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Compulsory education is education which children are required by law to receive and governments are required by law to provide. The compulsion is an aspect of public education. In some places homeschooling may be a legal alternative to attending school.

Compulsory education at the primary level was affirmed as a human right in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of the world's countries now have compulsory education through at least the primary stage, often extending to the secondary education.


Different localities vary in how many years or grades of compulsory education they require.

In the United States, the ages for compulsory education vary by state, beginning between the ages of five and eight and ending between age sixteen and eighteen.[1] For example, in the US State of Illinois, attendance is required through age 16, while in Mississippi it is age 17, and in Oklahoma, age 18. In Mexico, schooling is required through lower secondary school only.[2] In Canada, compulsory education is set for ages six through sixteen (18 in New Brunswick and Ontario). In Finland, it starts at the age of seven (± 1 year, negotiable), and ends after graduation from comprehensive school at the age of fifteen or sixteen, or at last after ten school years. In the UK compulsory education begins between four and a half and five and a half; it extends until around the age of sixteen.


Compulsory education has the following perceived benefits.

  • Before compulsory free education existed, most children were denied access to basic education. As a result of compulsory education, illiteracy is greatly reduced and knowledge of mathematics and other basic subjects are increased. This knowledge is essential to good citizenship and success in modern life.
  • Before compulsory free education existed, most children were unprepared to train for most vocations and the professions. As a result of compulsory free education, access to a range of better paying vocations and professions is made possible.
  • It discourages child labor.
  • It encourages economic development.
  • Angrist and Krueger, two of the premier labor economists in the world, conducted a study in which they find that "students who are compelled to attend school longer by compulsory schooling laws earn higher wages as a result of their extra schooling"[3]


As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights attests, compulsory education is widely approved. However, it has had its many critics. Economists and libertarians have argued that compulsory education takes up a great deal of an individual child's time and is imposed on them without their consent or in regards to their own interests. Mainly, however, compulsory education is regarded by its critics as conflicting with individual liberty.[4]

Educators have also criticized compulsory education. Paul Goodman's Compulsory Miseducation (1962) [5] elaborated themes from his earlier Growing Up Absurd (1960) [6] and was the first modern statement on what came to be called the "deschooling movement" in the following decade.

In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich calls for the disestablishment of schools. He claims that schooling confuses teaching with learning, grades with education, diplomas with competence, attendance with attainment, and, especially, process with substance. He writes that schools do not reward real achievement, only processes. Schools inhibit a person’s will and ability to self-learn, ultimately resulting in psychological impotence. He claims that forced schooling perverts the victims’ natural inclination to grow and learn and replaces it with the demand for instruction. Further, the current model of schooling, replete with credentials, betrays the value of a self-taught individual. Moreover, institutionalized schooling seeks to quantify the unquantifiable – human growth. For Illich, creative, exploratory learning requires an individual’s own initiative to truly impact the learner positively. He calls for learning networks that would allow people with similar interests to communicate and explore problems together. The Internet makes his dream eminently realizable (Illich, 1970).

John Caldwell Holt asserts that youths should have the right to control and direct their own learning, and that the current compulsory schooling system violates a basic fundamental right of humans: the right to decide what enters our minds. He thinks that freedom of learning is part of freedom of thought, even more fundamental of a human right than freedom of speech. He states that forced schooling, regardless of whether the student is learning anything whatsoever, or if the student could more effectively learn elsewhere in different ways, is a gross violation of civil liberties (Holt, 1974).

Dennis O'Keeffe says that all families are required to send their children to school on the ground that some families do not understand the importance of equipping their children with elementary cognitive and moral training. O’Keeffe thinks that it is not logical to force people to school, when most would do this voluntarily, simply because a minority would not comply. O’Keeffe thinks that there is no correlation between time spent schooling and commendable moral character. He states that in Britain, the large expansion in secondary education correlates with a rise in juvenile crime, and he further points out that there is a marked increase in anti-social activity paralleling the expansion of mass schooling. Compulsory education laws cause learning in school classes to be weakened, sometimes severely, for those well disposed for it by those who are not (O’Keeffe, 2004).

Edwin G. West states that, with education, compulsion makes obligatory what most would do anyway. Some advocates of which lead to increased taxes or rates in order to provide children’s food, ‘free’ at local authority kitchens or shops. (West, 1974).

Murray N. Rothbard cites Albert Jay Nock as denouncing the educational system for bringing the uneducable children into the schools because of a flawed and vain belief that all children are equally educable. Because of this, the lives of those not suited for school is distorted and those who are educable do not get the most out of their education because the experience is wrecked by the others who are resistant to the institution. This claim is backed up in The Coleman Report: “… it appears that a pupil’s achievement is strongly related to the educational background and aspirations of the other students in the school” (Coleman et. al, 1966). Rothbard states that the history of the drive for compulsory schooling is not guided by altruism, but by a desire to coerce the population into a mold desired by the Establishment. He thinks that people like Horace Mann, Henry Barnard and Calvin Stowe pushed so mightily for the formation of free and compulsory schools because they were needed to indoctrinate immigrants and protect against mobocracy, brought about in part as a reaction to the Jacksonian movement.

