Saturday, January 31, 2009

Compulsory Schooling

From Education in the United States, by Robert Church (New York, 1976, p. 107) with parenthetical remarks and italics added by me:
At the same time Sheldon, sensing the inadequacy of a single ragged school, began caimpaging for the city to establish a free (and mandatory) school systsem. The politics of his caimpaign were quite similar to those in other cities. The city's elite supported the idea but one man whom Sheldon identified as "a politician" urged the city's Catholics to oppose a free (and mandatory) school system on the grounds that it was a protestant plot against Catholic children. The Catholics, with the help of other portions of the (lower class) population, successfully blocked Sheldon's efforts. When it become clear that the mass of the city's population would not consent to the plan, Shledon and his influential supporters determined to circumvent the popular will. In 1853 (5 years before the first state-ratified compulsory school in Massachusetts) they persuaded the state legislature to to pass legislation establishing free (and mandatory) schools in Oswego; that legislation contained no provision for a popular referendum on the issue within the city. The law, Sheldon remembered somewhat gleefully, "was in truth sprung on the people, as one might say, contrary to their will" (this quote is taken from Sheldon's own autobiography [New York, 1911, p. 93]) . The need for reform was so great as to outweigh democratic principle.
Here is the dilemma: For the most part, we have democratic feelings about how things should be done in public affairs. We would like to think that we cannot be required to do things (obey laws, pay taxes or levies, and so on) without some kind of democratic choice or representation. In some cases we don't mind indirect representation, but on big issues (like casinos and school levies) we want to vote. Sadly for some and gladly for others, this is not the case historically with many big things and the school is one of them.

We generally trust the public will in a democracy because we think that if something is so good for the general public, then, they will obviously vote for it. In the case of compulsory schooling, most (if not all) people think it is for the general good today and would clearly vote for it if they had the chance, but it was historically created against the grain of popular sentiment. In other words, with time we have become accustomed to being forced to go to school by a rule of law that was not instituted democratically and that just might explain why we do not question the authority of the state or school anymore--we kinda forgot, or were allowed to forget, those historical memories.

This raises the question: What is more important: Freedom or obedience to a common rule of law? The rule of the people (i.e. democracy) or the rule of laws instituted by an elite (i.e. aristocracy or poliarchy)?

Much more to come...

1 comment:

Brett W said...

For me, freedom.
But for people, like me that are skeptical or that don't trust the "ruling elite" to give us the whole story, freedom should be the most important as it gives us the chance to do our own investigations.

One of the problems that your question poses is to the majority of people in the country would answer freedom without any investigation and end up just being obedient. This has plagued our country especially when many people feel fulfilled only listening to the loudest, most publicized, recognized person regardless of the message. This has happened way too many times and it just makes me sick. I wait and worry when it will happen next or even if it is happening now.

With education the costs of this kind of behavior is lethal. Without talking about it, I think Church alludes to this cavalier approach in the posted excerpt. But I used the word lethal because when education is altered, especially k-12, we are tinkering with the minds, perceptions, and growth of children. Church's account of what happened to Catholic children should trouble all who have faith in all systems of education. However the rewards of our freedom that could keep it from happening again. Unfortunately it is the indifference of the uncritical mass of uninvolved "obedients" that I referred to above, that allow it to continue.

Freedom is the most important, especially in education, for when we become obedient we surrender, theoretically and emotionally, a bit of our freedom; essentially our person. But when it comes time for obedience we have to rest assured that the ability to be free (to investigate, to know, to be critical) has helped us choose the safest and most useful way to lend our obedience.