Compulsory Education, Child Rights, and the Foundation of Society

Vishal Wilde's series of think pieces continues with a radical look at the role of government in education. Why, he asks, do we assume that both children and society are better off when we make education compulsory in childhood? He suggests that using state coercion in this way is reprehensible and unproductive. Instead, children should be liberated from the constraints the state currently places upon them, for their own benefit and ours. Everyone loves learning. The thing is that not everyone likes studying and what’s even more frustrating is being told how and why we should study. Making education available to everyone is benevolent but making education compulsory for everyone is something that we are so used to that we do not see the blatant problem with it – the deprivation of freedom that prevents the flourishing of precisely those who have the most potential in society; children. Children, when you think carefully about it, are the most oppressed people across all societies.

One might argue that we often only see the value of things once we have gone through them and we might not have realised that had people not guided us onto and through that path. There is, however, a distinction between gentle guidance and legal coercion via making something compulsory. Imagine if we made undergraduate degrees, master’s degrees and doctorates compulsory – this would, quite likely and certainly justifiably, result in public outrage due to the deprivation of civil liberties.

Of course, when children are forced to go to school, since they are unable to argue comprehensively against the injustice of the situation, we do not listen to their outcries. Now, there are children who enjoy going to school. What about those that really don’t, though? What about those who have genuine passions and interests outside of the syllabus and classroom? The crude manner in which we are organised according to our ‘ability’ or ‘academic potential’ from an early age is hardly representative and within each ‘ability set’, there is still a wide spectrum of potential with respect to the taught material and there is, therefore, an oft-documented tendency for some to feel bored and some to be left behind.

A way to handle this problem is reduce class sizes and one way to reduce class sizes is to make education non-compulsory whilst still allowing people to attend the classes that they want to, in order to attain the skills that they themselves think would be useful. For example, if a child realises that they’d like to learn how a computer works (whether this be in terms of software or hardware), they will quickly realise that in order to effectively learn about this (like many other things), they will need to learn become numerate and literate. Therefore they will, by innate means, come to value numeracy and literacy and, most likely, expend more effort in attaining the necessary level of proficiency in these skills as a means to their final end.

Furthermore, the way in which various subjects are taught in school is essentially a form of paradigmatic, scientific indoctrination. Yes, teachers are taught to be unbiased and impassionate when teaching subjects such as History and Economics, but this does not prevent the syllabus itself from being biased toward a particular methodology, ideology, interpretation or analysis. Thomas Kuhn (1962) argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that sciences such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology are taught as if they had progressed in a linear fashion and the History of Science is completely misrepresented to students from a very early age. The education system is the method by which we are trained to think dogmatically under the rules of a specific paradigm rather than rationally and independently whilst being aware of the prevailing rules of the paradigm. Ultimately, this stifles the speed of articulation and shifting of these paradigms. The representation of ‘scientific’ knowledge that many are so quick to praise because of the rapid development it has enabled will also, in future, be deemed the dogma of our era, whose limitations were self-imposed, unnecessarily prolonged and continuously reinforced by means of compulsory education.

However, what would children do if they were not forced into education? Play? Work? Whatever they want? All of these might seem like horrifying propositions to some but this is because we have been conditioned into believing that education means being up to the standard of certain metrics, sitting in a classroom, being passively taught and raking in the qualifications that correlate with higher earnings. Making education non-compulsory does not mean that people would not learn, it would just mean that people would, from a young age, be empowered to learn how they learn best rather than be taught how they supposedly learn best; they would have a more holistic understanding of what constitutes an education and this would enable them to think more creatively with less regard to the standards currently imposed by civilisation.

What about those children who do not feel motivated to advance scientific knowledge and are, rather, interested in pursuing work opportunities? After all, not everyone is interested in working at the so-called ‘frontiers of knowledge’. The phrase ‘child labour’ appals people because it conjures imagery of children working in horrific, mind-numbing and often life-threatening conditions. I’m certainly not actively advocating that children should be sent up chimneys or work with dangerous, heavy machinery once more but I’m saying that children should be allowed to work non-life-threatening jobs that they feel they might get some valuable experience from. For example, if a child who has taken a particular interest in computer programming was allowed to do some coding jobs for a software developer, would it not be wrong to prevent them from doing so? Coding is not life-threatening, it pays well, the child might love it and indeed, the child may be able to think in ways that adults cannot and he or she may well be far more suited to the job than any adult.

