Compulsory Education Not Anarchistic.

Compulsory Education Not Anarchistic.

[Liberty, August 6, 1892.]

A public school teacher of my acquaintance, much interested in Anarchism and almost a convert thereto, finds himself under the necessity of considering the question of compulsory education from a new standpoint, and is puzzled by it. In his quandry he submits to me the following questions:(40 ¶ 1)

  1. If a parent starves, tortures, or mutilates his child, thus actively aggressing upon it to its injury, is it just for other members of the group to interfere to prevent such aggression?(40 ¶ 2)

  2. If a parent neglects to provide food, shelter, and clothing for his child, thus neglecting the self-sacrifice implied by the second corollary of the law of equal freedom, is it just for other members of the group to interfere to compel him so to provide?(40 ¶ 3)

  3. If a parent wilfully aims to prevent his child from reaching mental or moral, without regard to physical, maturity, is it just for other members of the group to interfere to prevent such aggression?(40 ¶ 4)

  4. If a parent neglects to provide opportunity for the child to reach mental maturity,—assuming that mental maturity can be defined,—is it just for other members of the group to interfere to compel him so to provide?(40 ¶ 5)

  5. If it be granted that a knowledge of reading and writing—i.e., of making and interpreting permanent signs of thought—is a necessary function of maturity, and if a parent neglects and refuses to provide or accept opportunity for his child to learn to read and write, is it just for other members of the group to interfere to compel the parent so to provide or accept?(40 ¶ 6)

Before any of these questions can be answered with a straight yes or no, it must first be ascertained whether the hypothetical parent violates, by his hypothetical conduct, the equal freedom, not of his child, but of other members of society. Not of his child, I say; why? Because, the parent being an independent, responsible individual, and the child being a dependent, irresponsible individual, it is obviously inequitable and virtually impossible that equal freedom should characterize the relations between them. In this child, however, who is one day to pass from the condition of dependence and irresponsibility to the condition of independence and responsibility, the other members of society have an interest, and out of this consideration the question at once arises whether the parent who impairs the conditions of this child’s development thereby violates the equal freedom of those mature individuals whom this development unquestionably affects.(40 ¶ 7)

Now it has been frequently pointed out in Liberty, in discussing the nature of invasion, that there are certain acts which all see clearly as invasive and certain other acts which all see clearly as non-invasive, and that these two classes comprise vastly the larger part of human conduct, but that they are separated from each other, not by a hard and fast line, but by a strip of dark and doubtful territory, which shades off in either direction into the regions of light and clearness by an imperceptible gradation. In this strip of greater or less obscurity are included that minority of human actions which give rise to most of our political differences, and in the thick of its Cimmerian centre we find the conduct of parent toward child.(40 ¶ 8)

We cannot, then, clearly identify the maltreatment of child by parent as either invasive or non-invasive of the liberty of third parties. In such a difficulty we must have recourse to the policy presented by Anarchism for doubtful cases. As I cannot state this policy better than I have stated it already, I quote my own words from Liberty, No. 154:(40 ¶ 9)

Then liberty always, say the Anarchists. No use of force, except against the invader; and in those cases where it is difficult to tell whether the alleged offender is an invader or not, still no use of force except where the necessity of immediate solution is so imperative that we must use it to save ourselves. And in these few cases where we must use it, let us do so frankly and squarely, acknowledging it as a matter of necessity, without seeking to harmonize our action with any political ideal or constructing any far-fetched theory of a State or collectivity having prerogatives and rights superior to those of individuals and aggregations of individuals and exempted from the operation of the ethical principles which individuals are expected to observe.(40 ¶ 10)

In other words, those of us who believe that liberty is the great educator, the mother of order, will, in case of doubt, give the benefit to liberty, or non-interference, unless it is plain that non-interference will result in certain and immediate disaster, if not irretrievable, at any rate too grievous to be borne.(40 ¶ 11)

Applying this rule to the subject under discussion, it is evident at once that mental and moral maltreatment of children, since its effects are more or less remote, should not be met with physical force, but that physical maltreatment, if sufficiently serious, may be so met.(40 ¶ 12)

In specific answer to my questioner, I would say that, if he insists on the form of his questions, Is it just? etc., I cannot answer them at all, because it is impossible for me to decide whether interference is just unless I can first decide whether or no there has already been invasion. But if, instead of Is it just? he should ask in each case, Is it Anarchistic policy? I would then make reply as follows:(40 ¶ 13)

  1. Yes.(40 ¶ 14)

  2. Yes, in sufficiently serious cases.(40 ¶ 15)

  3. No.(40 ¶ 16)

  4. No.(40 ¶ 17)

  5. No.(40 ¶ 18)