Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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EDUCATION, Compulsory, a term used to denote the policy of requiring the parents of a state to furnish their children that degree and kind of education assumed as necessary for the citizen. Such a policy involves the liability of the state to provide opportunities for obtaining such an education, in case the parents are unable to do so. As a matter of fact, most civilized nations of modern times have gone very far toward providing such opportunities for all the children of the state, either free of cost (in the free school system), or at a nearly nominal price (in the rate-school system). The question then becomes merely one of compulsory attendance upon the schools so provided in case parents do not choose other schools.


—In its widest sense compulsory education is as old as civilization. Long before a literary education was considered necessary, the nations of the east, Egypt, India, etc., had been in the habit of requiring all parents to train their children in the duties and routine of their caste. Of the classical nations, Athens and Sparta were among the first to recognize in their legislation the right and duty of the state to superintend the education of the children. Sparta carried this principle to its utmost extremes in the system of laws commonly attributed to Lycurgus. The entire training of the male children, after they became seven years of age, was in the hands of the state. A most rigorous system of discipline was enforced during the childhood, youth and early manhood of all male citizens. At Athens, Solon is said to have incorporated the following provisions in his legislation: 1. The boys must be taught to swim and to read; those of the poorer classes must be further trained to agriculture, commerce or some handicraft, those of the richer classes, to music, skill in handling horses, hunting and philosophy. 2. No son is bound to support his father in old age, if the latter has failed to instruct him in some profitable art. At Rome the state undertook no general superintendence of education, but left it almost entirely to the family. The compulsory military service of the early republics had a certain educating force in it, though that, of course, was not its primary object. It was not till long after the downfall of the Roman empire that any traces are found of attempts to provide for the education of the masses. The candidates for the priesthood, and the children of the nobles and of the well-to-do classes of the laity, received a sort of education in the various classes of schools, supported or favored by the church, but the vast majority of the population remained in ignorance which no government even tried to lessen.


—With Charlemagne a new era begins. The idea of securing universal education by a system of compulsory attendance at school seems to have originated with him. At least he was the first to try it on a great scale. Not only did he found schools everywhere, but he expressly enjoined it upon all the bishops that they were to insist on the children of their dioceses all attending the primary schools, and that they were to be instructed not only in religion but also in science, i.e., in reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar and singing. The wreck of his great empire prevented the ultimate success of his plans as he had laid them. But the impulse he gave to the cause of universal education was great and lasting.


—The revival of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries awakened a new interest in popular education. The spirit of Protestantism, which had begun to make itself felt in every department of life, was favorable to universal education as likely to break forever the power of the priest-hood over the masses. Eminent thinkers and educators began to insist upon compulsory education as necessary to any great advance in national prosperity. Luther was an outspoken advocate of such a policy. The logical conclusion of all his writings upon education is that it is the duty of the state to provide for the education of all its citizens, and then to compel them to take advantage of the opportunities offered. As early as 1528 the school law of Saxony made it the duty of clergymen to admonish their parishioners to send their children to school, "in order that persons might be educated so as to be competent to teach in the church and to govern." The most interesting school law of the sixteenth century was that issued by Duke Christopher in 1559 for the duchy of Würtemberg. It provided not only that the pastors should admonish their congregations twice each year of the necessity and duty of sending their children to school, but also that the schoolmasters should keep a register of all the boys in the district according to the classes to which they belonged, and that after every recitation the roll should be called, and if the absentees could not give satisfactory excuses they were to be fined according to desert. The enforcement of the law, however, was very negligent. Similar provisions were adopted by many other German states. Compulsory attendance upon religious instruction was nearly universal, and tolerably well enforced. In 1640 the general synod of Würtemberg recognized the necessity of requiring all children to go to school, and resolved that all parents should be fined whose children failed to attend. It was found quite as difficult to enforce this law, however, as the former one, and new rescripts were issued in 1670, 1672 and 1679, to remind parents of their duties. The first law defining the school age of children was given by the duke of Brunswick, who commanded all parents and guardians of children to send them to school from the sixth year of age.