In 1925 the United States Supreme Court declared, “The child is not the mere creature of the State.” (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510) however this has not prevented compulsory education being enshrined in law. Rothbard quotes Herbert Read: “Mankind is naturally differentiated into many types, and to press all these types into the same mold must inevitably lead to distortions and repressions.” Rothbard also cites Herbert Spencer, who questioned a government’s ability to determine what constitutes a good citizen and how best to produce them (Rothbard, 1978).

Rothbard goes on to quote Isabel Paterson: "...every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later, whether as the divine right of kings, or the ‘will of the people’ in ‘democracy.’ Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property, and mind in its clutches from infancy. An octopus would sooner release its prey. A tax supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the totalitarian state." (Ibid).

Abolishing publicly-funded schools, claims Rothbard, and with it the property tax linkage, would drastically help to end the zoning restrictions that allows suburbs all over the country to evolve into upper middle-class (nearly always white) preserves. Rothbard states that the abolition of publicly-funded schools would dismantle the property tax burden and would allow for other forms of education to surface that could better satisfy the diverse needs of a varied population (Ibid).

The existence of the publicly-funded schools means that childless people are forced to subsidize families with children. Poor, single, childless people are forced to subsidize wealthy families with children. There is no ethical logic in this. Rothbard goes on to point out that a right to free speech does not mean that authorities have the right to force people to use their right to free speech. Somehow, the “right to an education” has been misconstrued into the obligation of authorities to force people to utilize that right. Rothbard also backs up O’Keeffe’s claim that there is “considerable evidence linking compulsory attendance laws with the growing problem of juvenile delinquency, particularly in frustrated older children” (Ibid).

Robert Epstein believes that the current educational system provides no incentives for students to master material at a rapid pace, and leaves few to no options for those who do drop out because the system, for whatever reason, is not right for them. He also points out a Harvard study conducted in the 1980s

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that states that teenage turmoil appears in society within a few years of those societies adopting Western school practices and being exposed to Western media. Epstein also thinks that modern schooling and restrictions on exploitation of youth labor are anachronisms of the Industrial Revolution, and no longer appropriate for today’s world (Epstein, 2007).

Another dominant voice of the past few years calling for the abolition of the compulsory, universal publicly-funded school system is that of John Taylor Gatto. He argues that the real (but hidden or overlooked) purpose of schooling is to produce an easily manageable, obedient workforce to serve employers in a mass production economy. For evidence he points to the incessant bells which fragment and control a child's time at school (like factory worker's time is fragmented and controlled), and an overemphasis, if not hysteria, for testing, which ensures that adults such as teachers will dictate the worth of a child and her educational progress. Real education is not the intent, Gatto claims, as a very well educated populace would be more difficult to control.

Gatto’s landmark, semi-formal and extremely thorough analysis of the educational system of the United States, The Underground History of American Education, identifies many of the key individuals, organizations, events and crises (both happenstance and manufactured) that forged our educational system into its current form. He thinks that modern compulsory schooling suppresses free will, serves to maintain the sociopolitical order and keeps real power in the hands of a small elite caste. In the words of Gatto:

"Spare yourself the anxiety of thinking of this school thing as a conspiracy, even though the project is indeed riddled with petty conspirators. It was and is a fully rational transaction in which all of us play a part. We trade the liberty of our kids and our free will for a secure social order and a very prosperous economy. It's a bargain in which most of us agree to become as children ourselves, under the same tutelage which holds the young, in exchange for food, entertainment, and safety. The difficulty is that the contract fixes the goal of human life so low that students go mad trying to escape it."

Gatto recommends that schools be non-compulsory, that they should never exceed a few hundred in size (and even that is too large for his liking) and that the sea of administrators be abolished (he points out that in 1991, New York City had more administrators than all the nations of Europe combined). He thinks standardized tests are a useless indicator of ability, wishing students to be assessed strictly on performance. He wants district school boards to be abolished in the process of decentralizing schooling, allowing local citizen management boards. He wants to see children engaged in real tasks with meaningful benefits of the work they do, and he would like them to have choice in what they do. He wants tax credits, vouchers, and other methods employed to encourage a diverse mix of “school logics” to take hold, for he thinks that there is no one right way to teach a person, and that cramming everyone into the same mold is asinine. He wants subjects abolished, and thinks schooling needs to be largely arranged around themes, claiming that interdisciplinary work is more reflective of real world problem solving. Gatto also calls for the abolishment of teacher certification requirements, so that anyone can teach who wants to. With compulsion and certification gone, anyone who has something valuable to teach and is able to will have the chance, while those who aren’t effective teachers won’t attract students (Gatto, 2003).


  1. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named US_States
  2. Education around the World: Mexico. US Department of Education (2003)
  3. Does Compulsory School Attendance Affect Schooling and Earnings? The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 106, No. 4 (Nov., 1991), pp. 979-1014
  4. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Witte-Mero
  5. Goodman, Paul. Compulsory Miseducation. New York: Horizon Press. 1962.
  6. Goodman, Paul. Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System. New York: Random House. 1960.


See also

External links

Template:Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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