Have you ever wondered how school became what it is? If not, you’ve probably heard others wondering. “Why do I have to go to school?” “Why do we have to study this?” “What’s the point?” These types of questions put me on a long-term search to understand the school system as a whole. Specifically, I wanted to understand the history behind the compulsory nature of public schooling.
The Search Begins
I was propelled into my search by reflecting on my experience in school and by reading bold critiques of public schooling from the likes of John Taylor Gatto, who wrote Dumbing Us Down, and John Holt, author of How Children Fail. Gatto’s lectures and writings have a strong historical emphasis. His goal is to show the shadowy undercurrent and sinister motives that led to the rise of our present-day public school system. But is Gatto’s historical analysis correct?
Well, after about two years of searching for answers here’s what I’ve concluded: studying the origins of national compulsory schooling in the United States is fascinating and complex. The idea of compulsion appears to contradict the value of liberty that gave birth to the country. And historically, public schools of the nineteenth century were mostly voluntary. But regardless of that history, the majority of Americans in the early 20th century approved of the compulsory public school system.
So here’s the key question: What ideas or forces led people to believe that the government should compel its citizens to attend public schools? (I’ve asked the question that way because it was not simply a top-down process where the government compelled unwilling citizens to acquiesce to the system. The public also asked and even fought for public schooling. See Tracy L. Steffes, School, Society & State for support.)
Initial Resistance to Compulsory Schooling
Before listing several of the key forces that led to the establishment of the modern public school system, it’s important to note that the idea of compulsory schooling was initially opposed by many. First, while Thomas Jefferson believed the government should make educational institutions available for those too poor to afford them, he did not support the use of compulsion (Rothbard, kindle, 42). Second, in 1891 and 1893, Governor Pattison of Pennsylvania vetoed compulsory education bills because he believed they interfered with the personal liberty of parents and therefore were un-American (43). Third, Wisconsin state superintendent C. P. Cary warned against the expanding role of the state and top-down legislation in education because he believed it would impair democracy. In his words, “the efficiency of Germany is not worth what it costs” (Steffes, kindle, 84). Fourth, the Denver superintendent explained the reasons compulsory attendance laws were “dead letters on the statue books noting that ‘the president of the school board, the justice of the peace, or even the superintendent of schools, living in an American community, hesitates to call upon the might of the law to coerce a neighbor in other than criminal offences’” (126). Leaders and school administrators were not alone in opposing compulsory school attendance laws. According to David Tyack, educators “were often ambivalent about enforcement of compulsory-attendance laws. Often they did not want the unwilling pupils whom coercion would bring into the classrooms” (Tyack, 361). On the state level, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and most southern states initially rejected compulsory attendance statutes.
In summary, compulsory schooling was opposed because it was viewed as un-American or undemocratic. In the words of one critic, “coercion may prove effective, but it is not the instrument of a free people” (Steffes, 99).
Key Forces that Led to Compulsory Schooling
Despite the resistance, by 1918 every state in the U.S. had school attendance requirements. The key forces that led to the establishment of our modern compulsory school system included a combination of the following:
1. The desire to provide both safety and opportunities for youth after the rise of industrialization. With the rise of industrialization, great numbers of people thronged to the city. Instead of working on the family farm or in some type of apprenticeship, children found themselves either on the city street or working in factories. While child advocate reformers argued successfully for restrictions on child labor, removing children from the factory would be futile if those same children ended up on the street (Steffes, 111). Compulsory school was promoted as a way to remove children from both the factory and the street. Additionally, labor unions supported public education because it kept children out of the work force (Gaither, 67). And with the loss of the family farm, parents supported schools because they believed schools provided the best opportunities for their children’s future welfare. So industrialization made most of the preindustrial settings for youth obsolete and school became the new government-sanctioned and parent-supported setting for youth.
2. The goal of forming one nation out of the mass of immigrants. School was a way to encourage people from various European countries to unify around their new nation and to assimilate to the “American way of life.” In particular, school was the venue for passing on the common language. Schools also promoted national loyalty directly such as through the pledge of allegiance at the start of the school day. “Educating for citizenship had been one of the primary justifications of public schools since their inception” (Steffes, 167).
Instilling loyalty to one’s nation was part of the broader goal of creating virtuous citizens. Regarding how citizens in the nineteenth century thought about the purposes of schooling, Tyack writes, “Rhetoric about the purposes of education emphasized socialization for civic responsibility and moral character far more than as an investment in personal economic advancement” (382). And Carl Kaestle writes, “Both English and American advocates emphasized collective goals—such as the reduction of crime and disruption—rather than individualistic goals—such as intellectual growth or personal advancement” (Kindle Loc. 622).
Historically, there’s a strong strand of racism in the way this goal of unity was implemented because the desire to embrace different people groups did not include Africans, Indians, or later, Mexicans and Asians.
In addition, this goal included a strand of religious coercion because while many immigrants were Catholic, the majority of public school advocates in the 1800s were Protestant, many of whom sought to promote the Protestant faith through the school system (Gaither, 38). Outside of America, the religious strand goes back to Luther and his friend Philipp Melanchthon who created the Saxony School Plan in 1528 to inculcate Luther’s religious views in the population. Within the American colonies, the religious strand goes back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony which established public compulsory schools in 1647 that taught Calvinist-Puritan doctrines (Rothbard, Kindle Loc. 743).
