Is Compulsory Public School Killing Our Desire to Learn?

A long Habit of not thinking a Thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of Custom.

~Thomas Paine Common Sense

What’s the purpose of compulsory public school?

Ask a conservative American, a liberal American, a moderate/unaffiliated American, and a Canadian (whose personal political identity I wouldn’t pretend to define in American terms) and you’ll get radically different answers. Know why? We live in completely different cultural contexts.

And I’m not going to answer the question of its purpose in this post. I’ll leave the answer to you to decide.

I will, however, examine my own understanding of the history of and assumptions behind compulsory education. A short reminder, this is not an educational essay, it’s my own observations through experience.

Take notes, there will be a standardized test at the end, eligible for conditionally usable in state scholarships. 😉

No, I wouldn’t do that to you.

A Short History of Public School

So much me… Anyway, back to the history of school. Let’s jump all the way back to Hellenic Greece for a moment, where Plato published one of many ideas in his The Republic. (Seriously, it’s like we revere this guy as some kind of modern-day god of all things philosophy…) Plato’s idea? The ideal city would require ideal individuals, and ideal individuals would require an ideal education.

Allow me to point out a single word.


Two questions:

Is the world ideal?

If you have a child, is a complete stranger capable of telling you what is ideal for that child?

I doubt I’m the only one on Earth who answers no to both. I know people on any part of the political spectrum answer a resounding NO to the first one. There’s too much shouting about what needs to be fixed.

So, fast forward to British Colony Massachusetts in 1647. First colony to institute compulsory education. Also, first state. In 1851. Approximately 60 years after the founding of the United States. New York followed quickly, and it wasn’t until 1918, another 67 years that every state had compulsory education laws in place.

Funny how these laws started in the only place in the United States where the colonies HAD public education. Yet the rest of the colonies managed to read and write, as well.

Another interesting note.  These laws began over 60 years after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold 500,000 copies in the year 1776, its first year of release. Which means 20% of the population bought it. An equivalent number of copies in today’s book sales would be 60 million. Not even Harry Potter sold that many copies the first year it was out.

Incidentally, it’s not what I’d call light reading. Browse the first two paragraphs, and you’ll see what I mean.

Remember, this is BEFORE compulsory education was a nationwide norm, even before the United States of America WAS a nation.

So, points to remember going forward. British Colonies had public schools in the New England area, and compulsory attendance laws as early as 1647. New England states were the first to enact compulsory attendance nearly two thirds of a century AFTER the United States was founded, reinstating their custom from before the Revolution. It took the rest of the nation another two thirds of a century to instate similar laws.

Compulsory Attendance Laws

I’m not learning much…

And I wasn’t. First, let’s establish one thing. For all the national legislation concerning schools, there is no federal mandate on compelling children to attend public school. That said, many parents are left feeling like there is no option. Remember that appeal to custom Thomas Paine mentioned?

So why this appeal to custom? Why this insistence that children will fall behind in critical social skills, etc if they have no public (specifically government provided) education?

I have no idea.

Perhaps I’m bitter.

I needed one class to graduate high school, and because of that, I had to attend all eight hours of my senior year. Because my grades weren’t great. Likely because my ADHD and the expected structure of a school mix like sodium metal and water.

I digress. My point is, I needed one single class. That class was an English credit. Thanks to government interference – and no, I don’t remember if it was state or federal, though it may have been the whole No Child Left Behind thing – suddenly I couldn’t choose between AP Literature, which I would have loved, and Communication Skills 12. I had to take the Comm Skills 12. Which, aside from reading material, was exactly like Comm. Skills 9, 10, and 11.

But it was against the law for me to argue, since I was already enrolled in public school, and thus my parents had waived their parental rights to the school system for the duration of my time on campus. Yeah, they don’t tell you that part.

So I sat there, my desire to learn anything (what little remained) eroding away as I received report after report with the same old stuff. “If only he’d apply himself.” “He’s so smart, I don’t see why he doesn’t just work harder.” etc…

Self-Directed Learning as an Alternative

If you ask most people, there isn’t one. People won’t “get an education” if they aren’t forced, as kids, to get schooling.

That kid will forever be a failure. Behind. A problem child.

