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Compulsory Education in the United States

The Development of Compulsory Education

Perhaps some people might feel that identification of compulsory education with tyranny could not be applicable to a free country such as the United States. On the contrary, the spirit and record of compulsory education in America point to very similar dangers.

In the majority of American colonies, education was in the English tradition, i.e., voluntary parental education, with the only public schools being those established for poor families free to make use of the facilities. This system originated in the Middle and in the Southern colonies. The crucial exception was New England, the sparkplug of the collectivist educational system in America. In contrast to the other colonies, New England was dominated by the Calvinist tradition, among the English Puritans who settled Massachusetts, and later the other New England colonies.35 The ruthless and ascetic Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony were eager to adopt the Calvinist plan of compulsory education in order to insure the creation of good Calvinists and the suppression of any possible dissent. Only a year after its first set of particular laws, the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642 enacted a compulsory literacy law for all children. Furthermore, whenever the state officials judged that the parents or guardians were unfit or unable to take care of the children properly, the state could seize the children and apprentice them to the state appointees, who would give them the required instruction.

This law of June 14, 1642, was notable, because it was the first establishment of compulsory education in the English-speaking world. It therefore deserves quoting in some detail:

For as much as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any commonwealth, and whereas many parents and masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty of that kind, it is ordered that the selectmen of every town … shall have a vigilant eye over their neighbors, to see first that none shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families, as not to endeavor to teach, by themselves or others, their children and apprentices.36

In 1647, the colony followed up this law with the establishment of public schools. The major stress in the compulsory education was laid on the teaching of Calvinist-Puritan principles.

It is significant that the slightly older and more religiously liberal Pilgrim colony of Plymouth did not set up a compulsory educational system. When the Plymouth colony was merged into the Massachusetts Bay, however, the latter's education laws prevailed.

What was the sort of government that set up the English-speaking world's first compulsory educational system, the future inspiration for the educational systems of the other states? The spirit of the government was Calvinist absolutism. Everyone in the colony was forced to attend a Congregational Church, although not everyone could qualify as a member. Only Church members, however, could vote in the state elections. The principles of this theocratic government were that of "order," with the superior and the inferior put in their proper place. The ministerial authority of the elders of the church was to prevail. In order to be admitted to church membership (and voting rights), the candidate had to be scrutinized by the elders of the church, who determined whether or not there was "something of God and Grace" in his soul, and therefore fit as a member. The great spiritual Puritan leader the Rev. John Cotton, however, declared that hypocrites who merely conform to the elders' rules without inner belief could still be members — provided that they were not idle in their occupations. It is interesting to note that the colony set up Harvard College in one of its first acts, in 1636, as a state college. The authorities declared that schools must depend on the magistrates, in order to prevent the corruption of sound doctrines.

Another leading Puritan minister and ruler the Rev. William Hubbard declared that "it is found by experience … that the greatest part of mankind are but as tools and instruments for others to work by, rather than any proper agents to effect anything of themselves." They are always sheep requiring a shepherd. The magistrates are the governing force, the "head" of society. The Rev. John Davenport advised the electors to choose good rulers, because it was imperative for them to submit to the ruler's authority.

You must submit to their authority, and perform all duties to them whom you have chosen … whether they be good or bad, by virtue of their Relation between them and you.

Thus, formal democracy was early seen to be compatible with despotism of the rulers over the ruled.

The most important influence in shaping the Massachusetts Bay Colony was its first governor John Winthrop, who ruled the colony for twenty years from its inception in 1630. Winthrop believed that natural liberty is a "wild beast" which must be restrained by "God's ordinances." Correct civil liberty means being good "in a way of subjection to authority." Winthrop regarded any opposition to the policies of the governor, particularly when he was the governor, as positively seditious.

The governing of Massachusetts was fully in keeping with these principles. Heretics and assumed witches were persecuted and hounded, and Puritan austerity and strict conformity in almost all areas of life were enforced. Dissenters, like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, had to leave the colony.

The Puritans soon spread out to other states, and Connecticut was governed in the same spirit. Rhode Island, however, was far more liberal, and it is no coincidence that Rhode Island was the exception in New England in the setting up of state school systems during the colonial period.

