“It is among the commonplaces of education that we often first cut off the living root and then try to replace its natural function by artificial means. Thus we suppress the child’s curiosity and then when he lacks a natural interest in learning he is offered special coaching for his scholastic difficulties.” ~ Florence King
The compulsory education system has faced consistent changes to meet the needs of society and citizens, or at least that’s what the population has been told to believe. In today’s society, most jobs require having at least a high school diploma and therefore, education is the key to qualify in nearly all of the social endeavors. The first general law attempting to control the education for children in the U.S. was enacted by the state of Massachusetts in 1852 with the compulsory attendance act. Compulsory education became mandatory in all states by 1918. Although the coveted idea of education is based on egalitarianism, governmental bodies elaborated on a standardized curricula and exam system for all, without exceptions, producing state-controlled echoes. By forcing all children through the same standard curriculum, their desire to learn is killed, and the opportunities to follow alternative pathways is reduced. The government’s pseudo-monopoly suffocates freedom of speech and destroys the marketplace of ideas. A part from the broad expectations set on a diversity of learners, compulsory education teaches dependence on a social structure rather than independence and self-reliance. This has led to a mistaken belief that compulsory schooling is needed in order to learn and be educated, and what is far worse, the acceptance of this generic standard curriculum, because it has existed for several generations and is deeply ingrained in civilization.
School districts today tend to educate everybody lumped together, instead of having a tailored plan that adjusts to every individual’s needs. Dr. Mark Bertin stated, “One of the standards of American education today is the concept of ‘heterogeneous grouping’ within ‘mainstream’ classrooms”, in which learners of every skill level are expected to stay together in each subject. The institutionally determined content, and the defined learning process pace, asks children to defer from their natural curiosity and instinct of leaning. Everybody gets the same deal, no matter what talents or hindrances they may have. From a young age, children are confined in buildings and assigned to rooms by age, in which they can’t choose their associates, nor pursue their own interests. Instead they must conform to rules and schedules that interfere with their learning abilities. Human beings are biologically predisposed for self-education. This capacity and interest to learn is being shut down forcefully by secluding them in a prison-like environment for years, denying them their freedom.
The term compulsory implies that the individual has no choice. Human beings are required by law to spend most of their developmental stages in schools, where orders are enforced. Youths are told what to do, and sometimes even advised what to think. This system could be compared to imprisonment, where people are confined involuntarily and restricted from their liberty. The only difference is that people are incarcerated in prisons when proven guilty of a crime, whereas children and teenagers are sent to schools just because of their age. This factor is especially key, because it makes them vulnerable to their environment, and their natural development is interfered in an artificial way.
It is not an easy task to force someone to do something they don’t want to and thereby, the human emotional system of shame and pride is distorted to motivate children to perform. Children are caught in a competition-based system of ranking and grading, in which they are constantly being compared to their peers. They are subconsciously taught to feel shame when their performance is worse than their classmates, and pride when they perform better. Human beings are an extremely social species but they are forced to work against their cooperative drive. Additionally, the forced age separation itself promotes competition and bullying while inhibiting the development of nurturance. “Throughout human history, children and adolescents have learned to be caring and helpful through their interactions with younger children. The age-graded school system deprives them of such opportunities” (Gray, 2013).
Schools generate intense anxiety, which children have learned to associate with learning, and its level is tangible in today’s students. The discomfort and pressure can be felt everywhere they go, whether it’s the teacher’s desires, the parents expectation or the competition in the classroom. “A fundamental psychological principle is that anxiety inhibits learning”, Dr. Gray mentioned in his article. Yet students are exposed to situations, like testing, in which the anxiety clearly inhibits enjoyment, and the forced nature of schooling turns learning into work. The system of forced education and grading generates fear, and that same fear inhibits learning. That’s when the natural leaning process finds an end and students understand that their job at school is to get high grades on tests. Even though critical thinking is one of the goals of education, the grading system is a powerful weapon against it. Honest debates and critical thinking only get in the way; at this point, all students need to do, is say and think what teachers expect them to express and believe.
The freedom to express other ideas is repressed by an overt threat of force and an implicit hazard of low-test scores. Governmental bodies decide and approve which ideas are shared and passed on to future generation. Alternative schooling isn’t immune to this control of ideas because students are required to pass standardized exams. In fact, teachers are no freer to teach as they wish than students are free to learn what they are really interested in. “Formally trained educators have come to measure achievements in a way that is antithetical to intelligence and to meaningful learning” (Cabus and De Witte). A vast number of people may think that experts design these tests to ensure the knowledge children need to become productive members of society. The truth is that this belief hasn’t been challenged neither can the argument be supported with data, because a point of comparison doesn’t exist. The lack of knowledge and critical thinking has led to the abandonment of trust in people’s own individual and collective experiences in favor of experts and institutions.
