This episode features an audio essay written by American author Daniel Quinn in 2000, which comprises Chapter 18 of Everything Voluntary: From Politics to Parenting, edited by Skyler J. Collins and published in 2012. He explores the true purpose of mass public schooling and its effects. Purchase novels by Daniel Quinn on Amazon here.Open This Content
An op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “We Have Ruined Childhood” offers disheartening data about childhood depression and anxiety, closely linked to school attendance, as well as the disturbing trend away from childhood free play and toward increasing schooling, standardization, and control.
“STEM, standardized testing and active-shooter drills have largely replaced recess, leisurely lunches, art and music,” says the writer Kim Brooks, who is the author of the book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.
While many of Brooks’s insights are spot-on, the undertones of her article make clear that she is focused on the collective “it takes a village” narrative of childrearing. Indeed, her book praises “the forty-one industrialized nations that offer parents paid maternity leave—to say nothing of subsidized childcare, quality early childhood education, or a host of other family supports” (p. 50).
The assertion is that most parents are desperate and alone and they must rely on government programs to help raise their children. She writes in her article:
The work of raising children, once seen as socially necessary labor benefiting the common good, is an isolated endeavor for all but the most well-off parents. Parents are entirely on their own when it comes to their offspring’s well-being…No longer able to rely on communal structures for child care or allow children time alone, parents who need to work are forced to warehouse their youngsters for long stretches of time.
This narrative is backwards. It was the expansion of government programs, particularly in education, that weakened the family, led many parents to abdicate responsibility for their children’s upbringing, and caused them to increasingly rely on government institutions to do the job for them. These institutions, in turn, grew more powerful and more bloated, undermining the family and breeding contempt for parental authority. What may seem like a charitable endeavor to help families ends up crippling parents and emboldening the state. As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
Brooks knows better than many of us the terror associated with granting the state more power: Her book details her harrowing ordeal of being accused of child neglect and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service for leaving her child alone in a car for five minutes while she ran a quick errand. The village shouldn’t be in charge of raising children; parents should.
So how did we get here? While the seeds of mounting state power and institutionalization were sown in the 19th century and spread throughout the 20th, it was Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson who dramatically accelerated these efforts in 1964-1965 with his “Great Society” legislation. One of the most consequential effects of Johnson’s Great Society proposal was getting Congress to pass the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) which gave unprecedented control of education to the federal government, mainly through the funding of a variety of government programs. In fact, expanding the government’s role in education was a stated goal of the Great Society plan. As Johnson himself stated: “And with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society. It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.” (Heaven forbid a child be unschooled!)
The result of Johnson’s plan was the establishment and enlargement of programs such as Head Start, which was initiated in 1965 to provide government preschool and nutrition programs to low-income children. Despite billions of dollars spent on the federal Head Start program over the last half-century (the annual Head Start budget is over $10 billion in 2019), the results have been disappointing. As researchers at the Brookings Institute noted, the most in-depth studies of Head Start show that any initial gains disappeared by the end of kindergarten. More troubling, by third grade the children in the Head Start program were found to be more aggressive and have more emotional problems than children of similar backgrounds who did not attend Head Start.
Not only are these outcomes concerning for the children involved, they also indicate how government programs can strain family relationships. Notably, it was the parents of the Head Start children who said their children were more aggressive than non-Head Start children of similar backgrounds, suggesting that parental bonds could be compromised at the same time that government early learning programs could foster maladaptive social behaviors. When parents, not government, are in charge of determining a child’s early learning environment they may rely on informal, self-chosen networks of family and friends, thus building social capital in their communities, or they may choose from among various private preschool options where they retain control over how their child learns. If parents are not satisfied, they can leave. When government increasingly controls early childhood programs, reliance on family members, friends, and other private options fades. Grandma is no longer needed, and she becomes less of an influence in a child’s life and learning and less of a support system for her daughter or son.
Johnson’s Great Society plan had other consequences that served to weaken family roles and strengthen government. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 greatly expanded the National School Lunch Program, allocating additional funding and adding school breakfasts. While no one wants a child to go hungry, relying on government programs to feed children can cause poor health outcomes, strip parents of their essential responsibilities, weaken informal family and community support systems, and lead parents to hand over even more control of childrearing to the government.
