Compulsory Schooling, Literacy, and Educational Alternatives

One of the virtues of Jacob Huebert’s Libertarianism Today is that it provides ample evidence for the high literacy rates of Americans prior to the introduction of compulsory education laws. The moral and the practical come together beautifully here. Not only is it unethical to initiate force for the purpose of compelling children to attend schools, it isn’t necessary for effectual education. The consequentialist statist is left without good evidence.

Let us turn to a select quotation from the book on page 114:

Professor Lawrence Cremin has estimated that male literacy ranged from 70 to 100 percent. Other research shows that from 1650 to 1795, male literacy rose from 60 percent to 90 percent, and female literacy rose from 30 percent to 45 percent. From 1800 to 1840, literacy in the North rose from 75 percent to somewhere between 91 and 97 percent. In the South during that same time period, it went from 50 to 60 percent to 81 percent. Writer and educator, John Taylor Gatto notes that “by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100 percent wherever such a thing mattered.” In 1850, just before Massachusetts imposed compulsory schooling, literacy in that state was at 98 percent.

A highly literate population is clearly possible without state intervention in education. This goes along well with the moral principle of freedom of thought for children idenitfied by the late radical educator, John Holt. This principle demands that young people be free to control their own learning. When allowed to do so, a child is able to fit learning how to read into his or her own desires/interests. A self-directed process of discovery that can strengthen a child’s drive to learn more.

The joy of reading is preferable when not tainted by the evil of aggressive coercion. We left-libertarians are uniquely positioned to encourage literacy without coercion. There are revolutionary alternatives to an statist regime of compelled learning. They include unschooling, Sudbury schools, and Montessori schools. Among these choices, unschooling is my favorite. It provides the most radical alternative to statist models of education. In its respect for individuality, choice, and freedom, it’s the most compatible with libertarian principle.

Cultural change requires a corresponding educational transformation. If we wish to move society towards greater freedom, we will have to raise our children differently. They are to be allowed a great deal of freedom to pursue their own dreams and interests. The educational alternatives mentioned above can help make this a reality. Let’s get started on it!

Translations for this article:

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist