The Ethics of Compulsory Education — And Public Schooling Too — With Crispin Sartwell

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Crispin Sartwell (Dickinson College) returns to Sophia to talk about the issues he has with compulsory, state-sponsored k-12 education.

10:50 – Crispin’s schooling experience in Washington DC 20:20 – The tension between learning and compulsion / Formal Compulsion and oppressive atmospheres 25:50 – Compulsion of minors considered more generally 32:20 – What, specifically, is wrong with the fact that my 10-year-old had to go to school? Economic motives; interference by tech moguls; and elitist social engineering. 35:50 – Preparing young people so they can function in the economy. And what would my ten-year-old be doing, if not going to school? 45:50 – Compulsory vaccination for children and more generally. 48:30 – Serious flaws in the way we educate children and adolescents. The negative influence of social and psychological science and pharmacology. 54:30 – Preparing young people for a world in which being coerced and compelled is part of life. 58:50 – Compulsory and public education and equality.


43 responses to “The Ethics of Compulsory Education — And Public Schooling Too — With Crispin Sartwell”

  1. A quick comment on the introductory discussion (about morality). It has long seemed to me that ethical theories are not very useful in dealing with actual ethical questions that arise in life.

  2. I’m still listening, so this is an early comment on what I have heard thus far.

    Personally, I got a lot out of school. And that it was compelled was never an issue for me. However, in some ways, I partly agree with Crispin.

    I grew up in Australia (South Perth). School, at that time, was compulsory only to age 14. At the time, this seemed reasonable. It is certainly true that some children found schooling to be oppressive. And this was more so in the later grades. They children who found it oppressive often became trouble makers in class, and spoiled things for the other students. So I thought it was a good thing to allow them to leave school at age 14. The social norms, at that time, were that children who left at age 14 were expected to get a job or an apprenticeship. In many cases, those who felt oppressed at school did better at on-the-job training programs.

    One of the problems with our current education system, is that it is too much of a “one size fits all”.

  3. s. wallerstein

    First, sorry about the hard time you are going through, Dan. All my solidarity.

    I would not expect academic moral philosophy to be of any help in life’s complicated moments (and I’ve gone through several): it’s too academic and conventional. Philosophers whose ethical reflections have aided me in complicated moments are Simone de Beauvoir (her book on ageing and her 4 volume memoirs), scattered insights from Nietzsche and also from Schopenhauer (more from his Parerga and Paralipomena than from his The World as Will and Representation). By “ethics” I refer to reflections on how to live a good life, not a set of rules or prohibitions.

    I have no problem with compulsory education, but they should offer more options to students. By the time I reached high school I already knew that science did not turn me on and I remember nothing from my science courses. I studied fairly advanced math, got good grades, but it meant nothing to me and I don’t even recall what trigonomy is about. On the other hand, I recall almost the exact words of my European history teacher about several topics and I still use many of the categories I learned from him 60 years ago.

    So why can’t a high school student like me, with zero interest in math and sciences, specialize in the humanities? I would have loved an introductory philosophy course (which was not available) at that age and more literature courses with less 19th century English and American literature (especially less Dickens) and more continental writers, Tolstoy,
    Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal and more 20th century literature in general (that may have been rectified by now, since I studied in the early 60′).

  4. It is very common for people in college to change their minds about majors/careers several times. I changed three times in college.

    My daughter was convinced that vocal performance was what she wanted to study in school and pursue as a career. After one year she changed her mind. Had she not been required to be educated across the curriculum as a child and adolescent, her ability to change now would be severely limited. Not just for lack of the relevant skills but because of the lack of the relevant record of coursework in areas that at the university require prerequisites.

  5. s. wallerstein

    First of all, do people often change from the sciences to the humanities? When I entered college, I didn’t know what I would major it. But all of my options were in the humanities.

    Second, as Crispin points out, let young people take responsibility for their lives. I’m not talking about a 5 year old, but I do believe that a 15 or 16 year old can decide whether they need or want to study math with the awareness that they are limiting their career oportunities.

