Think You Know Why Compulsory School Exists? Think Again.

“School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.”- John Taylor Gatto


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“Schools teach exactly what they are intended to teach and they do it well: how to be a good Egyptian and remain in your place in the pyramid.” -John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

Every day millions upon millions of parents send their children off to school without a second thought. Schools are good, right? They’re there to educate the future of America, aren’t they?

What would you think if I told you that that’s not what schools were intended for at all? What many parents- and more than a few teachers- don’t realize is that compulsory schooling was not mandated to educate but to train obedient workers.

Image courtesy of njaj at

Don’t believe me? How about some history?

150 years ago, during the Industrial Revolution, factories were popping up everywhere and people like John D. Rockefeller were desperately in need of workers to run them. Unfortunately for them, however, people weren’t looking for jobs. At this point in time, the vast majority of Americans were self-sustaining. They grew their own crops, built their own houses, made their own clothes and toiletries, and bought only what was absolutely necessary at the general store. Most children learned their skills from helping with the family or apprenticeships and only attended a one-room schoolhouse for the few months out of the year they were least needed at home. Compared to modern society, these people were much more resourceful than we are today because they did everything for themselves, and it worked for them.

Since Rockefeller, among others, was a wealthy man, he had much clout with the government, who certainly saw the benefits of what he was trying to accomplish.

Enter compulsory schooling, when children began to be required, by law, to attend school. Students were instructed in specific subjects for a set period of time everyday, regardless of how relevant it was to their lives, and they were expected to drop what they were doing, no matter whether they wanted to continue doing what they had started or not, and change classes at the ringing of the bell. Students were also conditioned to blindly obey commands, as this would be beneficial for the foremen of these factories. Individual thinkers were not needed nor wanted in this setting. Factory owners wanted obedient, hard-working employees who did not mind the day-to-day monotony of what they would be doing and who did not rock the boat.

You may be thinking, but that was 150 years ago.

When I first began to read up on this, I thought the same thing. But let’s take a closer look at some common practices and see how they just might reflect this Industrial-era mindset of not-so-long ago.

  • School uniforms (conformity)
  • Mass instruction regulated by the government (conformity)
  • Senseless busywork (obedience)
  • Separate subjects which are to end immediately at the sound of the bell in order to move on to the next thing (obedience, conformity)
  •  Singling out those who learn differently (conformity, elimination of individualized thinking)

Politicians love to talk about education reform- especially this time of year- but how sincere are they? Before any true improvements can be made, the true intention of compulsory schooling needs to change. And, honestly, I don’t think that will ever happen.


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Author: Shelly Sangrey

I'm Shelly, a Christ-following, homeschooling Mom of eleven children ( okay, not ALL children. My oldest is 23.) I met my husband right after graduation, and we've been together ever since. Though my life can be hectic at times... okay, ALL the time, I wouldn't change it for anything.

66 thoughts on “Think You Know Why Compulsory School Exists? Think Again.”

  1. Ugh! The longer we’re out of the system, the more I see it for what it is and I cringe at the thought of so many children being forced to “learn” this way. I’m so thankful for the freedom to homeschool.


    1. That’s for sure. When I first read Dumbing Us Down, I was sickened but at the same time, I hoped it wasn’t true. I decided to look at my oldest son’s college sociology book, and sure enough, there was a section on the hidden curriculum.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We’re BIG fans of JTG over here at our house (we’re also both teachers) and it’s so encouraging to see the word being spread about this fact, so your blog post made my day! I’d love for you to come share it at our Friday Frivolity link party – it goes live tonight at 9pm EST. If you do, I’ll be hoping it comes up as my “number” so I can make it my feature! if you want to join us. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! John Taylor Gatto has completely changed my views on education forever- and I was one of those kids who absolutely thrived in the school setting. Thanks for visiting, and I will absolutely link up tonight!


      1. My husband and I thrived in public school, too, so we’re the same way – didn’t have struggles that turned us against it! Well, this specific post of yours didn’t come up as my “number,” but I’m still totally featuring it at next week’s party! Hope to see you there again at #FridayFrivolity!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Love Gatto! If every American parent only knew the truth. Some act as if public school education is a centuries-old, proven institution. It isn’t. It’s a recent experiment that is failing. What animal group, even, would send their youngest, most vulnerable members off to strangers all day to be “educated”?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that for most people, this mindset of “school is the only way” is so deeply ingrained that we could shout it from the rooftops, and they would still look the other way. It’s very disheartening.


  4. I really was floored by John Taylor Gatto’s book. It’s almost a little scary when you read it because it almost feels like a conspiracy theory, but hard realities are often tough to face. I also like reading John Holt, who I feel is similar in his beliefs, just not as harsh about it.

