Mandatory education is a good idea that we don’t need now

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.

27 replies
  1. Cindy Gaddis
    Cindy Gaddis says:

    This is a gem of an insight!

    The next idea we have to combat for the typical parent is that many parents I know view school as their child’s “job.” Many people still go to jobs that they don’t like, and so see nothing wrong with seeing their children going to their “job/school” that they don’t like.

  2. Jordan
    Jordan says:

    “It made me realize that the only way to combat extreme child labor abuse is to put education law into place.”

    The article says that working in mines is already banned, but that kids willingly do it anyway. If going to school was a better option for kids why wouldn’t they do that instead? You’d have to employ people to go out and enforce mandatory education laws- but why not use those resources to provide services to your people or enforce better working conditions?

    My guess is that poverty and a lack of adequate school resources is the bigger issue. Passing mandatory education laws are a lot easier then actually paying for and establishing measures to get people out of poverty- infrastructure like roads and clean water and higher quality education.

  3. Nonnie
    Nonnie says:

    That site you linked to says that the US didn’t finally move away from child labor until the Great Depression (when adults wanted all the jobs for themselves). I was pretty surprised to read that. Not sure what this implies for countries that currently have child labor problems, though.

    • Tim
      Tim says:

      You could say “when the adults wanted all the jobs for themselves,” or you could also say that the Great Depression was a time when there was a surplus of more productive labor (adults) and since the price of that labor dropped, it drove the children out of the market. If you were paying a child $.25/hr. and you can now get an adult for that same rate, why not replace him the better producer?

  4. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    Hold it right there. No, the comparison you are making is incorrect. In the 1900s there were no strong democratically elected governments, urbanization was not rampant and certainly no advancements & awareness on worker rights, HSE & children’s well being.

    The NYT article points out the poverty ridden lives of these mine children and their parents. Read carefully, there are schools there, but the dialects these migrant children speak is different from what is taught at the schools. The language barrier has never been an issue in 1900s or even now at US Public schools, not even in Hispanic neighborhoods.

    The parents of the boy in the picture would know exactly what to do with him if he was not allowed to work in the coalmine- the boy would take up the housework, raise his younger siblings, maybe even cook while his parents would take on more dangerous, laborious , extra work to feed their children.
    The boy would be in effect be a parent.
    The mortality rate for him is sadly very high, as it is for his parents. And that wouldn’t change much if he stopped working at the coalmine. That is the tragedy.

    Your views on this matter are very unlike of you – a 1st world viewer looking at a 3rd world problem , and thinking you know what it feels like.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s probably true that I am missing nuances of Indian culture.

      But I think there are more similarities than differences when it comes to this topic. For one thing, language barriers have been huge for most of US history. The US is all immigrants. And even today there are kids who have to translate for their parents during parent-teacher conferences.


  5. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    So how does this explain ongoing mandatory schooling in Europe? Germany doesn’t have child labor problems, but they’ve made it illegal for parents to homeschool — kids can be removed from their families if they’re found in violation of of mandatory education.

    There’s got to be a deeper motivation for European countries for continuing to outlaw homeschooling.

    • Jordan
      Jordan says:

      I think this issue has multiple dimensions, but the first is that mandatory schooling in first world countries is the status quo, so deviations from that provoke fear in people. Homeschooling goes against this status quo so it feels dangerous. I’d guess this comes from well-meaning people who are scared of children getting an inferior education from their parents. The idea of homeschoolers as parents keeping their kids in the dark about modern issues/society (evolution, pop culture, alternative world views) is a fairly common conception. People tend to feel really strongly about how children ‘should’ be raised, I’d guess mandatory schooling just feels safer than giving more power to parents whom they don’t trust the judgment of.
      Now what part politics has to play in this, I don’t know, I’m not much familiar with the political situation in Europe. For instance, I’d imagine the schooling institutions are not in favor of homeschooling.
      What other things do you think contribute?

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    Being that most homeschooled kids have pretty well educated parents, I wonder what would happen if we do away with school and let children self direct when the majority of the US population have basic education.

    Does anyone have an opinion/idea about this?

    What if school was gone tomorrow? what happens to the kids who depend on the school for food and shelter during parents’ working hours? what about those kids who live in awful neighborhoods surrounded by violence and drugs and all that?

    I am trying to picture what it looks like. I just can’t.

    • Tim
      Tim says:

      There’s a big difference between taking away the “mandatory” aspect of schooling and eliminating the concept altogether.

