Has Compulsory Education Actually Harmed Us More Than It’s Helped?

“This was once a land where every sane person knew how to build a shelter, grow food, and entertain one another. Now we have been rendered permanent children. It’s the architects of forced schooling who are responsible for that.”

― John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling

Public education has harmed society far more than it's helped.

I know that I’m entering into a sticky topic here, but I’ve got to get this off my chest…

Have you ever thought that institutionalized schooling has been bad for us, for our society?

Assuming that all of you are less than 150 years old ;), like me, you’ve grown up with the notion that school has always existed, that it’s the best way to learn, and that it’s necessary for a productive society.

But is this really true?

Ever think about what life was like before the government stepped in and took control over this portion of our lives? 

Undoubtedly, life was hard, to say the least. But did it feel that way to them, or are we looking at it through the lenses of a population that has grown used to everything being done for us? Have we become a society of people who are not only spoiled, but are also, in essence, incapable of truly taking care of ourselves?

Prior to the legislation of compulsory school attendance, men, women, and children were busy living their lives and doing what they had to do for their families. They built their own houses, grew their own food, raised their own livestock, and made their own clothing. On top of that, they hunted and trapped animals- not only for food, but to tan the hides for leather and to use the furs for coats, or for bartering. They churned their own butter, baked their own bread, and in the rare case that they could not provide something for themselves, neighbors would either help each other out or perform one task in trade for another.

People were capable. They were creative. They were resourceful. Children had an important role in this era. They learned from little on up how to function as a member of a successful family and as a successful society.

Enter compulsory schooling.

On the surface, government education for all seems like a brilliant idea. I mean, who could possibly be against teaching kids how to read and do math?

But, believe it or not, they were already learning those things from doing their day-to-day living. They weren’t learning how to read so they would perform well on a test. They were learning how to read so they could enjoy a letter from a faraway relative or sign contracts. They were learning how to read because they had an actual need for it.

What about math? It’s hard to believe with the amount of measuring, bartering, and buying and selling these people did that they didn’t know math. The vast majority of their trades would have been impossible without math. The difference is that, since they weren’t formally taught math by a teacher and a textbook, those of us who have grown up thinking this is the only way to learn have failed to recognize their accomplishments. And again, they weren’t learning math to earn an A on a report card. They learned it because they needed it, and, more likely than not, they didn’t even give it a second thought.

The educational system today has compartmentalized learning into ‘subjects,’ and they’ve done such a good job of it that most people don’t even recognize real education, unless it is broken down under the official heading of English, Math, Science, etc.

To be honest, I find this laughable, because who in real life walks around thinking, Okay…I just doubled that recipe, so I did math. I watched that Civil War documentary so I also did history. Oh, I’d better get some reading done because I haven’t done language arts today!

You might be rolling your eyes at that, but isn’t that exactly how we see pre-compulsory school society? As a group of people who needed to be saved because they weren’t learning? Just because they weren’t walking around checking off our arbitrary ideas of what important subjects they should have been covering, we pompously assume that they were a bunch of illiterates who didn’t know that 2+2=4.

So what happened once attendance laws were put into place? Generations down the line, self-sufficiency was gone because children were required to spend the hours they used to spend living life in a building designed to replicate life. Factories were built- and the school system was a giant help to that industry– and people began to rely on other people to supply what they needed…at a cost of course.

People today speak glowingly of the Industrial Revolution, and while it may have made life a bit easier for some- very much easier for men like John Rockefeller-at what cost?

-We’re living in a world with rapidly depleting resources. As a society that has become addicted to consumerism, we buy, and buy, and buy, and companies make, and make, and make. And all the while, we are being wasteful. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. I know that I’m guilty of the same thing. Is it necessary to own 50 pairs of shoes? Why do we need to have 100 blouses in our closet? Are we going to eat the mounds of food that we buy, or will a great portion of it be thrown away?

-We have all but lost the ability to be self-sustaining. Again, not pointing the finger. I don’t even know how to sew on a button or mend a hole in a sock. I don’t have a garden because I tend to have a black thumb rather than a green thumb. And don’t even ask me how I feel about deer meat. Yuck. But doesn’t this stem from being spoiled by the ‘conveniences’ we’ve grown up with? What if I had to do these things because there was no other choice? What if we all did?  We certainly would be better stewards of our things because we would be the ones who actually created them. And since we were the ones doing the work for our own families, there would be less overconsumption of natural resources, because really…would you find 35 pairs of underwear to be necessary if you were the one who actually had to make them?