    After all, in some societies, for example, Chile, there is talk about lowering the voting age to 16.

  6. This really doesn’t address my point at all. My daughter would be worse off now, at college, if we’d done what you and Crispin suggest. Substantially worse off.

  7. And I would add that she actually was much less reasonable at 16 than 12. I had to exercise more authority over her, not less.

  8. s. wallerstein

    I didn’t suggest that kids should be obliged not to take math or to specialize in some area in high school. Merely that they should have that option.

    We all make lots of mistakes in life, all the time, marry the wrong person, buy the wrong apartment, buy the wrong stocks, chose the wrong career, trust the wrong friend. That’s what life is all about. But I believe that we should give 15 or 16 year old persons the right to make their own mistakes.

  9. I disagree strongly. Not in the abstract, but with regard to this issue. And young people today are far less mature than their counterparts forty years ago, not more. I have very much been opposed to the trends in parenting and schooling that have led to this, but it is the reality nonetheless.

  10. s. wallerstein

    As you probably know, Jonathan Haidt talks a lot about why this generation is so fragile, one reason being that they were not raised to take risks, responsabilities and accept the consequences.

    If Haidt is correct, wouldn’t one way to counter that fragility be to expose them to risks and responsibilites such as the risk of chosing the “wrong” academic option at age 18?

    By the way, if you were in high school 40 years ago, I was there 60 years ago and so to a certain extent when I speak of high school, I speak of my experience as someone who was raised to be responsible for his choices from a very early age as were most kids of my generation. I’m closer in age to your father who was a soldier at age 15 than to you.

  11. Not without substantial changes not just in schooling but society-wide, none of which are going to be made. Indeed, everything is going in the direction of greater and greater immaturity.

    I have long been protesting the changes in parenting and schooling over the last 30 or so years that have brought us the least capable, least able to cope, most mentally ill generation of young people in the country’s history. But now that’s it’s been done, you can’t just take those kids, chuck them in the proverbial pool and say “swim!”

    The reference to your generation and my father’s is completely inapt. No comparison to young people today, in the US.

    Others can sacrifice their children. I won’t sacrifice mine. Victoria gets one chance at all of this, and I am going to make sure she has the best possibility of succeeding.

  12. s. wallerstein

    What is your daughter studying now?

  13. She went to Indiana’s Jacobs School of Music to study vocal performance. After a year, she changed her mind and is now pursuing public relations and journalism.

  14. s. wallerstein

    Great. I’m sure she’ll do well. No doubt she inherited some of her father’s communicative skills.

  15. If she stays with it. She may change her mind again. I changed mine 2 or 3 times in the 4 years I was at Michigan. Thank goodness I’d been made to have a well-rounded education as a kid/adolescent.

  16. “she actually was much less reasonable at 16 than 12” – yeah, that’s why they call them “teen-agers” – ‘Truly Enlightened on Everything Now And Grown-ups Ever Retarded Shit.’ They don’t mature until the mid-20s (or at least I know I didn’t).

  17. Peter Smith

    I think this is a really important subject worth exploring in a lot of detail. For now I am just trying to organize my thoughts. I like to think in terms of causes, going beyond the symptomatic but that is a process that needs time.

    But for now I would like to compliment Dan on the way he conducted the interview. It was a fair minded, thoughful exploration of Crispin’s viewpoint, contrasted with Dan’s viewpoint. Very useful and enjoyable. And it is so relevant to all of us who are or would be parents.

    And now to nitpick. I think you guys should pay more attention to production quality, attending to things like lighting, background, props, image resolution, focus, audio, etc. But that is probably just me. I have noted how more and more ordinary individuals on Youtube are making very slick productions. Increasingly you will be judged by these emerging standards of production quality.

    Finally, and this is quite important. We need to supress as much as possible the urge to touch our faces. This is the last barrier to the spread of Covid-19. Public figures need to set the example.

