I would expect charters to either vanish or be taken over by parents and run as cooperatives.

    I also didn’t discuss the role of public schools in creating criminals, who serve as raw material for the operations of the prison-industrial complex. Without the school to prison pipeline huge sectors of the American economy would fail. This is the subject of a different essay.

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