Compulsory education has been implemented in society for several generations and has undergone several attempts to change. These reforms failed because the risk taken to improve was never big enough to make an impact. Both progressive and traditional thinkers have suggested and tried to solve the problem related with education in schools. Even though their approach is different, their belief that good learning is a function of good teaching is an important commonality. They just disagree on what constitutes good teaching, and finding a meaning that everyone agrees on has been difficult, not to say impossible. Both sides believe that it is the responsibility of adults to decide what children should learn and to test them on that material. Dr. Gray suggests in his book Freedom to Learn, that a “real educational reform requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of the educational process. It requires that we abandon the idea that adults are in charge of children’s learning. It requires that we throw out the basic premise that underlies our system of schooling”.
It is undeniable that children come into the world with an intense motivation to learn and a hunger to explore the world around them. During the first five years of their lives, without schooling, they learn to speak at least one entire native language from scratch. They gain a huge storage of factual knowledge, learn the practical principles of physics, begin to operate gadgets, and improve their skills. Toddlers even acquire knowledge of psychology to such an extent that they become masters in manipulation. Children learn all of this by their own volition, basically with the minimum direction from adults. In fact, children can’t be stopped from learning unless they are locked up. “At school age, we do the equivalent of shutting children into closets” (Gray, 2013). Children are deprived from their natural ways of learning in most schools and if they can’t learn on their own, then it will create a dependency on teaching.
Cultural organisms like the compulsory schooling system are built in a way where it is not really about learning the subjects taught in schools, but rather keeping the system in place and running by meeting a quota of hours, subjects, and checking a box. In fact, the government consciously shapes education for its own interest, representing a capital class. “However, like every other aspect of life under capitalism, schools are part of class society” (Powell-Davies). The history of education illustrates how the ruling class was and has always been driven by their own class interests, while workers fought for educational reforms, explained the British teacher Powell-Davies. General education and vocational skills needed to be taught to the workforce, as it was highly demanded by the increasing industrial production. Clearly, those in positions of power didn’t want to join the workforce, and this dissection of labor in a capitalist society rooted the division between mental and manual working labor.
Today’s education is still torn apart by class division. The government’s pseudo-monopoly has created a great imbalance between rich and poor neighborhoods. It also controls the economical power of society by limiting people’s ability to choose how to spend their money. Joel Turtel makes an excellent point by saying that “compulsory-attendance laws imply that governments has to force parents to educate their children. Common sense and history prove this notion false”. Before education became legally mandatory, parents taught their children at home. It was of their best interest to give their children a good education and help them secure a future. The author added, “Up to the 1850’s the average literacy rata was almost 90 percent, excluding slaves, because it was a crime to teach a slave to read.” To believe that parents need to be forced to provide an education to their children is equivalent to assume that parents wouldn’t feed their offspring unless it would be forced by law. Hence, the suggestion that the government is hiding the real reasons behind the implementation of compulsory education to society could be taken into consideration.
Even though it has been ingrained in the heads and the lifestyle of society, it is never too late to reconsider what is good for the world’s present and future. For a long time, civilization truly believed and taught future generations that the planet was flat, until someone decided to rethink what had been believed to be true, making a difference. If Galileo Galilei had not decided to challenge the system, people today would maybe still hold on to a fallacy. In order to make advances, people need to challenge what is already in place with new ideas and suggestions. The state-controlled education works like an epidemic, designed to create echoes, exterminating the creativity and intelligence of human beings. Luckily some bodies are immune to the disease and continue to strive for the betterment of future generations. The only way the government will consider a real educational reform will happen if a big amount of people step out of the societal and institutionalized norm. Only when a large collective steps up to hurt the lucrative business made out of a human right, and turn to alternative schooling, will there be change.
Bertin, Mark. “One Size Doesn’t Fit All.” Psychology Today. Child Development Central, 17 Nov. 2011. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.
Cabus, Sofie J. and De Witte, Kristof. “Does School Time Matter? On the Impact of Compulsory Education Age on School Dropout.” Economics of Education Review 30(6) (2011): 1384-1398.
Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books, 2013. Print.
Gray, Peter. “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Psychology Today. N.p., 2 Sept. 2009. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.
Gray, Peter. “Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education.” Psychology Today. N.p., 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.
Gray, Peter. “Our Social Obligation: Educational Opportunity, Not Coercion.” Psychology Today. N.p., 16 Sept. 2009. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.
Gray, Peter. “Is Real Educational Reform Possible? If So, How?” Psychology Today. N.p., 19 Aug. 2011. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.
Gray, Peter. “What Einstein, Twain, & Forty Eight Others Said About School.” Psychology Today. N.p., 26 July 2011. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.
Powell-Davies, Martin. “Education in Class Society.” Socialism Today. Issue 62, Feb. 2002. Web. 14 Sept. 2013.
Turtel, Joel. “Why Do We Need Compulsory-Attendance Laws?” NewsWithViews.com. N.p., 3 June 2006. Web. 10 Sept. 2013