Following on the heels of the new child labor laws is this second ingredient, the endorsement of compulsory education. While state sponsored schools cannot take credit for originating education, they did develop a system to organize it for the masses. After all, now that most teens didn’t have a job they needed something constructive to do. Why not educate them?
While in many ways this was and is an admirable goal, there are a few problems built into the design. First of all, the laws enacted removed the decision about the subjects, duration, and in some cases even the manner of how a child should be educated away from parents. Enrollment was mandated by the government, and parents could now be punished for keeping their children out of the public school.
Of course, for thousands of years prior to this, parents educated their own children. Parents taught their children whatever they believed was necessary for independent survival in society. In biblical times, Hebrew parents were responsible for the education of their children. Roman parents did the same.
Even the early schools of the late-eighteenth century appeared not to confuse teachers with custodians. They did not try to replace the families, the church, or any other institution. Unlike the mandatory high schools a century later, schools did not organize their students’ social lives, monitor their health, or prepare them to be good citizens.
Keep in mind that the widespread acceptance of the idea of high school was very, very slow in coming. The first public high school opened in Boston in 1821, but New York City didn’t open one until more than seventy years later. Only during the 1930’s was a majority of what we now term high-school age youth enrolled, mostly because the Depression had made jobs unavailable. Previously, most teenagers had jobs and their education took place at work while the rest happened at home. Still another reason for this slow acceptance was that parents were unwilling to give up their primary place in the life of their young people. Now children are separated from their parents for forty or more hours a week, and many parents appear happy to herd them off to the public guardians.
The second design flaw is the adolescence greenhouse effect. A greenhouse is a contained environment for the cultivation and exhibition of plant life. Likewise, high schools are contained environments for the cultivation and exhibition of adolescent life. Though originally time spent with others your same age was only one aspect of a varied life and daily contact with different sorts and ages of people was regular, now the majority of a young person’s life was spent with their peers. Young people are crowded into classrooms, removed from the oversight of their parents. This is fertile soil for the growth of a youth culture. Teenagers now had control over their own social lives. Sports and other extracurricular activities provided the stage for young people to express themselves and explore their talents. In short, “[w]ithout high school, there are no teenagers” (Hine, 139).
This hasn’t even scratched the surface of issues like the purpose of schools – is it to prepare someone for life? for a better job? for college admission? For something else? And how can standardized schools be expected to teach and test students of widely different abilities and interests? And how do schools know when they are successful?
While there may be nothing inherently wrong with being in school for 180 days a year for seven hours a day for thirteen years, it is a significant problem that compulsory education laws say that young people must spend a certain amount of time in school, not necessarily that they must learn anything. It is all too tempting for youth simply to put in their time rather than to learn. And many parents have handed over their responsibility for education, academic, moral and otherwise, to the school. For most people going to school is the key teenage experience, whatever “education” they may take away.
As with child labor laws I am not suggesting that we simply do something opposite. Obviously teenagers who don’t go to school are not guaranteed greater maturity than those who do. I am not proposing that home-schooling is the sure solution, since many current home-schooling trends are just secular education philosophy repackaged. Those students may avoid the adolescent hothouse, but they are not necessarily better educated. Christian schools are not necessarily the answer either as they have largely the same problems as the for public school problems mentioned above. I guess we can be happy that at least most Christian schools teach creation rather than evolution.
The point is, while my goal is not an overall overhaul of institutional education, I do believe it is essential for us to evaluate how our system of education perhaps has done more to train students in adolescent behavior than adult behavior.
I pray that we as Christians will have a better perspective on education than: “[t]he principal reason high schools now enroll nearly all teenagers is that we can’t imagine what else they might do” (Hine, 157).