Compulsory Education and the Classroom as Social Contract

The Natalie Munroe thread has sparked some interesting discussions, and the most surprising debate for me has been the one in which people are questioning the very foundation of compulsory education.  Says commenter AK:

This teacher’s students didn’t choose. Kids are obligated by law to go to school up to a certain age (I don’t know what that age is in America). I don’t know if high school is included in that, but even if it’s not, it’s pretty much mandatory anyway since there are no real alternatives (it’s not like a sixteen-year-old can just get a job and support themselves). And you just don’t get to trap people in a building all day and force them to do stuff and then complain if they seem resentful. You just don’t.

Society’s excuse for this is of course that kids don’t know what’s best for them, and I agree that there is no good alternative to organized education, but that doesn’t mean that school is always good for people either. School is an institution. It’s more similar to prison or (mental) hospitals than to parenting. People naturally hate being forced.

I find certain parts of this argument compelling and certain parts of it self-evidently problematic (though others might not find the problems so self-evident), and it raised questions for me that perhaps go beyond what AK was arguing:  does the state have a right to enforce compulsory education “for the good” of minors?  Is being a student or a child inherently a form of oppression, regardless of any other signifiers of privilege?  If we can agree that aspects of the education system are broken and perhaps even harmful to students, in what ways do students have a right to express dissent or non-compliance?  And if education systems are inherently coercive, what are the moral and pragmatic imperatives for teachers in ensuring that classroom environments remain conducive environments for learning?

As a pragmatist of the William James/W.E.B. DuBois/Richard Rorty variety, I tend to look at effects rather than transcendental principles:  what social contacts can we enter into that best respect the rights and liberties of all human beings?  In order to better understand what compulsory education was designed to do, I took a brief look at its history (did you know, for example, that in ancient Judea, parents were required by law to provide education for their children?)  Throughout history, lack of compulsory education has almost always meant that access to education was limited, limited to those with means, of course.  Limiting education to the moneyed and connected classes tended to be a way of preserving the wealth and privileges of the few who had access.  It is no accident that Martin Luther advocated free, compulsory education in order to ensure that everyone in Europe was literate and therefore able to read the Bible:  the language of the Bible was the language of power.  To have access to the Bible was not only to be indoctrinated into its tenets but to have access to the ability to dispute the theological and legal suppositions based on it.  To be able to read the Bible was to be an agent in society.

Compulsory education, funded by taxes, spread throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but did not become standard practice in United States until the nineteenth (though Massachusetts required some grammar education for every child).  Massachusetts was the first to adopt compulsory, free education in the modern form in 1847, and Mississippi was the last in 1918.  This was not always a happy situation.  The laws were, of course, used to take Native American children away from their tribes in order to educate them in government schools and assimilate them into the society of their colonizers.  This was an unmitigated tragedy that students, frankly, should learn more about in school, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Lack of compulsory education has, however, as a rule, meant the disenfranchisement of the underprivileged.  It is absolutely no accident that Mississippi failed to get around to it until the early twentieth century:  Mississippi was home to a textile industry that relied heavily on child labor and a disenfranchised black population that had for more than a century been kept in ignorance because, as Frederick Douglass would argue, lack of education kept slaves unaware of their degraded and oppressed position and deprived them of the tools for self-actualization.

So why make it compulsory?  Because children have historically been uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, education had to be compulsory not because students had to be forced to go to school, but because adults might prevent them from doing so.  In the nineteenth century, a child might be denied the right to education by his parents or employers.  Compulsory education was central to the debates about school integration during the Civil Rights Era, when white parents sought to both prevent black students from attending white schools and attempted to pull their children out of schools that were integrating.  In short, I would argue that on the whole, compulsory education has been a core aspect of ensuring that all students have the inalienable right to education.  In fact, that relationship is encoded into the UN Convention on the Rights of Children:

Article 28

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;

(b) Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;

(c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means;

(d) Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;

(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.

3. States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries.

Compulsory education is currently society’s way of ensuring that all adults attain a modicum of social, political, and economic enfranchisement based on literacy and access to employment.  It is a way of ensuring that minors are not kept out of school by parents who wish to psychologically and physically control them, that even parents who object to the public school system for religious or political reasons are required to provide basic forms of education to their children, that children cannot be taken out of school and forced to work, and that communities cannot deprive a minority group of access to education by depriving them of the funding required to maintain a school.  While the last point on this Quebecois website advocating the abolition of compulsory education is compelling, note that the first is “Reduction of the undesirable element in public and other formal schools”:

Abolish compulsory schooling laws, and this undesirable element will simply not attend schools—either out of apathy toward schooling or out of a desire to live a different kind of life. Schooling is wasted on these individuals; however, they might be drawn toward finding jobs and might thereby learn skills that might increase their productivity and respectability in work environments where bullying is simply not tolerated. The absence of such persons from the schools would make the lives of the better students immensely easier and would greatly increase the level of overt intellectualism in the entire society—as many intelligent people today actively repress their abilities from a young age in order to avoid bullying. This repression needs to end, and giving the bullies an option not to attend school is the best way to accomplish such an immensely important goal.


