The Blackboard Prison


THE TWELVE-YEAR SENTENCE. Edited by William F. Rickenbacker, LaSalle: Open Court Publishing Co., 1974, 236 pp., $6.95.

Since it was firmly established in mid-nineteenth century America, compulsory schooling has been a subject of argument and debate. Its proponents claim it is necessary since there will always be parents who do not provide their children with even the minimum of education; other proponents insist that children, particularly children of immigrants, must be Americanized, and that this can only be accomplished by forcing them to attend public schools where they will be molded into "good" citizens.

But opponents of compulsory schooling are quick to point out that it is a rare parent indeed who refuses to assist his progeny in attaining the basic tools of learning—reading, writing, and arithmetic—and thus it is absurd to have a compulsory schooling law that applies to all. They also point out that it is definitely not the function of government to mold children into the type of citizen approved of by those currently in power. Allowing each individual the right to develop into his unique self, they argue, would lend great diversity to the nation and thus enhance its well-being.

In order to shed new insights on this most controversial of subjects, six individuals, mainly of the legal or scholastic professions, prepared papers for a symposium sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and the Center for Independent Education, held in Milwaukee in 1972. These papers have now been incorporated into The Twelve-Year Sentence, and Benjamin A. Rogge has provided a brief introduction in which he sets the tone of what is to come: a multi-factual analysis of the historical, legal and social aspects of compulsory schooling.

Unfortunately, as Rogge points out, "These essays do not resolve the still unanswered questions of compulsory schooling." But what you will find is "a series of mature and scholarly explorations of the possibility that the emperor of compulsory, government-operated schooling is in fact riding his horse before the public in a state of absolute nakedness. One man approaches the topic with the materials of history, another the law, or economics, or professional education, or some mixture of all of these. Some come at it with the value sets and presuppositions of the conservative right, others of the anarcho-capitalist or traditional Liberal or New Left positions.…Most importantly, you will find here some challenging and thoughtful and intelligent conversation on the whole set of public issues raised by the general topic of compulsory schooling."


Murray Rothbard presents an historical sketch of the development of compulsory schooling in this country along with data concerning when compulsory schooling actually began (with the Protestant Reformation). Rothbard asserts that "the educationists of the mid-nineteenth century saw themselves as using an expanded network of free public schools to shape and render uniform all American citizens, to unify the nation, to assimilate the foreigner, to stamp all citizens as Americans, and to impose cohesion and stability on the often unruly and diverse aspirations of the disparate individuals who make up the country." He also argues that forced public schooling was an attempt to eliminate private schooling, a point supported by other scholars and legal actions.

George Resch, since 1970 a research fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies, emphasizes the vast diversity of the human being in his essay "Human Variation and Individuality". As the editor notes, he "points toward the need for a free, pluralistic school system in a pluralistic culture, as the best way to guarantee maximum opportunity for each child." Resch draws on a wide variety of studies which clearly substantiate the uniqueness of each individual, a substantiation which, by this time in history, should no longer be necessary. But since there are many who apparently refuse to accept the overwhelmingly abundant evidence of the marked individuality of each human, and madly proceed on their egalitarian way, Resch's essay provides a welcome stumbling block along their path.


Probably the most penetrating and important essays to appear in The Twelve-Year Sentence are those of attorneys Gerrit Wormhoudt and Robert Baker. In their essays, "Supreme Court Decisions" and "Statute Law and Judicial Interpretation," respectively, we encounter a discussion of the most important Federal and State legal cases involving compulsory schooling and can thus see what trend seems to be occurring in the courts. In this regard, Wormhoudt writes that "when consideration is given only to the results in such cases, it can be concluded that compulsory schooling has not enjoyed a friendly reception from the Supreme Court thus far." But he insists that "so long as the court maintains that parents are constitutionally assured the primary role in the upbringing of their children, any attempt by a government-created educationist establishment to diminish that role remains subject to challenge before our highest court. In nearly every instance, when the court has been confronted with governmental trespasses against that role, individual liberty has been vindicated."

In addition to remarks concerning legal decisions, Gerrit Wormhoudt contributes discerning comments dealing with the censorship practiced by school boards and other officials who determine what texts will be approved for use in the schools; he notes that "whoever controls the public school structure is in a position to manage the shaping of the minds of all but a handful of our children;" and comments that "members of the teaching profession are the only certain beneficiaries of public expenditures for schooling." He also points out that "formal schooling of children today is almost entirely a product fashioned by an elite group that has a tremendous stake in ever larger public school budgets, but very little accountability to anyone for what happens in the name of public schooling." This matter of accountability is of tremendous importance, and the fact that teachers and school administrators have little or no accountability to their customers, the students and parents, should be exposed at every opportunity.

I was particularly struck by Robert Baker's opening sentence in his essay "Statute Law and Judicial Interpretation". It reads: "The subject of schooling is not mentioned in the United States Constitution and there is no right to be educated recognized therein." How few people even realize that the word education does not appear in the U.S. Constitution and that the framers of this document intended to leave the matter of education in the hands of the parents (and some argue in the hands of the state, but certainly not the federal government). The absence of any mention of education in this document should be argument enough to substantiate a legal claim that the federal government should have nothing whatsoever to do with education, either directly or indirectly. But, alas, what we find today is an ever greater role of Uncle Sam in usurping the rights of parents in seeing to the education of their offspring.


After discussing the nature, content and functioning of the compulsory school laws, Baker concludes that, "on their own terms, the compulsory schooling laws manifestly do not work. They are demonstrably either useless or pernicious, engendering far more compulsion than education," as Baker proceeds to demonstrate. But I was most intrigued by his discussion of the rights of children. He states that "I have not mentioned the rights of children previously, because the compulsory schooling laws take no account of those rights whatsoever." And yet he points out that "the Supreme Court…has reaffirmed the principle that children are 'persons' to whom the Bill of Rights applies."

