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essays

February 1975

Rickenbacker, “The Twelve-Year Sentence: Radical Views of Compulsory Schooling”

See our own republished portions from this book here!

The title of this collection of essays succinctly summarizes its theme and point of view: that compulsory attendance in America’s public schools is equivalent to a 12-year sentence in “prison.” It is rather odd that in a society with such concern for liberating pornographers, sexual deviants, abortionists, mass murderers, convicted felons, bored housewives, and whatever other individuals who have run afoul of some oppressive law or contract, few have taken up the plight of the oppressed child, except such pioneer libertarians as Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, and Murray Rothbard. Goodman spoke out eloquently on the need for total freedom in the learning process throughout the sixties; Illich shook the educational establishment with his demand for “deschooling” society in the early seventies; and Murray Rothbard finally found a publisher for his Education, Free and Compulsory, a work written in the early fifties but considered unmarketable then. This delay underlines the great importance of the media breakthrough of left anarchists like Goodman and Illich in opening the way for wider public acceptance of individualist anarchist social critiques.

It was in this favorable climate that the Institute for Humane Studies and the Center for Independent Education co-sponsored a scholarly conference on compulsory schooling in Milwaukee in November 1972. The Twelve Year Sentence is a collection of the papers read at this Milwaukee conference.

The lead article by Murray Rothbard presents a historical analysis of the origins of compulsory schooling under the aegis of the great reformers. Martin Luther and John Calvin, who sought control of conscience through compulsory schooling of impressionable youth. Passive obedience to Church and State through schooling came to America with the Puritans, and in the nineteenth century became the hoped for means of Americanizing (and Protestantizing) the new non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants who poured into an America distrustful and disdainful of the manners and morals of all foreigners. The Federalists had entered the field of battle in the early nineteenth century hoping to suppress JacobinJeffersonian tendencies among the untutored masses by compelling their children to submit to their propaganda as to true morals and the duties of citizenship. In his usual brisk, pungent style, Rothbard traces the political and social context in which compulsory schooling became the great unchallenged good in American society.

The second essay by George Resch of the Institute for Humane Studies is a brilliant philosophic analysis of the most tenacious myth in American education—that the public school system and compulsory schooling are vital to the achievement of every American’s right to equality of opportunity. Resch traces much mischief to Thomas Jefferson’s ill chosen phrase, “all men are created equal.” Whether it was just a “noble lie” or a typical obscure phrasing of some more subtle eighteenth century philosophic idea. Resch pinpoints it as the origin and justification for a host of anti-libertarian policies, including the notion of compulsory schooling as the basis for assuring each citizen equality of opportunity. Like one holding and slowly turning a flashing prism, Resch calls forth an impressive variety of authorities who, each in his own words and with his special expertise, present their own flash of insight into human variation and individuality. The geneticist, biologist, psychologist, anatomist, neurosurgeon, biochemist, economist, historian, and philosopher testify to the absurdity of egalitarianism, each illuminating the question from his own scientific perspective until Resch brings it all together in a compelling affirmation that “so long as individuals vary as they do, there can be no such thing as equality of opportunity. An unequal performance is exactly what we would expect from unequal individuals.” And so the case for compulsory schooling to ensure a mythic equality of opportunity is shattered.

The third essay by Joel Spring, author of the superb study of the role of the State in the schooling of the citizenry, Education and the Rise of the Corporate State, is by far the most controversial. The early part is a survey of the role of the State in shaping the education of the masses through compulsory schooling to serve the ends of the ruling elites. It is well done, if not here very elaborately documented, but is substantially documented in his other published works. He points to the dubious wisdom of the demand for government-subsidized day care centers, rightly fearing these would become a new instrument for social control of the lower classes. Yet he sees a complication here because day care centers are held to be a necessary factor in the further emancipation of women from the supposed slavery of family and household obligations. He also sees the end of compulsory education as helping to liberate women, weakening the power of the family, and even possibly eliminating marriage—all desirable in his view. He thinks that compulsory schooling has strengthened family power over children by prolonging their dependence upon parents for economic support. While Spring seems plausible in the latter specific instance, I am not certain that he is correct in his general linking of the end of compulsory schooling with women’s liberation or the disintegration of the family as now constituted in American society. These views are not elaborated upon; no authorites are cited; and perhaps their remarks are no more than “ruminations” as the title of the essay would suggest. But they do underline the fact that the end of compulsory schooling is inextricably linked with other institutional problems which may demand equally radical change. For instance, though Spring does not mention it, the child-labor and minimum-wage laws will almost certainly have to be modified if compulsory schooling ends. The welfare laws also presently discourage youths from seeking employment, and will have to be changed.

Spring is not, of course, a libertarian. But the extent of his conservatism on the question of ending compulsory schooling was a surprise. In fact, citing Jefferson’s view that every child in the republic should know how to read, write, and calculate, Spring wants to reduce the “12-year sentence” to three! Why anyone should be compelled to learn the three Rs at all if he chooses otherwise, is left unexamined. While I do not advocate the fostering of illiteracy, though encountering it all too frequently among graduates of our contemporary public schools, I think a case can be made that such illiteracy does not do so much harm today as it may have in Jefferson’s day. Between pocket calculators and the aural and visual sources of extensive information through radio, tapes, TV, and film, even illiterates are probably better “educated” today than the literate but isolated farmers of the eighteenth century.

Even more distressing is the final paragraph of Spring’s ruminations where, considering the fundamental changes in all aspects of our society which the end of compulsory schooling might induce or require, Spring opines that “there may be little we can do” to achieve it until a total transformation of society occurs. And he leaves the implication that for the present all we can do is study the phenomenon as a physician studies cancer, without the immediate prospect of achieving any cure. This pessimism is unfortunate in a scholar who has already in so many ways contributed mightily to making the nature of compulsory schooling known to a wide audience, and thus setting the stage, for the first time in a century, for reversing public opinion on the issue.

The remaining three essays are all impressive and very informative. Libertarian lawyer Robert Baker reviews the issue of compulsory schooling as it is reflected in the statutes and court decisions of the several states: detailing in concrete terms the oppressive, vindictive, and vicious character of the compulsory school laws as they are enforced on isolated individuals. Attorney Gerrit Wormhoudt does the same for the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Both provide an excellent background for those interested in using law suits to extend diversity, freedom and the sovereignty of the family in the education of children. George Resch has added an extensive and superbly annotated bibliography which is not the least valuable part of this most valuable book. The last essay is a historical survey of the economic factors involved in the growth of compulsory schooling in the nineteenth century, especially in England, in which E. G. West concludes that the economic costs of universal compulsory schooling were “so severe as to outweigh the benefits,” while “selective compulsion can be a constructive, proper and humane provision in society.” Not being an economist, this reviewer will not attempt a critique of West’s argument on the economic utility of “selective compulsion,” but further study of this aspect of his findings might yield other conclusions.

The participating scholars, the sponsors of the conference, the editor, the publisher and designers of this book deserve great praise for a singularly fascinating achievement, a book that will be wanted by every libertarian, and is needed by everyone interested in the future of American education. Reviewed by Joseph R. Peden /Education (236 pages) / LR Price $6.95