-Our overconsumption has led us to greed. My children and I love reading The Little House series. These autobiographical stories take place before the Industrial Revolution, and they give a clear picture of just how little was necessary to make people happy in those days. How would your children feel if they awoke Christmas morning to find a pair of mittens, a peppermint stick, and a penny in their stockings? No presents under the tree- just those three things. If you’re kids are anything like mine, they’d be pretty upset. And, as their mom, I would be, too. I’d feel like a failure because I’ve been conformed into the consumer lifestyle, as well. What if it didn’t have to be that way?

You might be wondering what this little history lesson has to do with school.

Compulsory schooling has robbed us of the ability to do things for ourselves. We have become so used to being told what to do by others, when to do it, and how to do it that we never wonder why we’re doing it.

But I am wondering why today. And so should you. 




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.

83 thoughts on “Has Compulsory Education Actually Harmed Us More Than It’s Helped?”

  1. Great post! I’ve been thinking about this as well at times! I think we have over-emphasized formal education and devalued the practical, informal. Though most people no longer need to learn to milk a cow (like my parents did!) they should learn home-ec, how to fill out tax forms, and basic budgets. We need to keep asking what do we want the end-product of our schooling to be? And I always admired the Australian system that encourages apprentice positions and pays well those that go into manual jobs.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Apprenticeships and mentors are an awesome idea for our educational system. Imagine how much things could change, if only the powers-that-be were willing to let that happen. Thanks for a great comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent post, Shelly. I think it’s so easy today for people to blindly follow society without question, and that includes sending children to government schools, but once I got off that track and started thinking for myself, I realized that there were always aspects of the system that hadn’t felt right or natural to me. I think a lot of people feel the same way but for various reason they suppress their doubts and carry on. Maybe it’s because staying on society’s course seems easier than taking any action to change it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s hard to imagine how things would change without compulsory school. I do think that homeschoolers may be blazing that trail; showing how possible it is to be successful without fitting the mold and submitting to years in a classroom.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am in agreement with you, Shelly. I agree w/ home schooling very much so. Education as far as the 3 R’s is good, “readin’, ritin’, and ‘rithmetic.” However, I really believe that Home Economics should be put back into schools as well as Civics so that kids today could learn a bit more about our government and how it works. They need to learn about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution the Bill of Rights and all of it’s amendments. There should also be more of an emphasis on American History as well as touching on the beliefs our Founding Fathers had and how they acted on their beliefs in all areas of their lives. All of todays “smart phones” are “dumbing down” our Posterity. So many of today’s young generation have some of the poorest handwriting ever as well as a lack of the ability to “spell.” In my youth, we used to bring newspapers to school to discuss current events and learn words and how to look them up and spell them. Today, I daresay you really can’t depend on newspapers for much anymore w/ the incorrect spelling they have the biased views they write about and they have taken the actual news anymore and turned it into “spin.” Alright now, I will cease and desist at this point before I tread where most people anymore don’t wish to go. You “Home-Schoolers” out there…keep it up and really learn what has value and then utilize it to the fullest and arm yourselves with “good” education and “open” minds. Onward, Ho….!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Richard! That was an excellent comment. I completely agree with you about kids needing to learn American history- actual history, not the kind that’s been rewritten to fit today’s fads. And I also completely agree with you about newspapers. They’ve turned into one big op-ed and aren’t very useful if you’re looking for unbiased reporting.


  5. As an ex-secondary (high school) teacher, I was always shocked by the amount of time wasted in the classroom on things like behaviour management but also just in handing out books, getting the kids to line up etc etc. I think a lot of people would be shocked at how little actual learning happens each day

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is so true! I just accepted a long term sub position, so for the first time I’m writing my own lesson plans and designing how we spend our day. We won’t even start academics until the second week of school because we have that many procedures to get through — I feel like that’s three days these kids could be with their families instead of writing their names in textbooks and putting piles of paper in folders for their parents to fill out. It’s a little weird to work in a public school while starting to homeschool (just preschool level for now, so nothing strenuous), but it definitely cements my decision.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. You don’t know how many teachers i’ve talked to who have said the same thing. When parents send their kids to school, they assume that they’re actually being educated the whole time they’re there, but that just isn’t the case! Have fun homeschooling!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. OMG – squeeeeee! This post really excited me. Not only because you’re tackling this difficult topic, or that there are just so.many.quotes in here, but mostly because though I’ve said it differently, I say much of this All.The.Time! Seriously, I’m always going on about how as a society, we’re so accustomed to being given (provided?) with everything, we don’t know how to *DO* anything anymore – from thinking, to solving, to developing ourselves, to paying attention, to minding our own business, to making decisions. And, for whatever reason, as a whole we’re either not seeing it, we’re blinded to our own blindness, or even because we just don’t care (maybe don’t know how anymore??)!

    Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this in my comment, so I’ll cut myself short. But, YES! 😀

    (P.S. I find it difficult when thinking of homeschool/unschooling our children as to how to eventually break everything down into ‘subjects’ for the state…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this awesome comment! I don’t know what state you’re in, but is it required where you live to break down what you’re doing into subjects? We can get by without it because our school district only sees the letter from the evaluator, and my evaluator leans towards unschooling, so she’s okay without me doing that. Anyway, maybe I’ll write a future post about that because a few years ago, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t required so I used to spend about 1 1/2 hrs a night writing down everything we did and labeling the subjects covered. I’m so glad I found out that we don’t have to do that. It was so time consuming!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will have to look into whether this is required. I just assumed it was, because I know in some places it is. Thanks for the reminder that things are different in every state! One thing I did recently learn is the age at which I have to formally register, 7, which is both daunting and relieving! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, definitely check into it. Don’t give yourself more work than necessary. We don’t have to register until age 8, and although PA is one of the strictest states for homeschooling, it recently relaxed the laws a bit and made things much more homeschool-friendly for us. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That’s awesome. I know in our state we also have to do the testing and submit the scores. But, because things change, I’ll be looking into that again, too!

            I appreciate your blog and I’m glad I found it because it helps me to prepare, while also discussing other (yet) related issues around education and homeschooling! 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Ok So I was kind of hesitant to read this post. And you know I love your stuff. I was thinking it was going to go in a total different direction, instead it blew me away. Love this one Shelly. I love how you showed the practical side of things-which *might* be right up my alley! I was thinking of how I can’t sew but my mom used to make all my dresses. How I kill every plant I touch but if I had to live off my currently non existent garden we would starve to death. How I want my children to learn these things but I can’t actually teach them without learning myself as I don’t know how! Love and will be linking to this post soon. Thank you for being brave!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Lol. I don’t know if “brave” is the right term…how about really, really opinionated? 🙂 Like to a fault. But all kidding aside, I really wish that people would open their eyes and stop accepting everything that’s being fed to them.


  8. I don’t think consumerism and education are related necessarily. When I think of pre-industrial life I think of high child and maternal mortality, debilitating injuries leading to destitution, and the inability of women to survive well on their own. These things are all lessened when the level of education in a family rises. Education has huge benefits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that education is very, very important, and I don’t take issue with that. It’s not education that’s the problem, it’s the public education system, and they are two completely different things.


    1. That’s exactly right. Too often children in school become so used to a teacher constantly telling them what they should learn that they never realize that learning is something they can do for themselves all the time.


  9. Love! Anytime a subject becomes taboo to challenge … it should be challenged (or at least examined). Your thoughts are exactly the conclusions we have come to. I have heard people say, “Well, they only went through the 8th grade ‘back then’.” But have you looked up what was on their exams in 8th grade?! My word! Most college students couldn’t pass them! Every so often I do a post on my blog where I link to articles that have caught my attention lately… this one will definitely be showing up soon. Pinning!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great minds think alike, right? 😉 And thank you for sharing! Ph, and I love this, “Anytime a subject becomes taboo to be challenged, it should be challenged…” That is spot on. 🙂


  10. Great post! It’s so interesting to think about how different life was before and after compulsory government schools…both good and bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. There’s no doubt that ingenuity was on the rise during this time period. I only wonder how much more progress would have actually happened if children weren’t more or less corraled and instead left to grow into their own creativity.


      1. We moved to a small town a few years ago with a very small public school. It seems that everything in town revolves around that school. I’m already kind of a pariah because I home school, so I am usually careful about what I say to whom. However, the more distanced I have become from all that goes along with compulsory education, the more I can see, and the more I want to grab people and shake them! 🙂

        Have you ever read “The Graves of Academe” by Richard Mitchell? It’s a more challenging read, but provides a lot of food for thought.


  11. I have a big problem with our school system but not in the same way, though maybe similar. As a former early childhood educator I saw with just the little ones how important nature education is. That is, in the preschool where I worked we focused on having the kids outside as much as possible learning about the world around them. We also taught them how to read and basic math skills as well as teaching them their colors and shapes but we used nature as the catalyst for that. We also used what’s called the student-directed approach rather than the teacher-directed approach. I love that approach.

    As a student in the 80’s and 90’s however, I saw how my brother and many other kids with ADD, down syndrome, and such were treated so poorly by the school system and the teachers that most of them, my brother included, dropped out of high school. As a parent of a child with Autism though, who is blessed to be in a great school system, I rely on those dedicated and hardworking teachers to help my son thrive. They have and now he’s getting ready for high school.

    I love to learn new things and I value education (well, a good education) but I HATE that starting in the third grade, half the school year is spent teaching kids things that are on a stupid test. Why is this state testing necessary? Because the government decided that in order to keep funding our schools, they would only fund the schools whose students did well on this test. There are so many drawbacks to that that I won’t go into it too much but it’s one of the biggest reasons why our inner city schools are suffering so much. They only fund the schools whose kids are doing well while leaving those who really need the help by the wayside. That’s not what free public education is supposed to be about. That’s not what it was designed for.

    I do believe the whole education system needs a reboot but I don’t believe that we should do away with school altogether. Our schools are important as are our teachers. The problem is our teachers aren’t being given the leeway to teach the kids they best way they know how. They know how each student learns and that each one learns differently. Though I would love to see home-ec make a comeback. I had home-ec in school and loved it. They are way too focused on academics now. There needs to be a middle ground but our government is too busy trying to compete with other countries like Japan. So much so, that the American education system has been rated as that of a third world education. How sad is that? Sorry for the long comment. Popping over from #momsterlink

    Liked by 1 person

  12. your post has really opened up my eye a bit. I have to agree with you on most points. Some days i wish we could just go back to the olden days when we weren’t so controlled by everything and everyone. These days kids are being taught in schools things that they will never use in the real world. #momsterslink

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you are exactly right. I was just complaining to my husband the other day that this country doesn’t feel very free considering how there are regulations for every little things. And as for learning things they’ll never use- I’ve not once had to use trig or college algebra in my adult life (and it’s a good thing because I barely remember any of it! what a waste of time…)


  13. Fantastic thought provoking post! I think compulsory school is fantastic for exposing children to these subjects so they can explore what they excel in. However as I approached 16 years old, I wished there were more practical apprenticeships available for me as it took me a while to find my vocation. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next Sunday xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Although I personally loved school, I’ve realized that I barely remember a single thing that I learned. I remember more from what I picked up just by living in the real world! And, yes, there should DEFINITELY be more apprenticeship opportunities available. Everyone’s jumped on hte college bandwagon and has forgotten that hands-on learning can be far more useful. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I re-read this post a couple of times, it’s a fantastic insight into education. My 87 year old dad hated school and left at 13/14 which you could do back in those days. He went and got a job on a farm and loved it. He’s done well in life, can read write and add up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was very common for kids to only go to school until that age in the past. If you look at an 8th grade school book from those days, it would be hte equivalent to modern day college courses. It’s very sad how things have been dumbed down so tremendously.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I highly recommend you read anything by John Taylor Gatto. He’s a former NYC and NY state teacher of the year who ended up quitting teaching because he said that he was no longer willing to hurt children. His books changed my views on public schools drastically.


  15. I completely agree with you. It’s scary how our education system is dumbing everyone down to the point no one questions things or feels they can even do anything about it. But there are other consequences too with our education system. Hours spent in the classroom are affecting our children negatively in a physical and mental way as well. ADD/ADHD diagnosis is on the rise because kids no longer have physical outlets to run around and play. Mentally because most kids are expected to perform academically at levels they are developmentally not ready for. All leading to overmedicationof these little bodies. Not to mention creativity is being shut down with the lack of unstructured play allowing for them to come up with their own things. Plus many toys today don’t facilitate imagination anymore either. If they can’t develop creativity in childhood, where will innovation come from in their adulthood? The trickle down effects of our education system is scary. And it’s scarier how society blindly accepts it.

    Have you ever read The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never read that, but I have read just about everything written by John Taylor Gatto and John Holt, which focus on the same themes as what you wrote about. They’ve had a very strong influence about how I view learning, which is pretty much the same as you seem to. If you would take a look at some other posts I’ve written, I do focus quite a bit on natural learning, labeling kids, and how school has completely stifled the imagination. I will definitely have to look for the book you suggested. Thanks!


  16. I know ive just said this on your other post – but I really do believe that learning through real life experiences is the best way. I think it’s a good thing that all children have to go to school – mainly because there are too many who would fall through the net otherwise and end up having poor life chances….but i think there are too many restictions on HOW teachers are allowed to teach, the time they are given to do it and the budget they have to keep within. Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next Sunday

    Liked by 1 person

  17. My husband and I were discussing this very topic the other night. Some of the subjects in high school are totally useless in the real world. Like why aren’t there classes that teach you how to purchase a home without getting raped in interest rates or how to build your credit without getting into major debt. Or how about HOW TO DO YOUR TAXES? All things that we need to know in life. Thank you for sharing this with #momsterslink.

    Liked by 1 person

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