But, in fact, regardless of what the Supreme Court has stated, children, particularly in schools, are completely devoid of legal rights in the United States. Since schools are operated as miniature dictatorships in which the school authorities give out the orders and the victims, the students, must unquestioningly follow these orders (under the threat of a low or failing grade, a suspension or expulsion, the withholding of a degree or diploma, or even a jail or reform school sentence) there is no question whatsoever that legal rights are totally lacking in these institutions, just as they are also and always lacking in non-scholastic dictatorships.

Not only are rights completely absent in schools, but, as Joel Spring, author of another essay in this book entitled "Sociological and Political Ruminations," points out, the schools (according to Edgar Freidenberg, author of Coming of Age in America) teach students that they have privileges but are without rights. "This was fostered within the school by an administration which granted privileges with the attached reminder that if they were not used responsibly they would be withdrawn. Students were socialized to accept that in the United States people did not have irrevocable civil rights but had privileges granted through the good will of a benign government."

That youths between the ages of 6 and 17 should be forced, by way of compulsory schooling laws, to attend an institution of learning is in and of itself a tragic miscarriage of justice. But that these same youths should be forced into a dictatorial environment where they have no rights and no way of escaping this tyranny (without being placed in another, non-scholastic, jail) is unquestionably one of the greatest crimes of our times. How can we expect young adults to gain an understanding of freedom, and the responsibilities which go along with this freedom, when for many years of their early lives they are incarcerated in scholastic prisons where everything is done by means of permissions and orders; where they can gain no positive and healthy mental development allowing them to accept and deal with freedom of choice since they have spent their whole time, not choosing, but obeying the commands of others?

That freedom is rapidly vanishing from this country can be readily understood when one realizes the devastatingly irrational nonfree situation in which children are placed. School does not provide them with the guidance that is necessary to become self-responsible, decision-making adults. Rather, it provides them with a thorough training in subservience, in obedience, in hypocrisy, in collectivization. As John Holt so aptly points out, children are trained in school for "practical slavery."

Among Joel Spring's other sociological and political ruminations, one of the most important is his observation concerning certificates granted by institutions of learning. "Issuance of diplomas and degrees is one of the most important means by which mass schooling maintains its social power. [And, as I noted in The Declaration of Educational Independence, "the degree is the single factor without which the educational dictatorship would collapse."] With the complete triumph of compulsory schooling in the twentieth century, the school as a social sorting machine has become the central certification system for entrance into different occupational levels. High school and college diplomas become standard requirements on job applications." So even if students were not compelled to attend these scholastic dictatorships they would be severely penalized in the job market if they chose not to do so. Compulsory schooling, along with the need for a diploma or degree, makes attending these scholastic prisons a "must" for almost everyone.


Although all of the contributors to The Twelve-Year Sentence argue in favor of the complete or almost complete elimination of compulsion in regards to attendance at school, none of them formulates a logically-derived theoretical position on compulsory schooling laws. And yet this is an extremely important matter, for as long as students are forced to attend schools where their rights are obliterated, we must all suffer the consequences.

Children, as dependent human beings, possess rights which are not held by older independent adults. Since a child is born, and remains for many years, in a physical and mental condition that will not allow him to take the action necessary to provide for his own needs, he does have the right to actual goods and services which are necessary for his survival—goods and services which must be provided by those individuals who, by their own free choice, brought the child into existence. Thus a child does have the right to food, clothing, housing, and any other essential items which are necessary for his physical survival.

But a child develops not only physically, but mentally. And since it is very important, but not absolutely essential, that a child know how to read, write, and use numbers (although one can think of instances when the child's life might actually be placed in jeopardy if these mental tools are absent), he should have the right to schooling in these subjects—schooling provided by the parents or anyone else who voluntarily wishes to afford it. The state does not have an obligation to teach children, any more than it has the obligation to feed, clothe or house them. The state only has the obligation to see that the responsible parties, the parents, provide the needed requirements, both physical and mental, of the child. The state has the responsibility to see that the special rights of dependent children are protected. And if the parents should fail in providing these requirements, they should be forced to do so, and if the parents should be killed, or disabled, and thus unable to provide these needs, the latter should only be taken care of by voluntary action on the part of interested individuals or private organizations.


The appropriate law concerning the schooling of children should be a criminal law, and not a preventive law as it now stands. The law should state that if, on an individual basis, parents should fail to provide the minimum schooling in the three R's—whether by means of parental tutelage, a hired private instructor, a purchased course of instruction from a school or business, etc.—that they can be prosecuted for this criminal act of negligence and required to provide such instruction by whatever means they so choose. But the government definitely does not have the right to force a child into a scholastic prison for a lengthy period of years in order that he might learn (which he often does not), just as the government does not now force children into public eating establishments if their parents should fail to provide them with food (although neglected children are now taken from parents and placed in foster homes, at public expense, and there fed). There should exist no preventive compulsory schooling laws.

One regrets the absence of a clear statement on the fundamental invalidity of compulsory education laws, but The Twelve-Year Sentence does provide one with a most stimulating analysis of the subject of compulsory schooling and gives invaluable data concerning the relevant legal cases. In addition to the essays, the book contains a Legal Bibliography listing many of the most important cases involving compulsory schooling, as well as a General Bibliography of books and articles which treat the theory, history and economics of compulsory schooling. It is a book that one will not just read with interest and then set aside, but a work that will serve as an important reference source to all who are vitally interested in the plight of children and the establishment of a free society. I am most pleased to have The Twelve-Year Sentence in my library.

Thomas Johnson is a professor of biology at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA. He is the author of The Declaration of Educational Independence.