The New York Times reports today India is finally coming down on coal mine companies that employ kids. The description of the lives of the kids is harrowing, but nothing I haven’t read before from people like Lewis Hine or Jacob Riis, who wrote about the same child labor problems in the United States in the early 1900s.

One of the most surprising things in the article is not that there is no headgear or the kids don’t see daylight for most of their lives, it’s that the government is mandating that all kids who are school aged must be in school. It made me realize that the only way to combat extreme child labor abuse is to put education law into place.

From this photo of a boy who works in India coal mines you know that if you told the boy’s parents that he can’t work so he can’t bring home money, the parents would have no idea what to do with the boy during the day. And they would have no idea how to feed him. Not because they’re bad parents, but because it’s too big of a cultural shift to say that kids can’t work.

Today’s New York Times makes it so clear that the United States education system was our way of getting kids out of factories. Everything in this country is set up assuming that parents have no idea what to do with their kids. We’re now six generations past the parents who put their kids into factories. None of us could ever imagine doing that now. And most of us have a lot of good ideas about what to do with family time.

Mandatory education is a bridge from the perils of the Industrial Evolution to a softer, more socially-aware society that is higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy. Industrialization lets us spend less time on hard labor and more on caring for each other. But only if we see mandatory education as a stepping stone toward something else, rather than a stopping point.