3. The goal of preparing children to become workers for the benefit of the federal economy. The belief in the practical benefit of school can be found in the early education laws of Massachusetts Bay Colony which, in addition to requiring parents to teach their children the Puritan faith, required parents to teach their children vocational skills. The 1648 law gave selectmen the authority to determine whether “all parents and masters do breed and bring up their children in some honest lawful calling, labor, or employment either in husbandry, or some other trade profitable for themselves, and the Commonwealth” (Katz, 12).
In 1717, the German state of Prussia became the first state to have a national system of compulsory education under Frederick William I. Schools were designed to help students acquire basic skills and competencies so that they could take their place in the workforce and contribute to the national economy. American leaders took special note of Prussia’s advanced economy and linked it with Prussia’s model of schooling. As a result, they advocated a Prussian approach to schooling. “One of the dominant aims of schooling was to socialize children into their adult roles, including that of worker” (Steffes, 23).
4. The belief in the principle of equality. Many worked toward a minimum education for all because they believed in the principle of equality. Unlike wealthy parents, poor parents could not afford to hire private tutors to educate their children. To decrease the intellectual gap, many supported the idea of public schools to ensure that every child received a basic level of knowledge. And to ensure that every child received this knowledge, it was argued that school attendance should be mandatory. (The battle for compulsory schooling in America draws attention to different understandings of democracy. In particular, is equality or self-government essential to democracy (Steffes, 85)? If a nation strives toward equality, it will often violate the principle of self-government. Murray Rothbard goes so far as to say, “It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity” (Kindle Loc. 151).
5. The public’s trust in the government to solve social problems through the use of compulsion. Charles Burgess views the Civil War as the transformative spark that led to the era of compulsion. “Following the Civil War, a dramatically different concept of Union gained popularity, primarily among intellectuals. . . the imperatives of Union required the Americanization of all citizens” (206). He continues by explaining how the civil war began to change the way citizens viewed the nation. “State militias learned an unexpected and abrupt lesson in the Civil War: their tasks could be assigned and directed by the federal government” (208). The question of national military conscription also grew out of the Civil War as “both the North and South attempted to draft men into military service” (208). The subsequent trend toward compulsion can be seen in the pressure to enact compulsory voting laws, national rules on divorce and obscenity, and teetotaling.
Belief in the state’s right to use compulsion regarding school attendance was ultimately established through highly contested judicial decisions. These rulings were necessary because the authors of the Constitution did not address the issue of compulsory school attendance; education was an issue left up to the states. In two of the four legal cases, the state’s police powers were used as justification for schooling (Provasnik, 329-30). In other words, the state’s right to protect itself trumped the rights of parents to determine how their children should be educated. And the state’s right to protect itself was directly linked with the need for compulsory schooling. How did school serve to protect the state and reduce crime? By providing a place for youth who might otherwise be idle in the street, by stamping out ignorance with knowledge, and by their hierarchical structure that expressed the virtues of obedience, self-control, and diligence. School, then, was a way for the state to watch over its youth. As Milton Gaither notes, however, “legal challenges were so infrequent that they only reinforce the general point that the overwhelming majority of Americans willingly and eagerly embraced formal schooling” (71).
I believe that identifying the forces above shows that Gatto’s historical analysis is reductionistic. Yes, there were bad elements involved in the establishment of our modern public school system, but there were noble elements as well. And there were technological changes that brought change on society as a whole.
But school critics like Gatto may have a point if they restated their critique. For example, if most of the primary forces that led to the rise of compulsory schooling in the U.S. were social, national, moral, and cultural, school was primarily designed to answer the following questions: “How do we provide a safe place for our children?” “How do we develop national unity in a country filled with immigrants?” “How do we develop a prosperous economy?” And “How do we prevent youth idleness and youth ignorance?”
If that is correct, the modern compulsory school was not founded primarily as a place for individual intellectual development and creative thought. When government leaders were thinking of answers to the questions above, they were not thinking of how to help individual citizens excel at pursuing their interests. Public school was a monolithic solution for the masses, not the individual. By its compulsory and one-size-fits-all nature, modern schooling places the society before the individual. The question school was not designed to answer was, “How do we most effectively cultivate individual intellectual development in our citizens?”
The struggle to help students develop and cultivate their personal interests in the compulsory school setting is rooted in the structure of school itself—it was not designed with that objective in mind. Improving the educational experience of children as unique individuals in the traditional school setting will require us not only to consider the teachers or students, but to consider weaknesses within the system of school that we have inherited.
[This post is part of my Guide for High School Bible Teachers.]
Burgess, Charles. The Goddess, the School Book, and Compulsion. Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 46, No. 2, May 1976.
Gaither, Milton. Homeschool: An American History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Kaestle, Carl. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.
Katz, Michael S. A History of Compulsory Education Laws. The Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1976.
Provasnik, Stephen. Judicial Activism and the Origins of Parental Choice: The Court’s Role in the Institutionalization of Compulsory Education in the United States, 1891-1925. History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Fall, 2006), pp. 311-347.
Rothbard, Murray. Education: Free and Compulsory. Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1999.
Steffes, Tracy L. School, Society & State: A New Education to Govern Modern America, 1890-1940. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2012.
Steffes, Tracy L. “Governing the Child: The State, the Family, and the Compulsory School in the Early Twentieth Century, in Boundaries of the State in U.S. History. Edited by William J. Novak, James Sparrow, and Stephen Sawyer. University of Chicago Press, forthcoming.
Tyack, David. Ways of Seeing: An Essay on the History of Compulsory Schooling. Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 46. No. 3, August 1976.