During the eighteenth century, the colonial religious severity gradually weakened its hold on the community. More sects arose and flourished. Massachusetts and Connecticut, however, enacted repressive laws against the Quakers, forbidding them also to establish schools. Furthermore, Connecticut, in a vain attempt to suppress the "New Light" movement, enacted a law in 1742 forbidding the New Lights from establishing any schools. Their reasons: that this "may tend to train youth in principles and practices, and introduce such disorders as may be of fatal consequences to the public peace and weal of this colony."37

Some of the motivation for the religious indoctrination and compulsory education in the colonial period was economic. Servants were particularly required to be instructed, as many of their masters believed that the servants were less prone to be independent and to "give trouble" when imbued with the catechism and the Puritan Bible.

Finally, the Revolutionary War disrupted the entire education system, and the independent states were ready to begin anew. The new States met the problem very much as they had done as colonies. Once again, Massachusetts led the way in establishing compulsory education, which her colonial laws had always provided. She took the unusual step of including in her State Constitution of 1780 a provision expressly granting authority to the legislature to enforce compulsory attendance at school. This authority was promptly exercised, and in 1789 school attendance was made compulsory in Massachusetts.

Connecticut followed in 1805 with a law requiring all parents to educate their children. Connecticut followed this compulsory literacy with a law in 1842 requiring all employed children under fifteen to attend school for three months during a year, thus adding a compulsory schooling to its general elementary compulsory education, or literacy, laws. Massachusetts's laws were lax on truants, however, and in 1845 Boston attempted to pass a bill against truancy of unemployed children, but lost on the ground that the rights of parents were threatened. The bill did pass in 1846, however. In 1850 Massachusetts authorized its towns to make provisions for habitual truants, and provided that they could be confined in prison. Finally in 1852, Massachusetts established the first comprehensive statewide, modern system of compulsory schooling in the United States. It provided that all children between eight and fourteen had to attend school at least thirteen weeks each year. Massachusetts, over the rest of the century continued to extend and strengthen its compulsory education laws. In 1862, for example, it made jailing of habitual truant children mandatory, and extended school age to between ages seven and sixteen. In 1866, school attendance was made compulsory for six months during the year.

This is not the place for a discussion of the "battle for the public schools", that transformed the American educational system from 1800 to 1850. The goal of the proponents of the drive will be analyzed. But suffice it to say that, between 1825 and 1850, the propaganda work had been such that the non-New England states had changed from a system of no public schools, or only pauper schools, to the establishment of free schools available to all. Furthermore, the spirit of the schools had changed from philanthropy to the poor to something which all children were induced to attend. By 1850, every state had a network of free public schools.

In 1850, all the states had public schools, but only Massachusetts and Connecticut were imposing compulsion. The movement for compulsory schooling conquered all of America in the late nineteenth century. Massachusetts began the parade, and the other states all followed, mainly in the 1870s and 1880s. By 1900, almost every state was enforcing compulsory attendance.38

There seemed to have been little debate over the issue of compulsory schooling. We can only guess at the reason for this neglect of a fundamental issue, a neglect that is evident, furthermore, in every history of education. It may well be because the professional "educationists" knew that the issue might be a touchy one if the topic were unduly stressed in public debate. After citing some of the pro- and con-opinions on the compulsory-schooling laws, we will investigate the development of the "educationists" and their propaganda movements, since they were instrumental in establishing public schools and in ruling their operations to this day.

  • 35. John William Perrin, The History of Compulsory Education in New England, 1896; Lawrence Cremin, The American Common School, an Historic Conception (Teachers College, New York, 1951); and Forest Chester Ensign, Compulsory School Attendance and Child Labor (Iowa City: Athens Press, 1921).
  • 36. Perrin, The History of Compulsory Education in New England.
  • 37. Merle E. Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (Paterson, N.J.: Pageant Books, 1959).
  • 38. For a list of the dates of the establishment of the compulsion laws in the states, cf. Edgar W. Knight, and Clifton L. Hall, Readings in American Educations History (New York: Appleton-Century, Crofts, 1951). For a detailed chart of the compulsory education laws in force in various states in 1905, see Report of the Commissioner of Education for 1906, chap. 28, "Compulsory Attendance and its Relation to the General Welfare of the Child" (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1906).