—The thirty years war came near destroying the popular schools entirely, as it nearly put an end to all civilization in many parts of Germany. Duke Ernst. of Gotha, was among the first to resuscitate the public schools. The school law of Gotha, at first an object of ridicule, became later the model of nearly all school laws issued. It provided that all children, boys and girls, in the country as well as in the towns, should be sent to school as soon as they became six years of age, and that the pastor was to keep a register of all children from five to fourteen years of age. All parents who were so "debased, earthly and negligent" as to prevent their children from going to school, after being warned by the pastor should be fined one groschen for every hour the child was absent. The school should be kept the year round six days in the week except. Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.


—The movement in behalf of compulsory education now made steady though slow progress in all the German states. Prussia introduced it in 1732; Bavaria, which was one of the latest, in 1802. Compulsory education has, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, been the general rule in the German states; and it is a remarkable fact, that, in all the fierce conflicts which have been caused by educational legislation, no party has made any serious opposition to the principle, that the state government may and ought to demand that parents should provide some kind of instruction for their children. This kind of legislation in Austria began in the eighteenth century with laws providing that magistrates should send to school teachers twice a year lists of all children entering the sixth year of age, and that the teachers should return monthly lists of absence. Although the school attendance steadily increased, the number of children growing up without education was still very large. After the disastrous war with Prussia in 1866 the Austrian government hastened to introduce a new educational law similar to that of Prussia, providing for the rigorous enforcement of the principle of compulsory attendance. In some provinces it was found extremely difficult to provide for a sufficient number of teachers and schools and to compel the attendance of children. The statistics of school attendance, however, show a steady increase, and there is no systematic opposition to the principle which is now rapidly being carried into effect.


—The cantons of Switzerland, with four exceptions, and the Scandinavian kingdoms, have enacted laws similar to those of Germany; and Denmark, in particular, has had a stringent law on compulsory education in operation since 1814, and has thus effected a remarkably high average education of its entire population.


—In France the public school system was for the first time regulated by the educational law of 1833, which embodied the ideas of Guizot and Cousin. Neither this law, however, nor the subsequent regulations, recognized the principle of compulsory education; and the school attendance, especially in many of the rural districts, continued to be very small. Louis Napoleon favored the principle of compulsion and M. Duroy, his minister of public instruction from 1863 to 1869, was one of its most zealous advocates; but the attempts made to introduce it into the legislation of France had to be abandoned in consequence of the powerful opposition it met with. After the proclamation of the republic in 1870, one of the most enthusiastic champions of compulsory education, Jules Simon, was appointed minister of public instruction; and the new educational law proposed by him, embodied the principle; but the national assembly refused to adopt the law, thirteen of the fifteen bureaus voting against it. The principle is generally advocated in France by the liberals, and opposed by the Catholic party.


—In England public opinion, until very recently, has always been strongly adverse to a participation of the state government in school matters. An important advance toward the principle of compulsory education was, however, made in 1870, by the adoption of a bill brought in by Edward Forster, according to which, within one year, provision was to be made for the education of every child in England and Wales. The question of compulsory attendance was very earnestly discussed in parliament and was finally left to the separate school boards, which were to have a certain discretionary power of enforcing attendance. The policy of compulsion was finally adopted in the elementary education act of 1876, which went into operation Jan. 1, 1877, and which declares that it shall be the duty of the parent of every child between the ages of five and fourteen, to cause such child to receive efficient elementary instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic; the duty to be enforced by the orders and penalties specified in the act. The employment of children under the age of ten, or over that age without a certificate of proficiency or of previous due attendance at a certified efficient school, is prohibited, with certain exceptions.


—The Italian parliament, in 1871, adopted a new school law, according to which elementary instruction is required to be given everywhere free of charge, and attendance at school is obligatory.


—In Belgium and the Netherlands every commune is compelled by law to make provision for a public school; and in Belgium indigent children receive, on application of their parents, gratuitous instruction; but neither of these two states has, as yet, recognized the principle of compulsory education.


