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Are Compulsory School Attendance Laws Necessary? Part 1

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It is assumed by the vast majority of Americans that the issue of compulsory school attendance is a settled matter, part and parcel of every civilized nation-state, and a prerequisite of a democratic society. We all acknowledge that a representative form of government requires an educated electorate for its survival.

But what happens when that government’s schools no longer know how to teach children to read and write, when those schools turn children not into civilized citizens, but into barbarians? What happens when millions of parents feel compelled to remove their children from government schools in order to make sure that their children do get an education? What happens is that the basic premises of compulsory attendance and government education come into question.

The glaring fact is that despite our compulsory attendance laws, we now have more illiteracy and more ignorance among Americans than before such laws were enacted. The first compulsory school attendance law was passed in Massachusetts in 1852, and by 1918 every state in the Union had such a law. Yet the fact is that these laws have merely increased the amount of time children spend in school, not the amount of learning or knowledge they acquire,

To find out how much better educated Americans were before compulsory attendance laws and government schools existed, all we have to do is read DuPont de Nemours fascinating little book, National Education in the United States of America, published in 1812. He writes:

“The United States are mote advanced in their educational facilities than most countries.

“They have a large number of primary schools; and as their paternal affection protects children from working in the fields, it is possible to send them to the schoolmasters — a condition which does not prevail in Europe.

“Most young Americans, therefore, can read, write and cipher. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly — even neatly….

“England, Holland, the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland more nearly approach the standard of the United States, because in those countries the Bible is read; it is considered a duty to read it to children; and in that form of religion the sermons and liturgy in the language of the people tend to increase and formulate ideas of responsibility. Controversy, also, has developed argumentation and has thus given room for the exercise of logic.

“In America, a great number of people read the Bible, and all the people read a newspaper. The fathers read aloud to their children, while breakfast is being prepared — a task which occupies the mothers for three quarters of an hour every morning. And as the newspapers of the United States are filled with all sorts of narratives … they disseminate an enormous amount of information.”

Obviously, back in the very early days of this republic, education was a family affair closely connected to religious practice. A nation built on biblical principles had to be a highly literate one. In addition, all of this education was achieved without any government involvement, without any centralized educational bureaucracy, without any professors of education, or accrediting agencies or teacher certification. And, most significantly, without any compulsory attendance laws.

Contrast that happy picture of complete educational freedom and high literacy with the present situation in which the state has assumed the function of educator, at great expense to the taxpayer, with all sons of laws and regulations forcing population to patronize a system that is turning out functional illiterates by the millions.

According to an article in the Spring 1989 issue of Education Canada, published by the Canadian Education Association:

“It is currently estimated that one million Canadians are at most totally illiterate and another four million are termed ‘functionally illiterate.’ In the United States these figures are estimated respectively at 26 million and 60 million.”

Both Canada and the United States have had compulsory attendance laws for decades. The purpose of these laws was to insure that every child was educated. The laws were particularly aimed at the children of the poor, and yet it is they who have suffered the most at the hands of government education.

Even the Secretary of Education has admitted in the frankest terms that the government education system is failing the American people so miserably that it threatens our very future as a nation. On May 3, 1989, Secretary Cavazos, in his sixth annual report card on American schools, repeated the well-known litany of failures that plague U.S. education: declining SAT scores, declining interest in math and science, declining literacy and a soaring dropout rate of 44.5% in Washington, D.C. He said that we were still wallowing in a “tide of mediocrity,” and that “we must do better or perish as the nation we know today.”

Obviously, then, the purpose of compulsory attendance is not to provide an education for all, but merely to fill classrooms with children for the convenience of the education establishment whose financial benefits depend on deluding the public into believing that education is taking place. But Dr. Cavazos knows that it isn’t.

In other words, compulsory attendance forces parents, particularly poor parents, to patronize schools that are incompetent and harmful to their children. The fact that millions of young Americans have emerged from the educational process, unable to read, write or spell, do simple arithmetic, or speak grammatically, means that attending school has been a complete waste of time and money. They have acquired no employable skills and now make up the burgeoning underclass in our inner cities who are turning to drugs and crime, thereby making life in many of our big cities dangerous and intolerable.

The sorry fact is that in America’s public schools, the educators pretend to teach and the pupils pretend to learn.

How could compulsory school attendance have produced such disastrous results? The answer is to be found in the premise of the original idea. That idea was first expressed among the New England Unitarians who, in the early 19th century, were in the forefront of the movement for government owned and controlled schools. The Unitarians had decided to replace salvation through Christ with salvation through secular education. The Unitarians no longer believed in the divinity of Christ or in the doctrine of original sin. They believed that evil was caused by poverty, ignorance and social injustice, and that education would rid mankind of ignorance, which would in turn lift the poor out of poverty, which would then eradicate the causes of social injustice. The Unitarians believed in the basic goodness of human nature and of its perfectibility, and that is why they placed all of their hopes on education — not education run by Calvinists, but secular education run by government.

Actually, the common schools of New England were established in colonial times by Calvinists who passed laws requiring parents to educate and catechize their children in accordance with Biblical principles. These schools were town schools, supported by the townspeople and run by the clergy. The idea that there could be education without God was so unbiblical as to be unthinkable.

As the Unitarians grew in numbers and influence, they set out to remove Calvinist teachings from the common schools by bringing the schools under centralized state control in the late 1830s and advancing the idea that the schools should be Christian but nonsectarian in character. Calvinism was replaced with a watered-down nondenominational Protestantism which virtually all the sects could agree on. Orthodox Calvinists fought against centralization and the watering down of orthodox doctrine. But in the end the liberals prevailed.

During that transition period, truancy was a minor problem. Schools were built to make it possible for all children to be educated. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Irish in large numbers in the 1840s in Boston that the truancy issue was raised and a campaign was started to get a compulsory school attendance law passed.

The idea of compulsory school attendance was neither new nor original with the Unitarians. It was already the practice in Prussia where a centralized government school system had been in existence since 1819 and had become the envy of the Unitarians and their liberal Protestant allies who saw in the Prussian system a model they hoped to duplicate in America.

What the Unitarians liked about the Prussian system was its centralized control, its government teacher-training institutions and its strong compulsory attendance laws with its stiff penalties for parents who disobeyed the law. What the liberal Protestants saw in the system was a coercive instrument whereby Irish Catholic children could be forced to attend Protestant — albeit nondenominational — public schools where they could be weaned away from Catholicism.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This is Part I (of 3) of “Are Compulsory Attendance Laws Necessary?” which appeared in the September 1990 issue of The Blumenfeld Education Letter, P.O. Box 45161, Boise Idaho 83711. Reprinted by permission.

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    Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of "Is Public Education Necessary?"