To be vibrant and alive, a democracy (or, in our case a representative democratic republic) must have a citizenry that is generally well-informed; unencumbered by excess inhibition, fear, superstition, or prejudice; highly literate; and meaningfully engaged in community and in political activities and institutions. Unfortunately, however, when children are legally obliged to participate involuntarily in instruction, in directed or predetermined study, and in orchestrated group activities for a substantial fraction of their entire youth, and when the state is the agency under which the law is enforced and the activities are organized, democracy doesn’t stand a chance.
As much as forced school advocates would like to believe that democratic forms and processes can function and endure through “education” under duress, the above is not an over-statement or an exaggeration. Education under duress is not education; it is and must essentially become, by definition, indoctrination.
A state/government does not educate. A state/government does not merely provide for education if it mandates attendance in schools and exercises control over said schools. When the state or federal government have their hand on the steering wheel directing curriculum and determining behavioral standards as a matter of statutory discretion, and when they define what is and what is not education; what is adequate or minimal for performance and accountability, and what does or does not qualify as knowledge, then their pitch is propaganda, their promotion is programming, and their helpful guidance is indoctrination.
The naïve hope is that children so exposed will receive minimal skills and knowledge and will thereby be enticed and well enough informed to be drawn in and enamored of our superior government and way of life. If only it were that simple and easy!
The most powerful argument against compulsory attendance laws is that the mere existence of the laws sends a clear message to children that they are not truly free citizens of a real democracy. Furthermore, by being imposed upon and denied the opportunity to exercise choice and initiative in their daily lives for twelve years, they develop a mindset that doesn’t serve to prepare them for authentic citizenship in any open society or a democracy such as we aspire to have. One must experience decision-making and have a significant degree of practice in weighing issues and making intelligent judgments with genuine freedom and autonomy in order to be able to have what it takes to be an active and knowledgeable citizen in adulthood.
Democratic principles and structures in the abstract are little more than words divorced from meaning and relevance. The truth is that most of what children see, hear, and read as conscripted scholars is abstract for them, disconnected from any personal reality or sanguine meaning. The date, July fourth, 1776, regardless of how many times the stories of the independence of our Nation are presented in lessons or how many times students are tested on names and facts, is not much more than a date to remember, untethered to anything to which they can relate and identify except on a highly superficial or symbolic level.
Schools as we know them and as they must be, given the attendance laws, have little in common with democracy. Teachers follow the orders of superiors and officials and are given specific directives with respect to how and what they will teach, risking serious consequences and termination if they deviate from those instructions and mandates. Children in attendance, regardless of age, are required to obey the teachers and other adults without questioning or hesitation. They face all manner of repercussions up to and including expulsion if they fail to act in accordance with demands, whether they be for “school work” or academic exercises, conduct on the school premises, or behavior and attitudes expressed through speech or action.
If we value liberty, free speech, autonomy, personal choice and diversity, and initiative, why would we methodically and incessantly subject our young citizens to conditions that they find onerous, paternalistic, and often repressive or oppressive? If we believe that children will resist learning and must be arm-twisted and confined against their will in order to become integrated into their communities and to acquire the knowledge they will need later in life, perhaps we should be asking ourselves why we have such a low opinion of them and how we became so cynical about human nature.
It is possible to name dozens of reasons why so few people vote or take an active part in public affairs, or why our Congress and our population have become so polarized, dysfunctional, and gridlocked. However, it isn’t possible to exonerate our schools of much of the responsibility for discouraging students and failing to inspire and educate them.
Students who are bored to tears in classes and whose minds are filled with data and facts while not having the sense of engagement and sensations connecting life, literature, and history with real feelings of passion and involvement are deprived and often depressed. Admirable efforts to inject those helpful things are sometimes successful on the part of exceptional teachers. Yet, not every teacher can be exceptional. In any case, students are unlikely to respond well when they feel as if they are reporting for forced duty daily and working for objectives and purposes superimposed upon them and on which they will be judged and evaluated, sometimes without reason or mercy.
A few new statements are added here to better elucidate these thoughts (July, 16, 2016).
The question that is asked most often is what we propose to replace compulsory attendance with, or simply, "why worry about changing the law, instead of just trying to change the schools or their practices?".
The answer, first of all is that the appropriate response to forced schooling is forced de-schooling. Illegitimate power must be taken away through legitimate legal process or legislation.
That is to say that, the laws that require attendance automatically grant immense power to people. No one should have that kind of power, regardless of who they are or how pure their motives. Such power is rarely ever relinquished voluntarily, and authorities, officials, and "experts" all quickly come to believe that they are saving children and saving the world, when in fact they have been placed in positions to become paternalistic, myopic, and conceited.
The alternative to placing power over the lives of child-citizens into the hands of people working under the auspices of the state is to give it back to individual parents and children, free of undue government influence and manipulation, since that is what is essential for democracy to survive and it is what democracy demands, before anything else.
If children are not free to pursue education as they see fit, where and when they see fit (with the guidance of their parents and with the ordinary protections against abuse, neglect, and exploitation that are already codified in laws), how can anyone be free and autonomous when they finally reach adulthood?
This has no implications for schools except that they will be forced to serve their clientele adequately, or risk losing them. They will be forced to adopt the superior practices and to implement the splendid ideas (already well-known and in use in isolated “free” or “alternative” schools) that they have been unable to adopt and implement until now because their attention has been diverted by the need to enforce their mandate and to serve priorities and purposes that are bureaucratic, arbitrary, and institutional.
Back to original text
Students attending alternative schools and being homeschooled more often thrive and excel because they are not forced to endure nearly as much subjugation and bureaucratic confusion and annoyance. A majority of schools falling under the “free school” rubric earn that classification by asking parents to formulate rules and policies and many leave it to students to help in deciding what the expectations and rules will be and how they will be applied and enforced. There is no arbitrarily placed hierarchy putting students automatically at the bottom.
Schools and families operating on democratic principles inspire much more cooperation and engagement on the part of students. The freedom and liberty enjoyed in such school makes a world of difference in how they perceive their roles and obligations. Thoughts and feelings can be more openly and freely expressed without fear of admonishment or humiliation. Questions are asked and answered without the overarching mandates from above dictating that schedules be rigidly followed, time be accounted for meticulously, and a set sequence of events and presentations be adhered to. Children learn crucial lessons about democratic systems from being integrally involved in a functioning democratic organism.
In a free and open society of the kind the framers of our great Constitution considered the ideal, citizens are not cowed by authority. We need citizens who will question, challenge, and even actively resist authority that has become tyrannical. We must forever be vigilant to prevent the devolution of our society into a dystopia such as exists in North Korea, where any supposed disobedience to authority on any level is viewed with immediate suspicion and may quickly result in severe consequences and often death.
On the other hand, we cannot have a smoothly functioning society, a vibrant economy, or healthy communities if citizens are too quick to resist and rebel against any and all authority. Authority is commonly part of a necessary organizational structure designed to deliver goods and services or to eliminate disorganization and confusion in almost any group endeavor. Everyone has a job to do and usually there must be someone whose job it is to oversee others in order to make the wheels keep turning and keep the friction from differing personalities and individual interests from slowing or stopping progress.
Yet, if we were to analyze the statistics from hundreds of scientific studies and correlate enough data from various empirical sources, we would find that our society is inordinately filled with people who exhibit anger issues that interfere with their ability to take orders from a supervisor and to maintain and establish normal give-and-take relationships. While it seems that too many people follow orders blindly and act too much like sheep seeking someone to lead them in their daily lives, there is a corresponding proportion of people who bristle at being told what to do by superiors in jobs, in schools, or in the military and whose attitude toward legitimate authority is consistently negative and hostile. The essential balance is missing. Many of us find ourselves making poor choices or over-reacting and reacting inappropriately because we have never learned how to distinguish beneficial and functional authority from abusive or arbitrary authority.
The clear message here is that attendance laws require an authoritarian framework with arbitrary authority to be assigned to certain individuals who are generally invisible to students and who derive that authority from statutes and official institutional power brokers. The results are high degrees of inflexibility on the ground, alienation, frustration, self-contempt, unfairness and inequality, reactionary influences and defiance, and simmering anger.
Why would anyone be surprised to discover that after graduation or dropping out many of the victims go to excessive lengths to revel in their newfound freedom; turn to drugs and alcohol; refuse to return to serious study or the obligations of citizenship, such as voting, and find the drudgery of work and the necessity to obey new overlords more than they can tolerate? Democracy is not a spectator sport for timid and shrinking souls who feel insignificant and unqualified to participate. Democracy requires the average citizen to seek out accurate information and to speak out when they find the actions of representatives or others disagreeable. Democracy is not for the obedient sheep who in their youth have never allowed themselves to object or suggest a divergent course or discussion (because to do so was frightening).
The distinction between indoctrination and education is the knowledge that one can think for oneself, critically, and that one is not a bad person or a misfit if one is brave enough to stand out from the crowd or to even inquire as to the validity of facts, opinion, or accepted dogma. In our schools nearly all of which are inescapably locked into an authoritarian paradigm, education is the exception. Students know all too well that to challenge authority, to delay or debate, to linger or to avoid the requisite level of compliance and participation, is to invite an escalating series of consequences and retributions that can bring disaster on them and their family.
Democracy in schools will never be compatible with compulsory attendance except in exclusive circumstances where it is kept carefully quarantined. And, without democracy in schools, the citizens who attend will fail in large part to appreciate or perpetuate the democratic form of government that we have valued for centuries. The evidence is in the phenomenal popularity of an egomaniacal and narcissistic billionaire fraudster and disrespectful blowhard who as a candidate for the presidency has made no secret of his penchant for abuse and tyranny. Only the most inept and gullible persons ignorant of history and human proclivities and devoid of common sense would wish for such a pathological “leader” and liar to occupy the White House under any circumstances.