  18. Peter Smith

    that’s why they call them “teen-agers” – ‘Truly Enlightened on Everything Now And Grown-ups Ever Retarded Shit.’

    Hah, I have found a reason to agree with you.
    But, to be fair that does not describe my two teenaged grandchildren. Although my 14 year old granddaughter does have her Woke Certificate. How did that happen under my nose?

  19. People can judge away. I do this because I enjoy it. I think the production quality is more than sufficient for something that is entirely free. And I’m happy with whatever level of audience we have. I could care less whether we are popular.

  20. Peter Smith

    People can judge away. … I could care less whether we are popular

    The previous paragraph was written in a generous and laudatory manner, showing genuine admiration. You should read what I said in the next paragraph in the same spirit, as being helpful opinion.

  21. I wasn’t criticizing you. Just explaining my motivations.

  22. I am quite conflicted about many of the issues discussed here, particularly on the question of individual freedom and authority. But I agree with Dan that with respect to children, parental and other kinds of authority are crucially important. And it is tragic when that authority is abused.

    No doubt inherited personality traits come into it also, but what experiences (I wonder) make people (like Crispin Sartwell or the dyed-in-the-wool rebels I remember from my high school years who made similar arguments to his) rebellious and pushes them to anarchism? Rather than arguing against positions like this, I want to understand the basic causes/motivations. Is it that they have experienced abusive authority as children? (CS’s high school experience would fit the bill.) Or (what I would judge to be) too much freedom? Or a combination of these?

    (I am not talking here about the natural, *personal* rebelliousness that probably most of us feel as we begin to transition to adulthood.)

  23. This was frustrating to listen to, and I had to turn it off about half way through. Crispin obviously hasn’t thought through his position very deeply, judging by the motte and bailey act he was doing.

  24. Sorry about that. I tried to press him as much as I could.

  25. Peter Smith

    The bottom line is simple and uncontroversional

    A) Infants lack all autonomy
    B) Young adults have full autonomy

    There is a transition between A and B where the child progressively gains greater autonomy. In this time:

    1) The child is prepared to assume an autonomous role in society.
    2) The parents learn to gradually relinquish control.
    3) The child experiences increasing need to exercise power
    2.1 over his own life;
    2.2 he then experiences the need to extend his power into society;
    2.3 finally he exercises power over his parents, who relinquish their own power to the child(in later years, as Dan is experiencing).
    4. The child is subjected to pressures from society that powerfully form his expectations.
    5. The parent is subjected to strong pressures from society that form the manner is which they prepare the child for autonomy.

    All of this is quite natural, normal and inevitable. But timing matters and that is what lies at the heart of the debate. And the process can become malformed and toxic at any or all five of these stages. I maintain it has become toxic at all five stages. The details can come later.

    Crispin is arguing that children be given increased autonomy at an earlier stage of the transition between A and B while Dan is arguing for the traditional idea of only limited autonomy with fuller autonomy coming late in the transition between A and B.

    Who is right? Crispin is essentially basing his argument on unhappy personal experiences. But that is a poor evidentiary basis for important policy decisions. I could just as easily point to my happy experiences of strict education in an English public school with a harsh disciplinary regime. Just-so stories don’t cut it and there are a few of them in the comments. We need a better basis for argumentation. Dan seems to be heavily influenced by his teaching experience. I think such experience carries a lot of weight.

    There is a good evidentiary basis for thinking things are going badly wrong. See for example this article is it about 20-somethings?)
    Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?

    This question pops up everywhere, underlying concerns about “failure to launch” and “boomerang kids.”

    or, see for example, Chistian Smith’s book – Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

  26. Absolutely right. Couldn’t have said it better.

  27. Azin

    The day of the traditional society is long gone. No longer is the difference between adult and child merely size differential. The boy became a male in his father’s footsteps as did the girl in her mother’s. Fisherman,, hunter or food gatherer and nurturer respectively. Adolescents was not even a concept until later more complicated times brought about by increased population densities, specialization , greater commerce and industrialization and more complex social and political governance.