—In Russia, Peter the Great desired to make education obligatory; but the obstinate resistance of his subjects who called education their destruction, prevented him from carrying out his design; and the consequence is that Russia is still among the least educated countries of Europe, there being, in 1875, one pupil for about every eighty-six inhabitants.


—Turkey, in 1869, promulgated a law providing for the establishment of a school in every locality, and requiring all children, both boys and girls, to attend it. It is hardly necessary to say that it was not enforced.


—Greece adopted the compulsory system nearly fifty years ago. Its success may be judged by the fact that in 1870, after it had been in operation for thirty-six years, only 33 per cent. of the grown-up men and only 7 per cent. of the grown-up women were able to read and write!


—Spain and Portugal followed the example of Greece, with about the same success.


—In America, twenty-two of the states and territories of the Union have compulsory education laws on their statute books. The right of state authorities to require the attendance of all children at school was asserted at an early date by some of the English colonies. B. G. Northrop, secretary of the Connecticut state board of education, in his annual report for 1871, says that Connecticut may justly claim to be one of the first states in the world that established the principle of compulsory education. Its code of laws adopted in 1650 contained stringent provisions for compulsory attendance; and these provisions, with unimportant modifications, remained in force until the revision of the code in 1810. With the changed conditions of society resulting from immigration, it was found impossible to enforce the law without important additions, amounting in reality to a set of factory laws forbidding the employment of children under fourteen years of age who have not attended school for at least three months in the year, and although a state agent was appointed to superintend the enforcement of the law, yet the success has only been partial.


—As early as 1642 Massachusetts enjoined the selectmen of every town to see that all parents or guardians or masters taught their children, wards or apprentices so much learning as would enable them to read the English tongue and the capital laws, upon penalty of twenty shillings for each neglect therein. A factory law, similar to that of Connecticut, was passed in 1834. The present law compels parents and guardians to send children in their charge between the ages of eight and fourteen, to school twenty weeks every year; and no person can be excluded from the public school on account of race, color or religion. Towns and cities are required to provide for the education of orphans and the children of drunken parents.


—In Maine the school law of the state authorizes towns to make by-laws for the enforcement of attendance of children between six and seventeen years of age, and to annex a suitable penalty, not exceeding $20 for any breach thereof. In New Hampshire an act of the legislature, approved in July, 1871, provides that all parents, guardians or masters of a child between the ages of eight and fourteen, residing within two miles of a public school, shall send such child to school at least twelve weeks each year. Similar acts were passed the same year by the legislature of Michigan and Texas. Nevada passed a compulsory law in 1873, containing the ordinary provisions and providing a penalty of not less than $50 nor more than $100 for the first offense, and not less than $100 nor more than $200 for each subsequent offense. The laws of the other states and of the territories are very similar to those already mentioned. The tendency seems to be very strongly in favor of compulsory school laws. Many educators and statesmen go so far as to demand a national system of compulsion administered directly by federal officers.


—The discussion as to the justification and expediency of compulsory education has been long and interesting. It is safe to say that it is easier to prove that the state has the right to compel the attendance of its children at school than to show that such a policy is generally successful, in the widest sense of the term, and therefore expedient. It has been urged by American opponents that compulsory education is monarchical in its origin and history. The short account given above is a complete answer to any such objection. "Before the peace of Westphalia, before Prussia existed as a kingdom, and while Frederick William was only 'elector of Brandenburg,' Massachusetts and Connecticut adopted coercive education." The Connecticut laws were so stringent that they went to the extreme of taking the child away from the parent altogether, if the latter could not be brought to comply with the laws by fines. The common people of New England demanded a compulsory law. The laboring classes advocated and welcomed it, and the trades unions were nearly unanimous in its favor. The republic of Switzerland has compulsory laws in all but four of its cantons. The present system of Prussia was made efficient by men who were aiming at a free government for that kingdom. The liberal party in nearly every European government is in favor of compulsory education. Such a policy can hardly be called monarchical in its origin, then, since it was first adopted by the colonies of North America; nor in its history, since it has increased in popularity and universality as liberty has advanced; nor in its influence, since it tends to make monarchy less necessary by making republicanism possible.


