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Let the Children Work

Compulsory education and child labor laws only serve to perpetuate an inhumane system.

It has often occurred to me that the only reason I was not doped up on a cocktail of amphetamines from an early age like many of my peers is that my mother has always hated medication as a rule. (She would later join in on the essential oils craze.) The less resistant parents of young boys who would not sit still in class simply acquiesced to the cultural pressure to drug their kids into guardrailed productivity.

This is the stuff of memes now—so common and inviolably routine that we can meet it only with the pessimistic humor of a generation brought up in decline: If you won’t submit to the ordained program of the pedagogical commissars (something no normal adolescent boy would do), then all you need is a daily dose of meth. Hilarious, right?

But underneath the cynical comedy is an obvious sign of the unnaturality of the prevailing order: Man was not made for this.

That’s a broad statement about modernity, to be certain. The technological society is, in the most fundamental sense, inhuman; in nearly every observable aspect, the late-modern world of the Machine runs contrary to, or actively undermines, the true nature of man. Resolution of this problem—the reconstruction of humane civilization—would be a long and taxing project, requiring a near-complete overhaul of prevailing political systems. But there are measures to be taken that stop far short of revolution: first and foremost, to deconstruct the one machine that powers all the others.

Why do we have compulsory education in the first place? The real answer, as with all the evils of modernity, is Martin Luther. The “beast of the waste wood,” in Hopkins’ eternal phrase, was among the earliest Western advocates of forced schooling because he saw universal literacy as a vital way to undermine traditional means of knowledge transfer and traditional seats of authority as it, at first, related to individual access to the Bible. So it was that Germany (O Deutschland, double a desperate name! / O world wide of its good!) saw some of the first schooling mandates in the early modern era, which then spread to the rest of Protestant Europe and to the Puritan colonies of New England.

It was not until the late 19th century, as industrialization and the modern state consummated their conquest of human society, that the trends of formal, universal, and compulsory education really kicked into gear. By 1922, each of the United States had a law on the books requiring the education of children either in government-run schools or according to governmental guidelines.

Economically, the transition was disastrous—not necessarily quantitatively speaking, but in terms of proper economics: that is, the ordering of material conditions toward human flourishing. Following the execution of a project whose professed goal was the elevation of all to the condition worthy of citizens, human life and society have only become more systematized, and power and wealth have concentrated in the hands of a corrupt and entirely unaccountable few. It would, of course, be incorrect to speak of forced education as the cause of this disorder; it is merely a means for its preservation and a catalyst for its accelerated progress.

One of the most original and incisive critics of mandatory schooling was the Roman Catholic priest and anarchish social philosopher Ivan Illich. In some respects a perverse social liberal, Illich was in others a trenchant and insightful prophet against modernity, especially concerning the dehumanizing tendencies of modern institutions. A key aspect of Illich’s argument, first laid out in Deschooling Society (1971) was that the institutionalization of education aids in the institutionalization of society writ large. From the age of five through at least the age of 16, American children are systematically integrated into an order that is itself always integrating further, always expanding the bounds of its control. Progressivism, leftism, modernism—whatever word we use for it—begins in schools not because teachers happen to be liberals, but because it is in the very nature of education as we know it.

In addition to being dehumanizing, totalizing, and unnatural—or perhaps as a result of it—modern, institutionalized education cannot even be called a success according to its own standards. A hundred odd years on, the experiment of corralling children in the classroom is an obvious and abject failure. Especially among demographics whom government-mandated and funded schooling is most meant to aid, few positive results can be seen and a bevy of available metrics indicate that forced schooling simply doesn’t work. We have dumped billions of dollars, trillions of hours, and millions of childhoods into a system that produces employees for Jeff Bezos and voters for Joe Biden who, if they are lucky, can at least do long division.

Again, this is not a problem to be solved with mere tinkering. The simple truth of the matter is that the vast majority of children do not belong in a classroom. What should they be doing then?

Well, why not work?

Of course, at the mere suggestion, modern minds both left and right recoil in judgmental horror. This is the predictable response of a society so dominated by capital and its discontents that we cannot conceive of work as anything other than exploitation. But what I mean here is not a return to the sweatshops of the 19th century, which are vastly more inhumane but every bit as modern as the current system. (Contemporary education, after all, is the reduction of human development to mere technique, in the meaning ascribed to that term by another eminent Christian anarch, Jacques Ellul.)

What I propose instead is that, rather than subjecting them to a 12-year torrent of mostly useless information that will leave their heads as soon as they leave school, parents should be allowed to raise their children as the vast majority of children were raised for the vast majority of human history. The reigning system is designed to integrate upward, but a humane deschooling would foster downward integration: reintegration from an early age into the life of the family and the tangible community.

Actual work, as opposed to the regiment of schoolwork and the regimented wage work it feeds into, is a kind of education in itself—a truer and more dignified kind that can teach the young to live according to the natural rhythms of human life and in productive relation to the world they inhabit. Instead of sitting doped up at a desk under fluorescent lights in eight-hour intervals—good practice, admittedly, for the life it’s meant to lead to—adolescent boys should be allowed to spend their time tilling land or plying a trade; apprenticing themselves to craftsmen not once they graduate, or turn 16 and are permitted to leave, but early on before the vigor of youth has been sucked out of them in the schoolhouse. There is always time for reading in the evenings.

I certainly wish that the first 18 years of my own life had not been largely wasted in compliance with the irrational mandates of the state. It is too late for me, but it may not be too late for us. If the only viable strategy for reactionaries and conservatives is withdrawal (and it looks like it is) then we have to really commit. There is a point of no return, and it must be fast approaching. Slowing down is something, but what we really need is to get off the road altogether.

Call it the Leary Option: a radical separation from modernity at the source. Leave the schools, find value and meaning in community and activity rather than in manufactured and mostly pointless curricula, and seek the good life through means quite different from the ones that have been drilled into your head.

Or, in the immortal words of my ill-reputed namesake: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

about the author

Declan Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative. He was previously an editorial intern at National Review and a frequent contributor to such publications as National Review Online and Crisis Magazine.

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