Perhaps the most far-reaching impact on education of Johnson’s Great Society was the lasting legacy of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that paved the way for ongoing and amplified federal involvement in education. It was the ESEA that was reauthorized in 2001 as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that led to the standardization of schooling through Common Core curriculum frameworks, as well as regular testing. No Child Left Behind morphed into the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, again a reauthorization of Johnson’s ESEA, that tried to shift some curriculum standard-setting to states but retained regular testing requirements under federal law.
In her weekend op-ed, Brooks laments the increasing role of regimented schooling in children’s lives. She writes:
School days are longer and more regimented. Kindergarten, which used to be focused on play, is now an academic training ground for the first grade. Young children are assigned homework even though numerous studies have found it harmful.
She is absolutely correct, and the culprit is increasing government control over American education through the ongoing reauthorization and expansion of federal education programs. Longer, more regimented, more standardized, more test-driven schooling is a direct consequence of the government’s education policy.
The inevitable result of these expanded government powers is less control over education by parents. As parents lose this control, they cede more authority to government bureaucracies, which in turn grow more powerful and more bloated while parents get weaker and more vulnerable.
I agree that childhood is being ruined, as children play less, stress more, and find themselves in institutional learning environments for most of their childhood and adolescence. I also agree that the problem is getting worse. The solution, however, is to weaken government and strengthen families, not vice versa. Put families back in charge of a child’s education. Grant parents the respect and responsibility they rightfully deserve. Remember that the government’s role is to secure our natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—not to determine what those pursuits are.
Childhood is being ruined and parents are the only ones who can save it.Open This Content
Plans for the Boston Public Library, the nation’s second-oldest public library, were approved in 1852, the same year Massachusetts passed the country’s first compulsory schooling law. Both public libraries and public schools are funded through taxation and both are “free” to access, but the similarities end there. The main difference between public libraries and public schools is the level of coercion and state power that public schooling wields.
Voluntary vs. Compulsory
Libraries are open and available for anyone to access. You can quickly sign up for a library card if you want borrowing privileges, but you don’t have to. You can come and go freely, spend time in whatever library sections most interest you, ignore ones that don’t, and leave when you want. You can ask for help and support from a librarian if you choose. You can participate in a class that the library offers or access one of the library’s many online resources, but those are all optional. You may not always like a library’s programming, but you don’t have to participate in anything you don’t want to. If you don’t like your neighborhood library, you can freely visit one in another neighborhood or another town. You mix daily with a wide assortment of people of all ages and backgrounds at your library, reflecting the diversity of your community. Aside from the public levy, everything is voluntary.
Moreover, you don’t ever have to step foot in a library and still have access to books and resources through bookstores and online retailers. Your library has no control over what your local bookstore sells, and the library system can’t dictate rules to Amazon.
Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening.
Public schools, which are more aptly called government schools because of the force associated with them, are nothing like public libraries. Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening. Parents can choose to homeschool or enroll their child in a private school, but in most states, homeschooling and private schools are regulated by the state under compulsory schooling statutes. Education is controlled by the state, even for non-public entities that receive no public money.
This is akin to your public library monitoring the books that Barnes & Noble sells, but it goes well beyond that. In each state, young people are required to meet certain attendance thresholds in terms of hours of classroom learning. It would be like the library system mandating that you visit your library—assigned to you based on your zip code— a certain number of days and hours each year, or, alternatively, visit Barnes & Noble for those same number of days and hours with a report to the state to prove it. While you’re at your library or bookstore, you are also required to learn about specific subjects whether you want to or not. And there may be a test.
Freedom over Force
If the public library system had the same power as the public schooling system, there would be far fewer private booksellers. When you are required by law to receive library services for a certain number of hours per year, you will likely go with the “free” option rather than paying to receive your mandatory library services at Barnes & Noble, which would charge a fee. Indeed, this happened with mandatory schooling.
Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools.In his book Schooled to Order, historian David Nasaw explains that as government schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts, the number of private schools in the state dropped from 1,308 in 1840 to only 350 by 1880. Similar trends occurred in other states as they enacted compulsory schooling laws, with private school enrollment subsequently plummeting. It’s hard to compete with “free” and compulsory.
Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools and education more broadly. As back-to-school time nears, it’s worth celebrating the many ways that public libraries facilitate non-coercive, self-directed learning for all members of the community and questioning why we would ever want our children to learn in spaces where force, not freedom, prevails.
 Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Schooling in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 83.Open This Content
Back-to-school time is upon us. My Instagram feed is starting to fill with first-day photos as a new school year begins this week in some parts of the country. For those of us who homeschool, we often get asked, “So, why did you decide to homeschool?” We respond with various personal and educational reasons, including the top motivator for homeschoolers on national surveys: “concern about the school environment.” What always strikes me, though, is that parents who send their kids to school never get asked this question. When was the last time someone asked a parent, “So, why did you decide to send your child to school?”
Societal Expectations and Defaults
Schooling is the default. It’s the societally expected thing to do. It’s also mandated of parents under a legal threat of force, so they may not think much of it. The trouble is that schooling is beginning to take on a much larger role in a child’s life, disconnecting children from family at much earlier ages and for longer portions of a child’s day and year. Even compulsory schooling laws are expanding in many states, to begin at age five and extend to age 18.
I wrote an op-ed about this trend in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that there are benefits to delaying early schooling for most children and potential harms with sending children to school early, such as increased ADHD diagnosis rates. It can be worthwhile to question the default.
In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes that a hallmark of originals and change-makers is their tendency to question, and often reject, societal defaults. Grant writes:
Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (p. 7)
Better options than compulsory mass schooling do exist, and many more would be created if more parents challenged the default. We should be outraged that schooling has seized so much of childhood and adolescence, particularly when the results of all this schooling are lackluster at best and concerning at worst. We should be outraged that government schools increasingly look like prisons and that students are being schooled for jobs that no longer exist. We should question whether a system in which only one-quarter of high school seniors are proficient in math, and only a bit over one-third of them are proficient readers, should be given greater influence and authority over young people’s lives. We should really wonder if it makes sense to place our children in this swelling system, whether they are toddlers or teens. Surely, we should “consider alternative ways that the world could work.”
What are these alternative ways? Jessica Koehler has a great article this month at Psychology Today where she lists some of these alternatives and also explains her own journey of shifting from schooling to homeschooling for her children. In addition to homeschooling/unschooling, parents can delay preschool and kindergarten, explore various co-ops and learning centers, take advantage of one of the many micro-schools that are sprouting nationwide, and explore alternative programs for teens, like community college enrollment, travel, or apprenticeships. Or they can build their own alternative to school with other like-minded parents. Other options are virtual learning programs, including public ones, and nearby public charter schools or private schools that can sometimes offer flexible learning and attendance options.
Questioning the schooling default, and acting upon that doubt, can be difficult. It is much easier to put a child on a school bus and be just like everyone else. It is easier to go along. But it may not be better—for you, your child, or the world you could help to create. As Adam Grant says, it’s the non-conformists who move the world. These originals are the ones who question the status quo, refuse to tolerate discontent, and imagine new possibilities. Grant writes:
Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward….They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. (p. 28)
We all care deeply about educating children to be literate, competent, inventive, compassionate, and thoughtful. It’s time we question if compulsory mass schooling really has the ability to facilitate these outcomes, for our children and others, or whether alternatives to school might do the job better. It’s time to challenge defaults.Open This Content
Teenagers are extraordinarily capable. Louis Braille invented his language for the blind when he was 15. Mary Shelley, daughter of libertarian feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote Frankenstein when she was 18. As a young teen, Anne Frank documented her life of hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Prize at 17.
The Impact of Low Expectations
These are remarkable people for sure, but teenagers are able to accomplish remarkable things when given freedom and opportunity. Instead, our culture systematically underestimates teenagers, coddling them like toddlers, confining them to ever more schooling, and disconnecting them from the adult world they will soon enter.
