Compulsory Schooling


Compulsory school attendance is today enforced by law in all States of the union and in almost all countries of the world.

It was not always so. The first compulsory school attendance law was enacted by an autocratic Prussia in the 1820's. It was not until 1852 that Massachusetts passed such a law.1 Even as late as 1900 "only twenty-nine states had passed compulsory education laws" and among these "it was an exceptional state that required the student to attend school as many as twenty weeks per year. Half of the states that had attendance laws in 1900 required the student to attend school only twelve weeks per year, and not more than eight of the twelve weeks had to be consecutive.2

Does the rise of state-enforced school attendance represent, as most educators and laymen alike seem to think, true progress? Are we—are our children—truly better off for it?

In what follows I shall cite what I think to be the strongest claim that can be presented in favor of compulsory school attendance laws and the strongest claim that can be presented against their institution. I shall examine each claim in turn. What this examination will show, I contend, is that the strongest claim in favor of compulsory school attendance laws is demonstrably false, while the strongest argument against their institution is in all probability true.

I should point out in passing, that by "strongest claim in favor of school attendance laws" I mean that claim which predicates of compulsory school attendance laws a greater good than any other good that can plausibly be attributed to their institution and by "strongest claim against their institution" I mean that claim which predicates a greater evil than any other evil that can be plausibly attributed to their institution. Thus, if the evil in question outweighs all lesser goods that might plausibly be predicated of compulsory school attendance laws and if our demonstrations are themselves sound, it follows that state-enforced school attendance is in the balance and evil and not good and should therefore be abolished. I shall not attempt to demonstrate that the evil which our second claim predicates of compulsory attendance laws does, in fact, outweigh all such possible lesser goods (e.g., "Compulsory school attendance laws keep children off the streets," etc.), but I maintain that it does. If the reader should agree with me in this and in my demonstrations, he ought also to agree with me that all compulsory school attendance laws should be repealed forthwith.

The Strongest Claim for Compulsory Attendance Laws

By all odds the most powerful and persuasive claim that can be advanced in favor of compulsory school attendance laws is the claim that without them children, by and large, would not learn to read and write. They would be illiterate. Thus, Professor M.R. Charles argues: "In Colonial America no child was obligated to go to school. Even the colony of Massachusetts, which had passed a compulsory education law [the law in question required children to be able, at a certain age, to read the Bible], did not require attendance at a school. A child could stay at home and learn how to read. As a matter of fact, most of the children did stay home—and most of them," Charles adds, "did not learn how to read."3 The conclusion that Professor Charles hopefully wants us to draw is: "Compulsory school attendance laws are necessary."

What can we oppose against this argument and the evidence presumably adduced in its premises? We can point out that both the actual evidence and the conclusion indicated by the actual evidence are the very opposite of what Professor Charles maintains.

His claim to the contrary notwithstanding, the colonial New England community was a highly literate one. Though its children did not, by and large, attend school they did, by and large, learn to read and write. Here, for instance, is what Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. said on the matter: "While no contemporary figures exist, a historian's painstaking examination of the relatively frequency of signatures as contrasted with marks on official documents indicates that in Massachusetts and Connecticut the illiterates in 1700 numbered only one out of twenty. John Adams in 1765 could observe that such hapless New Englanders were 'as rare a Phenomenon as a Comet.'"4

But may not colonial New England be the exception that proves the rule? We do not think that exceptions prove rules; but if they do, colonial New England was not, with respect to literacy, such an exception for it was not, to begin with, an exception. One might indeed say: wherever literacy has been esteemed and men have been comparatively free, literacy—without the need of any coercive law, tax-subsidy, or other alien implementation—has flourished. Consider an example.

In eighteenth century Pennsylvania there existed neither compulsory school attendance laws, compulsory education laws, or tax supported schools. In the more remote regions which, in particular, were being settled by immigrant Germans, life was exacting and hard; people were widely scattered; schooling of any kind was difficult to obtain.5 Yet, literacy among these people was maintained at such high levels that "In 1789 Dr. Benjamin Rush, in commenting on the status of education, wrote that there was scarcely an instance of a German of either sex in Pennsylvania who could not read…" and according to "the Philadelphische Correspondenz, during the year 1790 there were less than four natives in most townships of Pennsylvania who could not read or write."6

When it is remembered that what is meant by reading in these accounts is not "reading a primer" or "reading a comic book" but "reading the Bible," we cannot help but wonder how a modern township, with all its compulsory school attendance, "professional teachers," costly edifices, and a population forced during its youth to spend the greatest part of every day and year, year after year, in school, would stand in comparison. We should imagine—having censored mail for several years in World War II—not very well.

The Strongest Argument Against Compulsory School Attendance Laws

The strongest argument against state-enforced school attendance is certainly the argument that compulsory school attendance induces juvenile delinquency, crime, and drug-addiction. What support does this argument have?

On the basis of a careful study of juvenile delinquents and drug-addicts, covering 343 individuals, Dr. Herbert Berger, director of Medicine, Richmond Memorial Hospital, New York, has this to say regarding the anti-social and drug-oriented behavior of the individuals in question: "Obviously, there is no single easy answer to these behavior patterns but one factor stands out in almost all these interviews. It was an absolute hatred of 'Compulsory Education!' This symptom was noted by the patients early in primary school and became full blown by the age of 12."7

In support of the conclusion that he draws, that compulsory education causes juvenile crime and drug-addiction, Dr. Berger notes that while schools are widely vandalized, indicating the resentment of someone jailed against his jailor and his jail, libraries are not vandalized and disturbed. He comments in explanation: "The library is attended by those who want to read. Should they be noisy or discourteous this privilege would be revoked. The obvious antithetical situation vis-a-vis schools is too apparent to require elaboration."8

But is not, perhaps, Dr. Berger's evidence "tainted"? Can we place reliance on the testimony of juvenile delinquents and drug addicts? May not such persons in attacking compulsory schooling simply be expressing their resentment of things (and their own bankrupt lives) by lashing out blindly at the most prominent object in sight? Dr. Berger does, in fact, grant that his evidence is not conclusive.9 There exists, however, other, independent corroboration of his claim. For example, the prestigious Crother Committee 1959, investigating the relation between crime and education, discovered (somewhat to its dismay) that the following concomitant variation held: "…the last year of compulsory education was also the heaviest year for juvenile delinquency and…the tendency to crime during school years was reversed when a boy went to work."10 By almost any believable interpretation these findings show that compulsory school attendance exerts a pernicious effect not merely on youths who might be pre-disposed to moral or psychological breakdown (perhaps Dr. Gerger's subjects) but on all youth.

John O. Nelson
University of Colorado


1. Charles, M.R., A Preface to Education, (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 94.
2. Op. cit., p. 94.
3. Ibid., p. 75.
4. Schlesinger, Arthur M., Sr., The Birth of the Nation, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1968), pp. 156-7.
5. Livingood, F.G., Eighteenth Century Reformed Church Schools, (Norristown, Pennsylvania: Norristown Press, 1930), p. 7.
6. Ibid., p. 196.
7. Berger, Herbert, Medical Times. December, 1969, p. 181.
8. Ibid., 181.
9. Ibid., 180.
10. West, E.G., Education and the State, p. 36.