Between 1852 and 1918 all states and territories in the United States enacted compulsory school attendance laws. That children should be educated was a compulsory mandate in all state and territorial constitutions, but such proclamations said nothing about attendance at schools. Compulsory school attendance laws passed during the latter half of the nineteenth century represented more than the cessation of voluntary schooling; they formalized a significant broadening of state authority and its assumption of responsibility for the education of children.
The passage of compulsory school attendance legislation in the United States must be viewed as both a philosophical issue and a historical event. As a philosophical issue, the enactment of these laws reflected the demographic, economic, and cultural forces that were transforming nineteenth-century America. Opposition to compulsory attendance was defended by claims that such legislation would begin a decline in those values that distinguished the United States from the historical legacy of Europe. Such legislation would invite political intrusion into local communities and under-mine traditional parental authority. Yet opposition could be quickly reversed on similar philosophical grounds. Passing compulsory school attendance would signify the benign role of the state, aligning it against sectarian and class divisions. In this view, compulsory school attendance was a means to a moral goal, for universal schooling best fit the emerging image of the nation as an organic unity that superceded particular groups or localities.
When viewed as a historical event, the timing of the enactment of compulsory schooling helps to explain much of the philosophical debate itself. A comparison of Western societies demonstrates that state enactment of compulsory schooling is not explained by economic factors, such as level of industrialization or urbanization. Some countries implemented compulsory schooling well before industrializing. The earliest state to do so, Prussia, illustrates the noneconomic motive behind enacting compulsory schooling. Enacting compulsory schooling was a means to reinvigorate national solidarity in a context where traditional, external modes of authority were weakening. Compulsory schooling was a form of nation-building, foreshadowing the larger historical movement to broaden the rights of individuals as citizens and linking this to an expanded moral jurisdiction of state authority. In contrast, England, a comparative late-comer to compulsory schooling, enacted its Elementary Education Act of 1870, well after taking the lead in inaugurating industrialization. Yet, like Prussia, a weak showing at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 signaled a threat to its international stature, in turn challenging traditional means of authority and technical training. The prompt to reinvigorate national solidarity fueled a sense of urgency and thereby gave legitimacy to an extension of state authority over universal primary education.
The comparison of Prussia and England is instructive for the American states. State variation in the timing of enactment was likewise weakly connected to economic factors. Rather, the timing of enactment must be viewed within the broader context of national formation. Most northern and western states and territories enacted compulsory schooling as part of a sequence of institutional formation, passing the law only after they had established the state reform school, the state lunatic asylum, and the state hospital for the deaf and blind. For these states, compulsory school attendance legislation was concrete evidence of their institutional strength; for young territories it was a symbol of their wish to obtain statehood. For both, the enactment of compulsory schooling laws had little to do with compelling attendance. Southern states, by contrast, enacted compulsory school attendance laws after 1900, and did so reluctantly. A planter class fearful of elevating the educational aspirations of exslaves and poor whites, whose labor was critical to an agrarian, plantation economy, effectively resisted the extension of universal public education. For these states, compulsory schooling symbolized the reverse of what it meant to their northern and western counterparts: it signaled a threat to the traditional means of social control, which the planter class sought to maintain in a racially divided form.
The passage of compulsory attendance laws in the American states had little to do with compelling school attendance, for school attendance was already high. To seek the reasons for their enactment in the requirements of an industrial economy is as misplaced as to seek their effects in expanding enrollment. Under such scrutiny, the laws may be seen as failures. Yet by legally positing universal schooling as a common goal, the laws helped to structure the social and legal categories of childhood and ADOLESCENCE that have become integral to American culture generally and to the organization of American education in particular.
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JOHN G. RICHARDSON