No student, however, is required to bow down and thank the state for providing this opportunity, and compulsory education always runs the risk of become coercive.  That is undeniable.    This is why some public school systems have a “Students Bill of Rights” embedded into their by-laws.  Students ought to be free from religious or political indoctrination.  They should be free from discrimination based on gender, sexuality, race, class, or disability.  They should have access to education in their own language (though some states are trying to put an end to that…I’m looking at you, Arizona), and they have a right to expect professionalism from their teachers.  Students have a right to organize and petition school administrations or school boards to amend practices or rules they deem unfair (as some GLBTQ groups who were suppressed by administrators have successfully done).  In short, they have a right to participate as citizens in the microcosm of civil society represented by the school.  However, because schools have a special mandate–to ensure that quality education is provided to all students on an equal basis–students are required to abide by certain rules in order to ensure that happens.  Because the teacher has the mandate of ensuring that the students in her care have access to quality of education, this means that students and teachers are engaged in a social contract.

A quick word about social contracts.  This is a term that gets thrown out in education and is regarded by some as a distinct pedagogical model.  In fact, it’s what informs my policy on late papers.  Namely, rather than an authoritarian model of teacher/student relationships–“I am the teacher and you do what I say because I am the teacher”–the model is somewhat transactional:  the teacher promises to provide certain things (timely feedback on assignments, opportunities for unconventional learning, opportunities for group discussion, reprieves from homework) in exchange for student’s cooperation (turning in assignments, turning in assignments according to a schedule, adherence to certain behavioral guidelines regarding cell phone use, talking when the teacher or another student talks, etc.).  I am a fan of social contracts in the classroom and use it, for example, to allow students to create guideline for discussing controversial subjects in class so that no one is silenced or marginalized.

Regardless of the techniques one uses, however, the simple fact is that teachers are charged with creating environments conducive to learning, and that entails policing student behavior and cooperation in some form or another.  Because the simple fact is that when even one student is holding a conversation while the teacher is attempting to teach, or refuses to participate in a group activity, or texts or sleeps conspicuously during class, or persistently questions the teacher’s professionalism or authority, or monopolizes class discussion with irrelevant or offensive speech, the social contract is violated.  That student is 1) distracting other students from the business of the classroom, 2) potentially (if the problem is not addressed) giving the impression this is tolerated, thereby undermining the credibility of the teacher, 3) and potentially (if the problem is addressed) monopolizing the resources of the teacher, who has to take time and energy away from the hir primary duty in order to deal with the offending student.  That last item is not a joke.  Dealing with a persistently non-compliant student doesn’t just mean turning away from the board to make them stop but spending massive amounts of time consulting with other teachers and assistant principals, trying to get the parents involved, attending meetings with all parties just mentioned, all of which takes time away from marking student papers, holding office hours to meet with other students, or developing new assignments or activities (or, you know, eating or sleeping or attending to other fundamental requirements for physical and mental health.)

In short, one student’s lack of cooperation–however slight–can radically change the dynamics of the classroom and can seriously undermine the ability of other students to obtain an education.  As such, even students who do not wish to be there and resent the responsibilities required of students are expected to abide by the social contract, because not doing so actually has repercussions beyond that one student.  Thus, the relationship between teacher and uncooperative student becomes adversarial, not only because human beings often get personally offended at being called an “evil bitch” for asking for homework but because non-compliance in one student can severely undermine the ability of the teacher to provide a quality education for all students, and because (rightfully and in accordance with the rights of students), the teacher is not allowed to deprive the non-compliant student of hir education by throwing them out of class permanently, said teacher may find hirself at an impasse, a toxic, festering impasse.

Which is all to say that this is how teachers wind up in a place where they feel relentlessly antagonized by their students:  because the social contract has broken down and been replaced by a “squeakiest wheel gets the most resources” situation.  Clearly, some teachers violate their own end of the social contract by verbally abusing students or participating in overt or tacit forms of discrimination or behaving in an otherwise unprofessional manner, but as long as a teacher is doing hir job and doing it well, I would argue that students ought to contain their resentment over being forced to come to school not only because it’s “for their own good” and shows respect to the teacher but because it ensures that the student’s classmates receive the education to which they are entitled without encumberance, and teachers have the right to insist upon cooperation for that reason as well.


8 thoughts on “Compulsory Education and the Classroom as Social Contract

  1. OK, first of all: Yes, I do think that being a child is a form of oppression, or rather, that being an adult comes with privilege that children lack. Children lack autonomy and their only ability to make decisions about their own lives is what their parents and other authority members allow them to do. That is absolutely a form of oppression.