      Those in the poorest neighborhoods would almost certainly continue to take advantage of the free government child care that government schools provide.

      Or are you wondering what would happen if all the public schools were to disappear overnight? Any such sudden change would be awful since parents would be unable to prepare for it. However, if the public were given proper notice, I suspect you would be surprised at what was able to rise up in its place, especially if property taxes (often the main funding for schools) were eliminated to free up incomes. And yes, such replacements would very likely provide financial assistance to the neediest among us.

      I doubt many more people would homeschool though. John Holt was pretty spot on when he observed that most adults don’t want to be around their children that much.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I wonder about this too. I try to believe in everyone. That is, it seems incredibly arrogant and probably short-sighted to argue that if you leave kids to learn what they want to learn they will be fine but then say poor kids can’t do that. I mean, the assumption, then, perhaps, is that poor kids are not as capable. And it’s not an assumption I want to make. So I struggle with this question…


      • Jordan
        Jordan says:

        I think poor kids could teach themselves just or nearly as well as non-poor kids if they had adequate resources, be they material or human. This reminds me of the gaps in reading ability that you see with young kids- the parents of welfare kids/those in the low income brackets speak far fewer words to their babies/toddlers such that by the time they are of school age they have significantly smaller vocabularies than kids from higher income brackets. Slower vocab acquisiton leads to a harder time learning to read gives rise to school problems, etc.

        If we were able to effectively divert the resources we put into schooling for everybody they could go to connecting up poorer children with apprenticeships, community centers, cleaner/safer parks, etc. Property taxes or some other public funding would probably still be necessary though

        • Sadya
          Sadya says:

          If they had adequate resources, they wouldn’t perhaps qualify as poor. The question arises then, does having literate or well-equipped parents factor in when deciding on homeschooling?
          In South Asia, as in many other 3rd world countries, and even poor neighborhoods in the rich countries, it is not uncommon to find stories where absolute illiterate parents have excelling literate children. But the story usually has the school factor or a teacher at school, in it somewhere.

          It’s very hard to say that , children of poor families cannot learn on their own. But for them, the school, that babysitting service is a blessing, one that affects their quality of life.

          @Penelope you have raised quite an argument here, kudos to you.

          • Hannah
            Hannah says:

            Penelope has argued before that maybe public school should be for kids who truly have no other option–and we all know that these kids exist. Then teachers would know exactly who they were teaching and perhaps have a better understanding of their needs. But for every kid whose parents can make other arrangements, public school should be a last resort.

      • scifi
        scifi says:

        “it seems incredibly arrogant and probably short-sighted to argue that if you leave kids to learn what they want to learn they will be fine”

        And that’s because whether or not a kid is “fine” has very little to do with whether they control their schedule, and everything to do with their emotional environment and family resources. Just as self-direction is not neglect, neither is structure abuse.

  7. Jane
    Jane says:

    Single parents with jobs — doctors, waiters, accountants, salesman– would be unable to work without schools.

    Uneducated parents would be unqualified to teach their kids.

    Disable parents would be unable to teach.

    It is good that you homeschool. But your children are young. You have not proven that your homeschooling is successful–you really can’t do that till your kids are grown and have become productive members of society. Till then, the jury is still out, so you really cannot make much of an argument that your way is “best.” Especially since you have been homeschooling for such a short period of time.

  8. Paxton
    Paxton says:

    Are you using a play on words with the Industrial ‘Evolution’ to describe everchanging technological advances in the industrialized world?

    On a related topic; A friend told me the other day that the ring in Lord of the Rings was meant to symbolize the Industrial Revolution according to JRR Tolkien. All these years as a fan of the books and I never knew that.

    • Becky Castle Miller
      Becky Castle Miller says:

      Tolkien rejected every attempt by people to put allegorical meaning onto Lord of the Rings. Tolkien didn’t mean for the ring, or any element of LOTR, to symbolize the Industrial Revolution or anything else. “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” -JRRT

      • Paxton
        Paxton says:

        Thanks for the info Becky. I must admit I did not research my friend’s claim even though I found it very interesting to think about. I do like that quote from Tolkein. I too sometimes tire of allegory.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    School and curricula were framed by this education researcher (Sugata Mitra, 2013 TED prize winner) as being designed and executed during the time that the British Empire was being developed. It worked well then. He believes in something he calls Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE) which to me is self-directed learning. He did a recent TED talk which I thought was really good – .

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