Our low expectations of teenagers create a vicious circle. We think teenagers are lazy, unmotivated, and incapable of directing their own lives, so we restrict their freedom and micromanage them. This process leads teenagers to believe that they are, in fact, lazy, unmotivated, and in need of micromanagement. According to Peter Berg, author of The Tao of Teenagers and a teacher who has worked with teenagers for over 25 years, this circle emerges because many of us were treated this way as teenagers. We may have a hard time trusting teens because we ourselves were not trusted. Berg tells me:
We know that many people in our society unfortunately don’t understand teenagers, don’t relate to them well, and actually, in my experience, have a fear of teenagers. In part, I believe this is because they struggled themselves as teenagers and were not treated well by adults. Coming from this mindset, it’s easy to underestimate teenagers and easy to view everything teenagers do through a lens that confirms that we should underestimate them.
Teens Crave Connection and Purposeful Action
When teenagers are trusted and treated well, they are incredibly enthusiastic and competent. I spent this week in Austin, Texas, with 14- to 17-year-olds attending one of FEE’s summer leadership seminars for teens. Far from being lazy and unmotivated, these young people were engaged and curious—even when confronting meaty material like Economics in One Lesson. In fact, I saw more adults dozing off during lectures than teens! Sure, teens like their smartphones and social media—but so do many of us adults. As Berg says:
What irks me the most is the myth of the lazy, always-on-social-media, disengaged teen. Teenagers are engaged and are far from lazy. Most teens today have schedules that many adults couldn’t navigate. Teenagers do care—maybe not always about things that adults think they should care about—but they do care about little things, big things, and everyday things. Teens want what adults want: to be respected, taken seriously, cared about, and treated fairly.
On the edge of adulthood, teenagers need and crave authentic connection to real, daily life, but they are increasingly cut off from this experience. Even as states like Oregon push to lower the voting age to 16, arguing that teens are fully capable of democratic decision-making, they raise the compulsory schooling age to 18. Be free to vote, but you must remain locked (literally) in coercive schooling.
Teens now spend more time in school and less time in work than at any other time in our history—even in the summertime. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985. Overall, teen labor force participation has plummeted from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Part of this decline is related to more emphasis on academics, extracurricular activities, and other structured programming for adolescents. But public policy may also be to blame.
The Minimum Wage’s Impact on Teens
Raising the minimum wage, as many states have aggressively done, has a disproportionate impact on young workers who do not yet have the skills and experience to justify an employer paying them a higher wage. As a result, these neophytes don’t get hired and thus don’t gain the necessary experience to ultimately warrant higher pay. It is widely understood that minimum wage laws lead to higher unemployment, particularly for young and low-skilled workers who are then prevented from gaining important entry-level career skills.
According to a July report by the Congressional Budget Office regarding a proposed $15 federal minimum wage,
The $15 option would alter employment more for some groups than for others. Almost 50 percent of the newly jobless workers in a given week—600,000 of 1.3 million—would be teenagers.
Young people would be harmed the most by increasing the minimum wage. Almost half of minimum wage workers are under 25, and 19 percent are teens.
Only 1.8 percent of US workers were paid at or below the federal minimum wage in 2015, so it’s a small segment of the overall population at this pay level but a large percentage of young people.
Rather than criticizing teenagers as lazy and in need of more control and structure, we should recognize the ways our culture infantilizes its teens. We confine them in coercive schools and school-like activities for most of their adolescence, limit their autonomy, and prevent them from working in jobs and gaining valuable career skills. Is it really any wonder that they may retreat into their cell phones when they get the chance? It might be the only moment of their day when they are actually in control and connected to the wider world.
From rising compulsory schooling ages to rising minimum wages, we treat teens like toddlers and separate them from the genuine adult world they will soon join. As Berg says:
For many teens, their days consist of an expectation to live a story or script that others have created for them.
Maybe we should give teenagers the freedom and opportunity to create their own scripts and witness the remarkable things they will do.Open This Content
This episode features an audio essay written by psychologist and psychoanalyst Alice Miller in 2007, which comprises Chapter 25 of Everything Voluntary: From Politics to Parenting, edited by Skyler J. Collins and published in 2012. She explores childhood as a source of understanding tyranny and violence. Purchase books by Alice Miller on Amazon here.Open This Content