Compulsory education is the front line in the fight for liberty, and it deserves as much attention as the “taxation is theft” argument. Compulsion in education falls into the same category as the draft, and makes the same statement: your body belongs to the state, and the state will do with it what they wish.
The difference between the draft and compulsory education is scope: nobody has been drafted into military service in the United States since 1972, and even then, it was limited to males of a certain age. Everyone, even homeschoolers, must submit for approval to the state how they are serving their children’s educational needs, and the vast majority of Americans are compelled throughout their entire childhood into government schools.
Government mandated education requires violence; it requires complete control over what students put into their brain, the people who they are exposed to, the places they are authorized to be, and oftentimes, with free lunch programs, what food goes into their body. It is resentful of families who do not enforce homework or dress code policies; it is reluctant to allow parents into its buildings except once or twice a year on special “open house” days; it fears parents who choose to home school. It is damn-near the most unnatural way a human of any age can authentically learn.
Can you imagine a couple of puppies being forced to wrestle under threat of in-school suspension, while a well-trained expert looks on with a clipboard, marking off points? Learning is social and playful. Mammals wrestle and play tag in order to do all the things necessary for survival, not for the fiat currency of grades. They do not take seriously the training they are doing for the most serious parts of their lives – catching prey, eluding predators, establishing enough dominance to secure a mate, and raising young. It is joyful work.
I’m not interested in “reforming” education, e.g., tinkering with the curriculum or bickering over charters and vouchers. I’m interested in revolting against compulsion. Cotton fields and tobacco farms are amoral things. You can be an abolitionist and still see the value in t-shirts and cob pipes. If you’re an abolitionist, then what you are against is slavery, and what you are for is for individuals to live their lives any way they choose, so long as what they choose doesn’t infringe on others to do the same. I’m not calling for the end of public schools. I’m calling for the end of compulsion.
We need to model the principles of freedom for our kids. It does no good telling them that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health while smoking a pack a day – it does no good spouting off about the Non-Aggression Principle while simultaneously demanding a 14-year-old learn this thing, take this test, stay in this place, or else be locked up in this school for an additional year. There are three things that we can fight for that will model liberty in public education:
- End compulsory education laws. We can argue over how much personal freedom a child should have or at what age, but they should have some freedom which increases over time, and parents and families should always have more control over their children than the state.
- End standards-based education. That is to say, we should hold our students to high standards, but not specific standards or graduation requirements dictated by the state. By the time students are in junior high or high school they should be authorized to determine their own criteria for graduation, just as colleges determine their own criteria for admissions, and industries determine their own criteria to hire, etc. There is not one right definition for the phrase “well-educated,” and so once the student has exhausted value from the school, they should be able to go forth into the world.
- Lower the voting age for school board, or whatever institution is responsible for school policy in the particular state, to at least 13. The school board has tremendous power in a school district. The people who are having things done directly to them by these quasi-politicians should have a say in whether or not they get to keep their jobs.
The opposite of compulsion is freedom. It is an interesting debate as to how much freedom a child should have. Of course, the moment we name our children, we have imposed our will upon them, and I’m not arguing that we should change that. Parents shouldn’t let their kids run around in the highway or eat chocolate for three meals a day. Parents have a duty to care for their kids, but they also have a duty to prepare their kids to take care of themselves. I don’t claim to be the absolute authority on how much freedom kids should have or when, but they certainly should have some choice in how they spend their time.
Parents and communities should have more rights to their own kids than schools do, and kids are sovereign humans who should have more rights than read this book at this time, and, take this test with this math, because it’s good for you, that’s why. A central tenant of libertarian philosophy is the freedom to decide for yourself and to have the opportunity to live with those consequences. It’s called maturity. If you are as concerned as I am about the trend towards extending childhood, then you should also be concerned with the dependency inherent in the structure of schools.
* Brian Huskie is a National Board Certified public school teacher with ten years of experience, a homeschooling father of two boys, and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran (2004). He is a self-directed learning advocate: www.brianhuskie.com and on Facebook @ProjectBasedMentor