Really? Really?

I doubt it. I sincerely doubt it.

You know why? There’s an alternative occurring right now, both here in the United States, and all over the world. And the best example I can think of for it is computers.

How many of you attribute the ability to learn and understand computer and digital use to the technological age or some bit of tech wizardry that we have not yet measured, studied and understood? Raise your hand. You over there, spit out that gum, this lecture isn’t over! jk 😛

You see, self-directed learning is what happens when kids play. Especially when they play unsupervised and left alone. A friend shared a fantastic article about this just the other day. No, I’m not a parent. However, I have plenty of friends who ARE parents, one a home-school mom of several kids. I listen to them, because I do want to have kids. And one theme that repeatedly comes up is that kids learn through play.

I’m not convinced this stops. And I’m not convinced that changing their play to the adult cultural concept of “structured” learning, especially making it legally compulsory, is actually all that great.

Because I learn by play, too. I learned more about morals, honor, friendship, and the foibles of human nature through reading the Dragonriders of Pern than I EVER did in my human psychology class. I flunked out of video editing in high school, and now am teaching myself how to run a video editing program using YouTube videos and the company’s own tutorials. Why?

It’s fun. I can play. I enjoy it.

I know a few scientists who may not term their work as play, but light up like a kid with a brand new toy when doing it. How is that NOT play?

Structured Learning vs. Compulsory Education

Would I say get rid of structured learning and schools altogether? No. Plenty of private schools and charter schools provide an amazing education. To those kids for whom the system works. Unfortunately, not only does our current system not work for everyone, I’m not convinced it works for even half.

So, what is the purpose of compulsory education? Take some time to look into the history, examine your own personal opinions and narrative, and get back to me in the comments.


1 thought on “Is Compulsory Public School Killing Our Desire to Learn?”

  1. One of the largest issues I have with public school teaching is how-to despite there being no evidence that this actually helps children learn- think they can brush off their teaching down to homework assignments. I had six classes daily in high school. In the Ca the standard at the time (I graduated in 2010) was that each class gives you an hour of homework a day…. Six hours of homework after eight hours of school. I would call it five for PE, but freshman year of PE had us writing reports- even the phis Ed ass gave us written homework!! That accounts to 14hrs a day of school work. Take out the 9 1/4th hours a day that high school students are supposed to sleep to be healthy, and that’s less than an hour for them to eat breakfast and dinner, shower, wind down, and have time to themselves. That’s unhealthy.

    While I don’t hate mandated school. I do think going out to school- public or private- is very important because there is so much socializing that goes on. Community and communication is important. Being in a place where you can bond with other people is also very important. Does the whole thing need a serious facelift? Well yeah, just as much as SeaWorld needed to revise how they took care of their whales.

    School literally gives 45 minutes a day for a high school student to be themselves. 45 minutes to explore who you are through your own time. That’s just pathetic.

    Now Denmark and Finland have much longer school days than we have here in the us- about two hours I believe- but they don’t send home homework. They let he students have that time to be with their families and strengthen those bonds and let them have time and space for themselves. These two countries ranked highest in successful education.

    The timing of most public and even private schools need some revising as well. Most schools start so early in the morning for the convenience of the parents, not for the health of the students. High schoolers should not wake up nearly as early as school requires them to do so today. Teenagers need the most sleep next to infants for their health because of the phase of development. But the school system doesn’t give them that. The school system would rather punish them for their sleep deprivation and call it being lazy! And that makes me so angry. They can’t help their biology. Better sleep in teenage years makes for healthier, more adapted adults.

    The one long summer break is another thing which sets students up for failure. It’s constantly shown that year round schooling- which has many medium and short breaks spread throughout the year is a better and healthier system. And yet, it still hasn’t caught on because….. Why?

    I hate the current educational system. I was the suqare peg trying to fit into the round hole. I wasn’t able to conform, and so I failed. I failed classes when I was scoring 88% and higher on all my tests. I proved that I knew the subjects, and still was forced to go to a continuation school. All because the school system failed me.

    And all of this is EXACTLY why I want to become a teacher. I want to be there to help students like me. We need more people who hate the system to fight it by being apart of it to make it change!!

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