    When people ask, “Why we homeschool,” I usually start with this video by Sir Ken Robinson. (Depending on if they are really interested in learning why we made this decision or if they are just making conversation.) It illustrates, to me the first thoughts that I had about homeschooling and why it is important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. I absolutely adore John Holt’s books- especially Learning All the Time and Teach Your Own. As for Sir Ken Robinson, I’ve watched all of his TedTalks and hope he’ll do more soon. He is so on the money, yet so funny at the same time. His talks are a great way to introduce people to the concept of why people homeschool.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The problem with school these days is that it doesn’t teach the kids to think and create. I teach and I remember when my kids were school the battles I had with their teachers over what I had taught them. I was treated like scum and was told a bunch of times “You can’t teach this to your kids.” I was only teaching them the truth and not some watered down version. As a teacher, I encourage the students to find their own sources and to think.

    My three favorites involve my daughter. I am a huge fan of taking my kids to museums and we have a ton of them here in the Bay Area. Well, we went to one and saw a couple of actual Dead Sea Scrolls. It was powerful. That next week at school, the teacher was describing them and my daughter said that the way the teacher was describing was wrong and that she had seen a couple the previous Saturday. Now it is on as her teacher said “You are lying, you didn’t see any.” Then it was on. I got a call from her teacher and I told her teacher that I will be filing a report of harassment with her district and that as a parent I have the right to take my kids to museums and such and to teach my kids using any and all methods available to me. The teacher said “It is not in my script,” I told her that I teach also and she dropped a load. The same thing happened when I took my kids to see the Chinese Terra Cotta Soldiers at the Asian Art Museum, she was in high school and both the teacher and principal were not happy when I showed her there with them in pictures.

    But the biggest instance was in my daughter’s AP Government Class. The assignment was to compare two books from opposite viewpoints. I have a vast library with books by writers on all sides of the aisle because I believe in exposing my kids to all views. My daughter chose a book by Newt Gingrich and then a book called “Fidel Speaks-The Speeches of Fidel Castro” from a socialist publishing house. The teacher gave her a F on the assignment because he had never heard of the Fidel book and the publishing house where it was published. I got involved and brought the book and it basically scared the teacher and the school admin. They asked me where I got it, I said we bought it at the Communist Book Store in Berkeley across from the Friends of the Library Book Store. It didn’t go over well, her grade was raised to a C+ and she was told not to bring anything like to school.

    The school system is set up to produce workers and not have people think. I am lucky that I can teach using all creative means as long as the students are learning. The key is that I can always justify within the context of the standards. I do Special Ed math and every Friday we play blackjack the last 15 minutes of class. We have chips and everything. They earn “chips” by doing their assignments. I can justify it because I created a whole math worksheet on it. It is not in the book or a script but it covers many standards.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t know much about the US education system, but this is certainly true in the UK. You’re there to learn to respect authority, the rules – written and unwritten – of the workplace, and parrot back just as much information as they want you to know. That sounds really harsh, and there are some really positive things happening (e.g. the bacc qualification which is about critical thinking), but generally true.

    One of my favourite books is Paul Willis’ study on counter-school culture. He maintains that even when students refuse to bow down and mess about in class, they are still being socialised for the low paid, low skilled work they will eventually go into. Being ‘one of the lads’ or whatever is how they will define their identity, rather than what they think or believe.

    Thanks so much for sharing at #FridayFrivolity!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I will have to get that book. It’s sad when every seemingly “good” thing, like education, has been set in place by people with ulterior motives. Thanks for visiting and for hosting the linkup!


  7. I mentioned on FB that I have a lot to do. I’m very busy and don’t get much sleep. Her response was send your kids to school. Allow your tax money to work for you.

    YAY for tax money!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. When I was younger, school was fun. We had a different elective everyday, giving the teachers plenty of time for planning. We had teachers who cared and wanted to educate us. It’s just not the same anymore. I was a substitute teacher before my oldest was born, and seeing first hand what was going on in the schools was really what convinced my husband and I to homeschool. Thanks so much for sharing your post with #SocialButterflySunday! Hope to see you link up again this week 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too! I was actually upset when I graduated. My oldest graduated from my alma mater, and he used to come home and tell me about his science teacher who would just sit at his desk doing nothing the entire period because he had given up. The students were horrible, and my son was in a. “good” class!


  9. I agree with you to say that school is not for everyone but the first quote is a bit harsh. Being a teacher, I feel like defending myself! Just kidding. You have a point here #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The US needs to do something about the school system, and unfortunately the only solution our government seems to come up with is that they know what is best. They should leave the schooling to the local governments and communities and not try a one size fits all big federal approach. My opinion of course. I had the opportunity to experience both private and public schooling growing up, both have their pros/cons. Looking back on it all I would say at the end of the day I learned most from my parents, coaches, and the teachers and mentors who encouraged me to think on my own and challenge the world around me in different ways. Great thought provoking post 🙂 #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m in the UK so know very little about the US school system. The real meaning of learning is being lost here in the UK. If you don’t fit the mould then it is very tricky. I am meeting more and more home educators. My children will attend regular school but I will certainly keep an open mind about alternatives. #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

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