    It is now highly desirable if not mandatory that children be well rounded and socialized in a world of greater complexity and heterogeneity so they can function with some semblance of knowledge and group cohesion in multi ethnic and international cooperation. Democracy demands an educated and well informed populace to function effectively. Yes, I know, doesn’t look like we are succeeding admirably on this score but, I assume it would be even worse without a mandatory multi disciplined curriculum. We may not remember any specific fact of math, chemistry or history but, I believe a general socialization and diffuse knowledge base is absorbed and present throughout life. Call it domesticating the beast, if you like.

    I am of course talking in broad generalities and one can question if we are going about any of this in the best possible way. No doubt new schemata is needed but, till then, it is what we have and for the practical purposes that Dan mentioned, mandatory schooling should be considered essential for the sake of society and the individual child.

  28. Peter Smith

    I said earlier that there are five stages of interest in the progression of a child from

    A. dependent infancy
    B. autonomous adulthood

    They are:

    1) The child is prepared to assume an autonomous role in society.
    2) The parents learn to gradually relinquish control.
    3) The child experiences increasing need to exercise power
    4) The child is subjected to pressures from society that powerfully form his expectations.
    5) The parent is subjected to strong pressures from society that form the manner is which they prepare the child for autonomy.

    I think there is one issue that is crucial to all of this, and that is 5) The parent is subjected to strong pressures from society. This skews parenting which in turn affects everything else. To be quite clear here, I am blaming the parents, which means I must also accept blame. Let me explain further.

    In the language of parenting and schooling, student absenteesim is quite prominent. It is the sin that must at all costs be avoided or reduced. We penalize the student and we penalize the parents.

    But we are hypocrites about absenteeism because we, the parents, are far more guilty of absenteeism. Parent absenteeism is the single biggest factor that lies at the root of all the problems. It is not the only problem but it is the first one. For you to understand my observation I need to explain

    1) What parent absenteeism is,
    2) Why it is so harmful.

    1) Parent absenteeism.
    Parents started to become absent when TV first invaded their homes. The most important and enticing shows took place between 5pm and 9pm, creating an immediate competition for attention and children lost that competition. Parents wanted to watch the talk shows, game shows, comedies, newsreels, etc, devoting more and more time to it. Meals were eaten on trays while watching TV. Conversation dried up to intermittent remarks between programs and within adverts(bad news for advertisers). Conversational skills atrophied. The dining room table was now mainly used for a hurried breakfast. They became absentee parents. This was a process that was intensified by the Internet, social media and Netflix to such an extent that they were no longer absentee parents but could now be classified as AWOL or MIA.

    2) Why is it so harmful?
    2.1 Children were deprived of the conversation and attention of their parents.
    2.2 Denied that attention, affirmation and validation they sought it from their peers and other societal influences.
    2.3 This made the children subject to toxic values and expectations beyond the knowledge and control of the parents.
    2.4 Most importantly, the children were denied the formative power of parent and family narratives. These narratives are central to the formation of the child’s values and expectations.
    2.5 This was accomanied by a steep decline in reading of novels, biographies, historical accounts and poetry, first by the parents, and then by the children who quite naturally followed their example.
    2.6 Literature is one of the most powerful inputs for forming the mind.
    2.7 Reading is now known to thicken the corpus callosum which is vital for both physical coordination and processing compicated thought patterns. See especially Joseph Henrich, The Weidest People in the World.