Similarly, if a child had a passion for art and he wanted to work as an assistant or apprentice in an artist’s studio, why on earth would we deny them the opportunity and instead force them to go to a classroom to learn the things the government thinks they ought to learn? One of the arguments put forward is that children need to go to school in order to be economically productive in society and work well within it – however, if they find that they don’t need to go to school to do this or that only certain classes taught within school are worth attending to attain this end, then education cannot be made compulsory purely on this ground. In fact, studies, life experience and even common sense repeatedly reveal to us that much of what we are taught in formal education turns out to be of very limited use in the interests we choose to develop in future.

The gender differences in educational attainment (girls outperforming boys) and in pathways (boys being over-represented in mathematics, engineering and the sciences versus girls who are over-represented in the arts and humanities) may also possibly be addressed when individuals are able to express their passion for a subject in their own way.

Indeed, we might find far more passionate teachers outside of the classroom than in the classroom. By making education non-compulsory, children would be able to pick and choose their teachers and they would naturally gravitate towards those who complement their personalities and this would, in turn, naturally foster passion for their interests.

The gist of some of the arguments for compulsory education is that “since we went through it and it has done something good for us, they should go through it as well”. This logic doesn’t hold when we consider the example that something good, such as lessons learned with respect to what we should like to never repeat, might have come out of some appalling eras in History (Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Gulags in the Soviet Union, Hitler’s Third Reich) but we would certainly not wish them to be repeated again for the sake of the lessons being ingrained in us once more.

You might think that the three aforementioned examples were extreme comparisons but when you think about it and scrutinise education policy closely, they may still be apt comparisons – Mao thought that his reforms would do good for China, Hitler suppressed and slaughtered entire peoples because he thought the world would be better off without them and Stalin thought that imprisonment and forced labour was the optimal way to deal with political dissidence. There are many children who love going to school and get a lot out of it but what about those who don’t? When those children that love reading fantasy stories, learning about dinosaurs or ancient civilisations get told to put down their books, lay aside their passion and listen to what must be taught – is it not suppressing their thoughts, is it not the slow slaughter of the people they could be, is it not forced labour as punishment for intellectual dissidence?

Of course, we don’t see this when the child cries not to go to school because they would rather do something that we perceive to be unproductive. “But how will they learn the skills necessary for economic independence from their parents? How will they learn to be good, functioning members of society if they do not go to school with their peers?” Isn’t there more than one way to learn from and interact within society? Do we really want to teach a child that what really matters is how much they make from their education? Should education be viewed purely as a monetary investment?

Surely by telling children what they must learn and what is best for them without allowing them to think for themselves from a young age we are preventing them from thinking independently about how best to tackle the world – it is, after all, independent thought that is the necessary precursor for all other forms of independence (such as, but not limited to, the financial variety) and a vital ingredient for advancing civilisation.

Suppose they were granted the right to, when some children leave the classroom to embark on their own personal journey of learning, a high proportion of those who remain in the classroom will be composed mainly of individuals who see value in the taught syllabus, for one reason or another. This leaves together those who see value in what they are doing and the mutually shared interests of the class will enable all of them to collectively cover more ground and explore deeper questions. Incidentally, this would also cut the cost of education to the taxpayer since children would only learn what they want to and enrol in the classes that they’d like to even from the primary years.

Even though life expectancy has increased over the centuries, this does not give the State (or any other person, for that matter) the right to encroach upon and dictate what we do with our, on average, increasing amount of time spent in this world. Parents might say “but they are my children, I need to guide them” and no-one would deny them the opportunity to guide their children but you should never forget that though you might think of them as your children, their lives will never be your lives.

The government continuously inhibits children’s’ development, albeit with good intentions. By all means, let education be available and optional but enforced compulsion tramples upon that most powerful, cherished and important civil liberty – the freedom of thought, the foundations of a truly flourishing society. The panacea to this poison is to make our education system wholly optional.