The hot debate about compulsory schooling is only getting hotter.
One of the popular arguments is that children often have to be forced to act in their own best interests, and that education is no different. Three common parallels I have seen drawn are between seatbelts, spinach, and school.
Let’s take a quick look at those popular three S’s.
Spinach is very high in salicylates, oxalates, and purines. A child with sensitivities to any of these is following their own body wisdom when they resist eating spinach – and they can truly suffer if forced to do so.
Even if your child does not have any of these sensitivities, forcing your child to eat too much spinach can cause kidney stones, problems with mineral absorption, and even anemia. “Too much” isn’t clearly defined, and very individual.
So, is it morally justified to force a child to eat spinach, rather than allowing them to select healthful alternatives?*
School is high on pressure, low on opportunities for movement, high on sensory overload and low on opportunities for autonomous expression. It also forces a curriculum which limits children’s pursuit of other interests, and insists they become generalists to the point that there is little time for developing any particular talents. Children who are highly sensitive, strong-willed, have naturally high energy levels, and children with specific talents or high creativity are following their own inner wisdom when they resist mainstream school environments, and can genuinely suffer if forced to go.
Even children without these characteristics can suffer from school stress, play deficits from too much academic work too soon, confidence problems from tackling work they are not personally ready for, bullying, and more. Depression, anxiety, and even suicide are increasingly linked to forced schooling.
So, is it morally justified to force children to stay in school, rather than allowing them to choose educational pathways they find more comfortable?*
As Immanuel Kant pointed out, we should be careful to “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, to be fair and morally right, your law should apply to everyone, no exceptions, yourself included.
If you are not prepared to force your spouse, mother in law, and visiting community leader to eat their spinach, is there really moral justification to demand that of children?
If eating spinach is not a matter of life-and-death, and there are other ways to be healthy, and, there is evidence that it can even do harm, how can we justify forcing anyone to eat it?
Let’s consider the number of successful adults, even in high profile positions, who have no school-leaving-certificate, and did not spend the full twelve years pursuing one. In case you didn’t know, some of them are very successful indeed.*
If it is not agreed that school is important enough that all adults be forced by law to suspend all other activities and spend the same daily hours in an adult school-equivalent until they have met the minimum standard either in outcome or in years pursuing it, what moral justification is there to demand that of children?
Seatbelts are a matter of life and death, and even so there is an ongoing debate about legal enforcement being an infringement of individual liberty. There is also considerable civil disobedience. In some places there is also a lower penalty for staying unbuckled, than for dodging school.
The seatbelt law (where it stands) applies to us all, which means that forcing a child to wear a seatbelt is – at least technically – morally justifiable.
Spinach and school? Nope.
*If you do not yet know that there are many, many ways for children to get healthy nutrients, and a great education, and grow to thrive as adults, without ever eating spinach or going to a school, you can no longer consider yourself educated. I will not try to force you to do your homework. I believe you will derive more benefit, if you choose it for yourself.