TOP 2019-03-28

Education is a Right, Compulsory Education is a Crime

I have now written a more comprehensive treatment of this subject

There’s not much in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that I disagree with, but I do take issue with Article 26. Yes, everyone has the right to education, but it should not be compulsory. In fact, compulsory education is one of the many examples of oppression that young people face in our ‘adultist’ society.

The right to liberty is much further up the list of fundamental rights. Slavery has been abolished and is universally denounced. People are horrified by the use of forced labour and re-education camps in former fascist and communist countries. Yet it is precisely when the victims are children that people seem unable to recognise the crime. Cases of forced labour can and should be condemned before we even hear the details of how ‘nicely’ the children were being treated. But when the activity is called ‘compulsory education’ rather than ‘forced labour’ we suddenly feel the need to praise and support it. Young people, it seems, do not have as much right to liberty as adults do. So much for ‘universal’ rights.

Literacy and health outcomes don’t correlate with the amount of coercion used to enforce compulsory education - they correlate with economic development. In more prosperous conditions, people can spare the time away from subsistence labour and they choose - yes, choose! - to take advantage of educational opportunities that are available. Conversely, even if compulsory education is the law, the poorest of the poor still keep their children out of school so that they can work for the family’s subsistence. Both educational opportunities and economic development are necessary - but coercion is not. When these conditions are met, people can and should be able to seek out the educational and training opportunities that allow them to pursue their aspirations and interests freely.

We understand how the labour market works without compulsion. People can choose between jobs they are qualified for, they have the freedom to change job, to set up their own business and to take a break from work entirely for various reasons. Yet the vast majority of young people in compulsory education are not given a free choice about how they want to pursue education, let alone the right of exit. In fact, subsection (c) of Article 26 says that it is parents who have the right to decide on the kind of education their children get. Let me be clear. Compulsory education is not the same as slavery; children are not legally property and they aren’t bought and sold in markets. But when someone makes your life decisions for you, they are certainly treating you as their property, not as an individual.

Many countries allow children to be home-schooled - but, both in practice and in law, it’s a right of parents and not of children. Most parents don’t have the money or time for home-schooling, if they are even aware that it’s a legitimate possibility at all. So the experience of most young people is of being coerced, whether into school-school or into home-school. Their opinion doesn’t have to matter.

Of course, the labour market is not completely free of coercion either. Few people can decide not to work at all. But we implicitly accept that coercive elements of the labour market are problems: we’re not exactly happy to say that someone was forced to work in a sweat shop because it was the only work they could get. But while you might drag yourself into an undesirable job, nobody drags you. Unlike compulsory education, there are no prison sentences associated with unemployment.

Education needs to be free - free in the sense of ‘freedom’. For that, we need to get rid of the truancy laws and prison sentences, and give young people - not parents - the right to decide their own futures.