—A second argument has been advanced against it, that it arrogates new power for the government. This is of course clearly untrue, 1650 is an early date in American history, yet from that time this power has been exercised by the various state governments. And even if the precedent could not be quoted, the right to compel attendance at school might be in a republic subserved under the general head of self-protection, along with quarantine and hygienic regulations. Nor does the objection that it is un-American have any greater force than the one just mentioned. Besides, it begs the whole question. "American" everything must be, which the American people have adopted and retained as a permanent part of their institutions. It has also been urged that it interferes with the liberty of the parents. No more, it may be returned, than many other laws which command universal assent, such as laws punishing the parent for abusing the child, for depriving it of necessaries which he is able to provide, etc. On the other hand, it may be claimed that the child has a right to an education such as will fit it to play a proper part in society, and it is the duty of the parent to furnish this. The state in compelling him to send the child to school does nothing more than secure the latter in its rights. A very common objection is, that such a system inflicts hardship upon many a parent who can neither spare the labor of his child nor pay for decent clothing and books. Such cases can easily be provided for, as they are in all successful systems now in operation. The community can much better afford to pay for clothing and books than to let the child grow up in ignorance. The arguments against the justice and constitutionality of compulsory laws may be fairly considered as answered by the foregoing. A strong plea may be made in favor of their justice, as follows: The state assumes and exercises the right of taxing all classes for the support of the public schools whether they have children to send or not. The state owes it to these tax payers to see that the taxes collected shall be used for the purpose for which they are levied. This is not possible unless it compels the attendance of all children at school. The tax payer, then, has a right to insist on a compulsory law, on the ground that it is necessary in order to enable the state to perform its duty toward him. As a matter of fact in this discussion those who object to compulsory laws on the ground of justice and constitutionality have been left in the minority everywhere,—answered by the logic of events. But the expediency of such laws is by no means so clear. That must be determined for each country by a careful study of the conditions there prevailing. Such laws may be good for one country under one set of conditions, and of no advantage or even of harm to another country with different circumstances. We add a few considerations on compulsory education in our own country.


—Recent compulsory school laws in America have been chiefly remarkable for their utter failure to accomplish any of the results expected of them. Of the twenty-two American states and territories, which have compulsory laws on their statute books, not a single one has been able to report, "they are a success." The same thing is true of similar laws in many other countries. The fact seems to be that compulsory school laws on a large scale have been successful only under conditions which would have made a voluntary system of attendance a success. The whole history of education in civilized countries justifies the claim that wherever plenty of good free schools have been provided, and the parents prevented from employing their children in factories and mines, there the attendance under a purely voluntary system has been as good as the compulsory system has been able to show anywhere, and that wherever a compulsory system has existed without these conditions it has been a failure. Prussia, the classic land of compulsion, provides in its school laws for an abundance of school room, well-equipped school houses, and a high grade of teachers, and her compulsory system is a fair success. Turkey, Greece, Portugal, etc., copy the compulsory features, omitting the essential conditions of success, and their laws are failures. Aside from this, however, a glance at the necessary conditions of a successful system of compulsion from an administrative point of view, will reveal the secret of the failure of American compulsory laws. A compulsory school law can be made effective only on one of two conditions. There must either be such an over whelming public sentiment in its favor that any parent who tries to evade it or officer who refuses to enforce it will fall as it were, under public ban and be exposed to universal execration; or there must be a thorough system of administration which will remove its enforcement from local authorities and put it in the hands of a power able and willing to enforce it, regardless of local influences and prejudices. The latter condition has, indeed, ordinarily been the presupposition of the former. Both conditions are realized to a certain extent in Prussia. The man who attempts to escape complying with the law is looked upon in a certain sense as a criminal. He feels that he is condemned by public sentiment and opinion around him, and feels that he is rightly condemned too. Compulsory education has done in Prussia its perfect work—it has converted involuntary into voluntary attendance. It has been asserted by men of wide and accurate observation that if the question were left to popular suffrage to-day, not one vote in a thousand would be cast against the compulsory laws. And it is an interesting fact in this connection that in all the popular party platforms adopted during the revolutions of 1848, and in all the socialistic platforms adopted since, universal compulsory education forms a prominent plank. Public sentiment, then, in Prussia favors the enforcement of the law. But it must be kept in mind that this public sentiment was not of spontaneous growth, but is the product of the most rigorous administrative system existing in any civilized nation. Frederick William I. of Prussia introduced the compulsory system. He was one of the most despotic monarchs that ever lived. His will was law, and law enforced. The people must go to school, he said, and to school they went, because he introduced an administrative machine which extended from the capital to the remotest village of the kingdom, and of which he was the animating soul. Frederick the Great was too busy in the early years of his reign to devote much attention to school matters. His successor was of too light a turn of mind to appreciate their importance. But the Napoleonic wars, the greatest blessing that ever came to the German people, turned Prussia's attention to her schools, and the system was inaugurated which raised Prussia to the front rank of continental powers. Compulsory attendance was enforced, and has been ever since. It has blossomed and fruited into universal voluntary attendance. But it must not be forgotten, that it was only the thorough enforcement of the law through several generations that brought about the present state, and only the despotic measures of the government that made the enforcement possible.


