Compulsory Education: Definition, Laws & History

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson we'll explore the history and laws of state-mandated education. If you can read this, it's because of compulsory education! A short quiz follows the lesson.

Compulsory Education

We all have fond memories as a child of waking up before the sun, eating our delicious and nutritious breakfast, and then happily skipping off to our school, textbooks in hand. As we boarded the school bus, we were greeted by a friendly hello from the driver as we settled in, preparing to be whisked away to a land of new ideas, fun activities, and adventures with our school chums.

Alright, that might be a bit of an exaggeration as to how great school was for some of us, but nevertheless you did have to attend school. Because of this, you know how to read, write, and do basic mathematics. You also hopefully have at least a fundamental understanding of science, philosophy, and history. You are a better, more well-rounded person because of your education. Who do you have to thank for this? Why, compulsory education, of course!

Compulsory education is the name given to the legally-required period of time that children are expected to attend school. In the western world, these laws generally require that children attend school from the ages of 5 to 18. This corresponds to the standard K-12 school system found in much of Europe as well as North and South America. While there are exceptions to these laws (such as homeschooling or specific religious exemptions), the consensus is that children need to have a strong foundational education to allow them to succeed and be model citizens.

Historical Foundations

Through much of human history, various leaders have tried to enforce educational standards on their people. Some of the earliest compulsory education occurred in historic Judea, with rabbinical scholars encouraging parents to provide their children with at least a basic, though informal, education. Likewise, Plato writes in his famous The Republic about the necessity and benefit of educating the masses, advocating for studying 'the four virtues' and possessing knowledge of 'the good.' (Side note: Philosophy 101 finally paid off! While these ideas might be archaic, they are the foundation upon which modern compulsory educational theory is built.)

The earliest widespread adoption of compulsory education began with the Reformation in the 16th century under Martin Luther. One of the core tenets Luther advocated was the ability for everyone to read the Bible themselves, so they could form their own opinion of the text, rather than be told what to believe by the Church. In order for this to work, however, the average citizen needed to be able to read, which wasn't true at the time. As such, Luther called for all citizens to be educated so they could read their Bible. When the Reformation reached Scotland, it led to the earliest state-established compulsory educational law in Europe, known as the School Establishment Act of 1616.

Some of the earliest modern laws surrounding compulsory education in the United States come from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century. Prior to these laws, it had long been expected that parents would educate their children so they could read the Bible, understand basic math, and write their own name. However, many of the Puritan elders felt that parents weren't adequately educating their children, so in 1642 they passed laws ensuring that a group of elders would establish educational standards to hold parents accountable for educating their children. Who said the Puritans never did anything fun?

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