    The idea that students are the ones who should change here is absolutely baffling to me, and I’m having trouble putting into words why that is. I suppose I can explain it in terms of my own job. I work at a library, and we’re always complaining about customers who don’t understand the rules, or don’t want to pay their fines, or are rude, or whatever. I do that, my coworkers do that. But I also recognize that if a significant portion of our patrons don’t understand the rules of the library, the fault is not with the patrons. It’s with the library. If a significant portion of users of any system have trouble using it, the fault is with the system.

    I think of this in terms of design–if a system is badly designed, then users will have trouble using it correctly. If your website is inaccessible to a group of people, it’s not their fault for not being able to access it. It’s yours for not making it more accessible.

    Patrons of the library do enter into a social contract–they have to pay their fines if they don’t return things on time, and people understand that. But if people can’t understand how to use the library catalog or the self-checkout machine, or how a grace period works, or that there are different fine levels for different items, it’s our job to make sure that we make those systems easier to use, and those facts more available. We have that responsibility to our patrons.

    (Not to mention that people can always opt out of using the library, while students can’t as easily opt out of school.)

    So if a significant enough portion of students is acting out in a way that means teachers can’t teach and students can’t learn, something is really wrong with that system. The students are the end-users and it is the educators’ responsibility to design a system they can use. Yes, there are going to be kids who are just rude, because there are PEOPLE who are just rude and kids are just younger people. But students are not the ones who designed the educational system, so I think they have every right to complain when it doesn’t meet their needs.

    I am obviously in favor of everyone having access to education, and maybe the only way to do that, in the society we have, is to make it compulsory. But that basic premise can be taken a lot of ways, and I think the way we’re interpreting it now is downright harmful to students. The way it is now, I do think that what students learn at school is how to survive in a school system, or, in many cases, how to game the system. I think we’ve gotten away from learning and the focus now is on results, in the form of papers and tests and grades. So students cram for tests and bullshit papers (or plagiarize them) and we’re all shocked and surprised when they’re not really learning what they’re supposed to be learning? We’re the ones that showed them that grades are more important than knowledge.

    Not to mention that the system is far from equal, since property taxes are still connected to school funding in most parts of the US, which means the poor still have fewer educational resources than the well-off. The idea of compulsory schooling being equal schooling is still just that: an idea.

  2. Okay, my comment became HUGE, so I’ll split it.

    I’m neither a native English speaker nor an American, so I can’t really comment on the American education system specifically. But it seems to me that education is very similar in all the industrialized/Western countries, so I’m gonna go ahead and have opinions anyway!

    First: are kids an oppressed class? I’d say yes. Obviously kids are dependent on adults, out of necessity. That doesn’t have to mean oppression (though it always means disadvantage). But they are also often made to stay more dependent than they naturally are. For example, I don’t see helicopter parenting as “pampering” teenagers, I see it as controlling and oppressive.

    I would like to separate “education” and “school” if that’s okay with everyone. I agree completely that children have an absolute right to spend their childhood learning as much about the world as possible, so that they can be empowered to shape their life how they want. Ideally, this is what an education should be. To ensure that they get this education, it obviously has to be mandated by law, because when it’s not, adults can’t resist exploiting kids as cheap labor. Mandatory education is like seatbelt laws – coercive, but done for the greater good.

    School is the institution that basically has a monopoly on education for children. (I’m not including university, I mean those twelve mandatory/necessary years of school.) It’s impossible to separate the school system from its history. American schools are not the only ones that have been used to assimilate minorities – as far as I know, that happens in every country with a school system. School has always been about producing certain qualities in citizens. As you note, public school was formed to ensure religious indoctrination. Universities were formed to prepare rich white men for the duties of the ruling class. The modern school system is a consequense of these origins, trying to bring some of the skills formerly reserved to the rich white men to everyone else (which can be both empowering and oppressive).

    Today, I’d say that school is mostly about teaching kids how to go to school. Somehow school has taken on a life of its own. It does teach other skills, yes (mostly focusing on office work), but always based on the same idea of how a student should do things.

    A student is a person who can (for example – please, let’s not get stuck on the details):
    – listen to lectures in a certain language while taking notes (difficult for anyone with another native language, dyslectic people, hearing-impaired people, people with ADHD, or non-disabled people who for any reason find it hard to concentrate on monologues, or listening and writing at the same time)
    – work independentely in a small room with 25-30 other people and no personal space (introverted people will find it hard to shut out everyone else, and extroverted people will find it hard to work completely on their own since any cooperation is called “cheating”)
    – keep their mind on the same task for exactly an hour
    – move to a different room every hour and start over with something totally different
    – work for absolutely no reward at all, monetary or personal

    These skills are not necessary for any line of work, but they are necessary for someone who has to go to school. If you can’t learn how to be a student, you won’t get to learn the subjects. And when you’re looking for a job, your employer won’t look at your grades or what classes you took in high school: what they look for is a diploma. The tendency/ability to comply with schoolwork is valued as a skill (even a virtue) in itself, and as I said I believe it is the main skill taught in school. To put it harshly, school is for standardizing people. Isn’t that inherently oppressive?

