Beyond Compulsory Schooling

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by Jim Strickland

It seems you can’t open a newspaper these days without being inundated with cries for various reforms and innovations aimed at curing what ails public education.  There are obviously many passionately committed souls out there who care deeply about children and are willing to do whatever it takes to provide the nurture and support they need to grow up into good human beings and lifelong learners.

 But what is it that actually “ails” public education, and what is it that children really need from us?  In all the discussions about vouchers, charter schools, and higher standards, I never hear anything about the one thing I believe would do the most to improve the quality, integrity, effectiveness, and democratic character of our current system.  It would have long-term and far-reaching percolating effects that extended well beyond our schools, and at no additional cost.

Imagine what would happen if our current compulsory school attendance laws were simply rescinded?  This legal change would leave our public provision of free and appropriate education intact, while placing the burden of service on our schools rather than on the families and individuals who would then be free to choose when, how, or even whether or not to use them.  It would bring our public education system in line with the fundamental democratic notion that institutions are created to serve people rather than people to serve institutions.  Existing anti-discrimination laws would keep schools from denying anyone access to publicly funded learning opportunities, while making these programs and classes completely optional.

Let’s face it, compulsory attendance laws undermine learning by creating an atmosphere of coercion, mistrust, and manipulation.  They do this by their very existence as the faint (or not so faint) hum in the background of each potentially joyful moment in every classroom.  We all know the best way to make anyone hate doing something is to force compliance under threat of punishment.  Learning that is meaningful, lasting, and real can only take place with the consent and willing participation of the learner.  One cannot teach the values of freedom and democracy using a totalitarian pedagogy.  The medium is the message.

Compulsory attendance laws also exist under the questionable assumption that our system of mass schooling is capable of meeting the unique learning needs of all young people – why would we force anyone to attend if we did not believe we had what they needed?  But if learning theory tells us anything, it is that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” education.  While the majority of students seem to do reasonably well in our current system, there is a sizable minority who are destined for humiliation and failure through no fault of their own.  These children are exceptional in one way or another and have learning styles that cannot be adequately served by mass methods.  Compelling them to continue beating their heads against an unyielding brick wall is both cruel and eventually devastating.  Why not empower these young people and their families to take charge of their own learning and their lives?  They may find our support and guidance easier to accept when we remove our guns from their heads, and compulsory service laws would require us to do everything in our power to provide personalized learning opportunities that work for them.

Finally, compulsory attendance laws are just plain unnecessary.  In an age when access to virtually unlimited knowledge is easier and less expensive than ever before, do we really think that spending most of their waking hours behind the walls of often less-than-inspirational institutions with hordes of same-age peers is the best way for children to grow up in our world?  And just imagine the unlimited possibilities for creative learning opportunities that would arise, both inside and outside our current system, given the demand for them!  The walls dividing our schools from our communities and the rest of life would crumble and learning would become an integrated experience of joyful growth that complements human nature and feeds the human spirit.

So what is it that we are really afraid of?  A world full of passionate, curious, thoughtful, self-directed individuals whose creativity and confidence have not been undermined by an oppressive and controlling system?  I suppose a democracy could do worse!

But, for better or worse, people are afraid…very afraid.  In his 1969 introduction to George Dennison’s The Lives of Children, John Holt wrote:

            I have for some time now urged that we abolish or at least greatly relax the laws requiring compulsory attendance.  No other change I advocate, however radical, provokes such a terrified and hysterical response.  Proposals to wipe out half the human race with hydrogen bombs do not generate one-tenth as much anger.

Forty-five years later and we are still shaking in our boots.  Why?  Because people worry about the millions of kids from impoverished, dysfunctional, and otherwise marginal families who could get lost if not required to be in school.  What other support do they have?  Unless we can lay out an alternative plan that empowers kids and families, the idea of a “school-optional” childhood is just too scary to most people.

But, while these fears are very real, can viable alternatives – alternatives that are more holistic, more respectful, and more in-line with democratic values, alternatives that better meet the needs of the very children and families we are most concerned about – adequately develop in the shadow of our current centralized monopoly?  When we make school attendance compulsory, then we have a legal mandate to define exactly what constitutes a “school”.  This obligation to officially define “schooling” (which, by the way, is generally done by those most invested in maintaining our political and economic status quo) creates a restrictive box that limits innovation and eventually becomes self-defeating for individuals and for our democracy.

This puts us in a Catch-22.  Compulsory attendance laws inhibit the widespread development of alternative pathways to learning, while the lack of alternative pathways keeps us afraid to let go of compulsory school attendance!  What can we do?  Are we stuck with one unwieldy system that turns education into something akin to doing needlepoint while wearing boxing gloves?

Well, since an abrupt, top-down change from compulsory school attendance to compulsory school service is not likely to happen tomorrow, maybe we just need to clarify our values and start from the bottom, right where we are.  In a letter to John Holt, writer and social thinker Paul Goodman wrote:

             Suppose you had the revolution you are talking and dreaming about.  Suppose your side had won, and you had the kind of society you wanted.  How would you live, you personally, in that society?  Start living that way now!  Whatever you would do then, do it now.  When you run up against obstacles, people, or things that won’t let you live that way, then begin to think about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how to push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete and practical.

In the world of our dreams, the world where our greatest hopes are realized, how would our children grow up?  What opportunities would they have?  What structures?  What freedoms?  What would their relationship be to each other, to adults, and to the world around them?  How would we wrap our collective arms around those kids and families that need our support the most?  And what values would guide our efforts?

To the best of our abilities, let’s start living that way now, both inside and outside our schools.  And rest assured, we will encounter obstacles – obstacles that inhibit our children’s growth, squelch curiosity, extinguish creativity, and undermine democratic learning.  We will butt up against obstacles that deny children their educational rights, powerfully described by holistic educator Ron Miller as human rights, extended to young people so that they may experience, and participate in building, a society that truly cares for everyone.  And when this happens, we’ll know what to do.  Our politics will be concrete and practical.

And if the scaffolding of compulsory school attendance stands in our way… well, we’ll just have to take it down, one piece at a time.

Jim Strickland is a public educator in Marysville, WA where he lives with his wife and three children.  He is a long-time advocate of democratic, non-coercive, and learner-centered education, and writes regularly on these topics.  Jim welcomes your comments and ideas at .