—If these considerations are just, we have not far to seek to find the reason for the failure of all American compulsory school laws. Both conditions necessary for an efficient law have been everywhere lacking and no attempt made to realize them anywhere. There is not a single section of our country where the public sentiment in favor of such a law is strong enough to secure its enforcement by the local authorities, and there have been no measures taken, worth mentioning, looking toward vesting its enforcement in other hands. Local enforcement is generally a dead letter, and the most utterly dead exactly where it is most needed, viz., in illiterate communities. For the more ignorant the population the less it feels its need of education, and the feebler the efforts it will put forth to secure educational advantages. Our only hope of success by such a system, then, lies in adopting a system of administration in which the execution of the law shall be taken from the local authorities and intrusted to a body of officials depending immediately upon the state, if not upon the national government. There is no probability that such a system will be adopted within any very short period, if, indeed, it ever will be. Direct compulsion, then, will in all likelihood continue to be a failure in the future as it has been in the past.


—A system of indirect compulsion might, however, be very effective. Let the state or general government appropriate a large sum of money, say one dollar per capita, to be distributed among the school districts according to population. Let this money be paid over only on the following condition, viz., that every district shall have presented proofs that it furnishes plenty of school room for all its school population, and plenty of good teachers and a fair amount of apparatus, etc., to be prescribed by a general law; provided, that only such a proportion of the sum due each district shall be paid over to it, as its actual attendance is of its possible attendance, i.e., the attendance of all school children during the whole school year. Such a system will tend to beget that local sentiment in favor of enforcing attendance which is an absolutely necessary condition of success in our American society. For as the actual nears the perfect attendance it will become possible to lighten the local school taxes. It will thus be to the pecuniary interest of every tax payer to insist on the attendance of all school children. The essential elements of the plan have been tried under a variety of circumstances and always with marked success. The system of rewards is more powerful than the system of punishments. And it has been found true of communities as of individuals that they will put forth far greater efforts to secure a reward offered on condition of those efforts, than they will to avoid the fines and penalties (which after all may never be inflicted) for non-compliance with a law. The plan, then, is economical, and, politically, it is in complete harmony with our traditions and institutions—a claim which can not be substantiated for any recent system of successful direct compulsion.


—LITERATURE: Reports of U. S. Commissioner of Education; Reports of State Superintendents of Public Instruction: Special Report on Compulsory Education, by V. M. Rice, Albany, 1867; Report on Compulsory Education, by D. A. Hawkins, New York, 1874; Reports of National Educational Association; Geschichte der Paedagogik, by Dr. Karl Schmidt, 1873-7; Barnard's American Journal of Education; occasional articles in educational periodicals; Education Abroad, by B. G. Northrop, New York, 1873; articles in the various encyclopædias, particularly the one on "Compulsory Education" in Steiger's Cyclopœdia of Education, from which a portion of the historical account in this article is taken.


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