Compulsory education or choice education?

My comments on Lisa Nielsen’s post, “Would you take classes if you weren’t forced?” on her must-read blog, The Innovative Educator. Thanks for keeping this ongoing discussion going, Lisa.

The matter of freedom arises from the regimentation and standardization that characterizes modern public education. We run our schools on the gross assumption that all students mature at more or less even rates. Grade levels are determined by chronological age and all students of the same age, 10-year olds in Grade 4, for example, get the same curriculum. This is a matter of efficiency. Our schools were built to deliver broad literacy to as many as possible as fast as possible. They were not built to give choice. There is nothing inherently wrong in that. Indeed, reaching for universal literacy is a noble pursuit. What is wrong is asking the system that was designed to create broad literacy to do something it structurally cannot do. So your question, Lisa, is sharp and important and it points to an anormous task ahead: completely reimagining our edcuation system.

There are in normal circumstances just two occasions when the state deprives people of liberty. One when they break the law and are sent to jail. The other when they are school age and are sent to school. In the first case, we say it’s for our own good; we take the malefactors out of circulation and have them pay back the debt to society–us. In the second, we say it’s for their own good. (See my post, Teaching’s heavy obligation.)


So there is no doubt that we deprive students of choice. But when we say that we have to be careful with two assumptions in your question, Lisa. First, we must becareful not to make blanket statements about students. All we educators do it too often. There is enormous developmental difference between the K-student and the 12-student in K12. (Often, we educators even lump in higher education.) Secondly, with this mind, not all students are equally mature at any given age to make good choices in any given decision. We don’t for example, think they can make good decisions in federal elections until they are 19 years old in Canada. That may be a debatable age, but I think we could agree that they certainly could not make good decisions in elections when they are seven years old. Likewise, there will be a points at which a student can and cannot make good decisions about their education.

So your question might be better written as “How can we give students the freedom to choose what, where, when and with whom they learn at a developmentally appropriate level?” or something like that.

Immediately we must ask another question: “How can we ensure that students will make good choices about what, where, when and with whom they learn at a developmentally appropriate level?” Even more briefly, “How can we ensure students will make good choices. Full stop.” That, I submit, is the fundamental purpose of an education.

One Comment

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    Laurie Anderson August 20, 2012

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