Unlearning Individualism: The Lessons of Compulsory Education


Since the early 1900s, education has been compulsory in most U.S. states for children between the ages of six and seventeen. The precise age range varies, but the consequences are often severe. Local ordinances, like those recently proposed in an Illinois city, levy fines against parents whose children miss a certain number of school days and can make alternative educational strategies such as homeschooling more difficult. Similar laws also provide for uniformed officers to patrol and enforce truancy laws.

In Texas, truancy is considered a crime and students can be prosecuted in adult courts. Texas law permits students to miss at most ten days every six months. In one case, Elizabeth Hebert was summoned to appear in court as a “parent contributing to nonattendance.” In the end, the case was dropped when it became clear that it was her daughter Rachel’s chronic cerebral palsy that was keeping her from school, not her mother’s negligence.

The philosophy behind compulsory education is that students need education in order to become responsible citizens. If some do not understand the value of an education, according to this way of thinking they should be made to see its value through time spent in the school system.

Despite being zealously enforced, compulsory education policies cannot force students to learn—not in any meaningful sense.

Simply bringing students to school and exposing them to information does not make them see its value or force them to benefit from it. Learning means more than the passive absorption of information: it means actively integrating information into knowledge. To actively integrate information, one must maintain a vigilant mind, investigate available information, relate it to prior experience and to one’s wider body of knowledge, and make it the basis for one’s practical ambitions.

For example, a student might be taught passively to recall the information that Hitler was an evil leader of Germany who was responsible for the holocaust and World War II. But to acquire meaningful knowledge, a student must seek to understand how Hitler could have been elected by an otherwise civilized society: because it had accepted certain core political ideas in a time of economic turmoil. The active student has the potential to learn a valuable lesson that might inform his own political awareness and make him a more informed citizen who could be vigilant against dictatorship. But this understanding is too subtle to be dictated to a student by a teacher; it can only be obtained through self-directed learning.

Students who integrate information into knowledge gain the ability to teach themselves. But students who simply memorize facts do not have this ability because they have not learned to love learning itself. They must rely on other people to explain the significance and meaning of new information, just as they accepted that the teacher was telling them everything they needed to know.

The only guaranteed result of the compulsory educational process is a student who may have acquired some awareness of basic information and some low level skills but who needs to be reprogrammed in every new situation. Such a person is in thrall to those who can explain (or simply dictate) lessons to them.

At an intellectual level, an education is valuable to a student only if he or she wants it. The mind of an individual cannot be compelled to value an education (or anything else)—especially an education which is presented as irrelevant to the student’s own values.

Suppose that a student wants to work in a trade that does not require an advanced formal education. There are numerous employment opportunities that do not require individuals to have an appreciation for Shakespeare or an understanding of algebra. In many cases, these students are wasting valuable time that would be better spent preparing for their future.

There may indeed be many students who would profit from Shakespeare and algebra but who do not desire to learn about them. Such students have only themselves and their parents to blame. If they fail to pursue their own interests, or their parents fail to encourage them to do so, they alone bear responsibility for the consequences.

There are also students who do want to study these topics, and they are also victims of compulsory education.  They are sometimes required to be in the presence of other people who do not want to learn and who distract them from the pursuit of their goals.

It is precisely individuals who have a strong sense of self, who understand that the curriculum taught in the traditional government classroom is not relevant to or even consistent with their own ambitions, who suffer the most under compulsory education.

Consider for instance the case of Diane Tran, an honors student who missed more than ten days at her school in Texas. Tran, who works one full time and one part time job to support her siblings, was jailed for twenty-four hours and fined for her truancy. The words of the sentencing judge illustrate a central problem with compulsory education policies: “If you let one run loose, what are you going to do with the rest of them?”

One has the sense, from these comments, that the judge is talking about escaped criminals who ought to be rounded up, not absentee school-children engaged in supporting a family. Tran’s case demonstrates that individuals who can learn on their own do not benefit from being forced to sit in classrooms all day. Competent, exemplary citizens do not roll off of production lines at the end of high school—they handcraft themselves.

Both students who wish to learn and those who do not are victims of compulsory education because both are taught that they, as individuals, do not matter. Requiring people to attend school, over and against their (and their family’s) wishes teaches students that they should not trust their own judgment, that they should instead respect the values that government authority figures dictate to them.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that Winston Churchill was able to describe Germany in 1934 as a “nation . . . of the most educated, industrious, scientific, disciplined people in the world.” Compulsory education was first introduced in Prussia and later extended to the unified German nation in the nineteenth century.

Churchill was not wrong: many Germans were well-educated, in the sense that they had developed certain skills that enabled many to be better industrial workers. But it is not enough to know how to perform even an advanced scientific task. A person must know why they should perform such a task. And a student who has been taught by compulsory education that his own values do not matter will have few tools for deciding what purpose his work should serve. Hitler’s Nazi party did not come to power because of compulsory education, but German schools clearly didn’t prepare the German citizenry to resist Hitler’s arguments.

People must be able to decide which goals they should work towards and which values they should pursue. Their own needs, priorities, and capacities should guide them in making these decisions. While a person may be informed by outside sources, the ultimate decision about which goals to work towards rests with the individual.

An appropriate system of education would apply the same kinds of principles to educating older children and adolescents that Maria Montessori developed for educating younger children. Such a system would recognize that children as individuals needs to be given the freedom (within appropriate limits) to pursue knowledge that is relevant to their own interests and should not be compelled to follow a particular course of study dictated by the state. There should indeed be some parental oversight, but this should aid children in pursuing their own goals.

While a broad, liberal education, like that taught in our public schools, might be useful to certain students pursuing a college education, it is no substitute for allowing students and parents to make their own decisions about what is valuable and allowing them to develop their minds in unique, individual ways. At least one legislator in Utah has recognized the need to abolish compulsory education laws, and other states should adopt similar measures.

Compulsory education laws are at best an ineffective societal experiment being carried out on our children by force. As such, they are immoral and should be scrapped in favor of allowing individual people to make decisions about what is valuable to themselves.

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