  3. (continued)

    Even if you view it more like a seatbelt law thing, it’s obviously a system that could easily be used for abuse. What happens to the kids that can’t be standardized? What about kids who don’t want to be? Do they have a right to not want to be schooled? Do they have a right to rebel, or are they morally obligated to comply with a coercive system that may be indifferent or actually harmful to them? My list above shows a framework that is oppressive to individuals, but school is also drenched in the -isms and has been used (is still, I’d say) to carry out oppression against disadvantaged classes: racism, sexism, classism, ableism. Also, it’s just a harsh environment. Teachers have many opportunities to abuse their power, and a lot of them do. There is bullying and harassment. The work environment sucks – there is noise, often bad ventilation, lack of supplies etc. Students have very little influence over their work, are subject to micromanaging and have no way of protesting when they are treated unfairly. No adult office worker would accept these conditions.

    If you can’t or won’t work in this environment, or if you (rightly) feel that your “education” is not actually educating you, what can you do? What should you do? If school oppresses people by forcing them to do pointless busywork or “learning for school not for life” instead of actually providing them with the skills they will need outside of school, couldn’t it be right to show some civil disobedience? The things that are considered “rude” and “lazy” when students do them are common strategies for disobedience within an oppressive system, like working slowly or not at all, or trying to say what the people in charge want to hear. Even desk-throwers aren’t really trying to overthrow the system, they are just resisting it. And, yes, teachers will always say “But it’s not my fault, I’m just trying to do my best” – but really, how else can students protest? The school system is not the teachers’ fault, but it’s even more certainly not the students’ fault, and no one should have to take responsibility for a broken system by complying with it. “Good” teachers who complain about ungrateful students are not looking at the whole picture. (Though I agree that throwing a desk at a teacher is wrong, and also totally pointless.)

    Because, as we all know, you can’t just quit school. Sure, after a number of years you are allowed to, but there is no real alternative. To be successful in life outside of school, which doesn’t work like school at all except if you go to college (and then only during your college years), you need to succeed at school. Also, the few necessary skills that are taught in school are not taught anyplace else. Going to school won’t guarantee that you learn math, but it sure is your best bet.

    This is not to say that it’s all horrible. School can be good, if it’s done right by the right people. It can possibly even be great, or so I’ve heard. Mainly, my point is that going to school is not in itself good for a person (and can often actually be bad).

  4. Uh, in less words, what I’m arguing is basically that the social contract (that one party is forced into) has already been broken, because school doesn’t actually provide you with the education you need for your life, not to mention a job. Since kids have no bargaining power or leverage, the only thing they can do is show unhappiness.

    You (ladysquires) seem to be arguing that the contract is between the students and their actual teachers and classmates, instead of between students and the school system or kids and society (as I think), yes? So, when students show unhappiness with school, they are breaking a contract with the teacher and the class? Like, it says in the social contract that school will suck? What kind of contract is that?

    Well, to me, this means that you want students to adhere to a broken contract and just hope that the teacher will hold up her end.

  5. I have been seeing the arguments against compulsory education crop up lately and wonder where they came from. Does it have anything at all to do with the massive educational funding cut-backs? It seems silly to me that anyone would want to un-do what our country has worked so hard for–what people in Africa long for–a free, and mandatory education for everyone. To me, it seems harmful people are trying to get rid of obligatory school, just as harmful as the people trying to close down Planned Parenthood, take away social programs, etc. . .

    I saw a documentary about Evangelist Christians who home schooled their children to keep them from outside influences. These kids had no idea about any other ways of life, and were so immersed in church that was pretty much all they did. As a sidenote, since their religion didn’t believe in it, they were not taught about science in the home-schooling. . . Without mandatory schooling, all kids would be at the risk of only seeing the narrow views of their own family and neighborhood. School is important socially, as well as educationally.

    Being in school keeps kids out of trouble. What else would they be doing with their time? It is known the youth that attend school and the extracurriculars that go with it, engage in less risky behavior (drugs, sex, gangs). Why wouldn’t people want to keep that positive aspect?

    Compulsory education is not perfect, but what is the alternative???

    1. I’ve been interested in alternative education since high school, so for me it’s not recent. But the No Child Left Behind stuff made me even more critical of the school system, because it’s just another way of forcing kids into boxes and punishing the ones that don’t fit. I would have much less of a problem with compulsory schooling if it actually tried to educate everyone instead of just saying “this is how you must learn, and if you can’t do it, you fail.”

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