    In the prelude to his book, Henrichs says

    Your brain has been altered, neurologically rewired as it acquired a skill that your society greatly values. Until recently, this skill was of little or no use and most people in most societies never acquired it. In developing this ability, you have:

    1. Specialized an area of your brain’s left ventral occipito-temporal region, which lies between your language, object, and face processing centers.
    2. Thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.
    3. Altered the part of your prefrontal cortex that is involved in language production (Broca’s area) as well as other brain areas engaged in a variety of neurological tasks, including both speech processing and thinking about others’ minds.
    4. Improved your verbal memory and broadened your brain’s activation when processing speech.
    5. Shifted your facial recognition processing to the right hemisphere. Normal humans (not you) process faces almost equally on the left and right sides of their brains, but those with your peculiar skill are biased toward the right hemisphere.2
    6. Diminished your ability to identify faces, probably because while jury-rigging your left ventral occipito-temporal region, you impinged on an area that usually specializes in facial recognition.
    7. Reduced your default tendency toward holistic visual processing in favor of more analytical processing. You now rely more on breaking scenes and objects down into their component parts and less on broad configurations and gestalt patterns.

    What is this mental ability? What capacity could have renovated your brain, endowing you with new, specialized skills as well as inducing specific cognitive deficits?

    The exotic mental ability is reading. You are likely highly literate.

    With the decline in reading we are losing crucial capabilities in our children. This is the second penalty of parent absenteeism, the first one being the abdication of the formative power of family narratives..

  29. s. wallerstein


    You idealize family life.

    There are families where it would be better for everyone if they ate dinner each answering their own email instead of trying to converse.

    My family never watched TV at dinner time. Rather we ate accompanied by my father’s physical and verbal violence directed towards my sister and myself. Dinner time was traumatic for both of us, to the extent that neither of us eat the same type of food as our parents did.

    Families are not always harmonious and in fact, most violence occurs in the home. No sermons or good advice is going to change that.

  30. Peter Smith

    Hi SW,
    sadly some families are prone to violence and many people are left scarred by that. But family units remain core to society. And it remains true that they are the incubators for the child and adolescent. From these incubators emerge the young adult. There is no other functional mechanism. If young adults emerge from these incubators with problems, we must look to the incubators, in the first place, to understand these problems.

    Indirectly you have confirmed the problem of absentee parents. There are other forms of absenteeism such as divorce, separation, emotional estrangement, neglect and violence.

    Our society is violent and that violence will be manifested throughout our social institutions. That violence shows in a myriad of ways.

  31. A counterexample is not a confirmation.

  32. s. wallerstein

    Hi Peter,

    The family broke down and continues to break down because, among other reasons, it isn’t all that idylic in the first place.

    People, with bad families, look for decent human relations elsewhere. That is not possible in traditional societies where outside of the family one is no one and where women outside of the patriarchal family are considered “sluts” and “easy game”, but as traditional social norms lose their hegemony, people have the possibility to search for relationships which enable them to grow as human beings, to flourish, to feel good about themselvs and about others near them, in society as a whole. Some people find those relationships; others don’t, but for many of us that search is the most important component of our lives.

    Families are often bad because we human beings are pretty fucked up creatures. I don’t see what can be done about that on a large scale. Sure, improve education, but that only goes so far. I even admit that religion can help some people grow into more caring human beings, but the empirical evidence of thousands of years of religion shows that religion can also turn them into fanatical killers and heresy-hunters. So as the title of the play says, no exit.

  33. Peter Smith:

    “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man; and, therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.” (Francis Bacon)

    Reading is a good thing as long as the sieving action of critical awareness is there to riddle out the memes, lies, and partisan rubbish presented by print media. I include literary productions in this stricture also, particularly biography that comes loaded with a merry agenda.

    The thing that’s missing in schools where it once was a part of the curriculum is what the Americans call shop. You can’t be letting Rasheed La and Clytemanestra run around with grinders and sharp chisels, the insurance premium would be staggering so it’s left out or studied in the abstract. This is a universal problem. Engaging physically with the world is essential for the ‘knowledge workers’ in particular who bleed for the proletariat but have never raised a blister. Nobody is too awkward to use a spade but yes there is a correct way. “We must cultivate our garden” said Voltaire which also means actual gardening.

    If its not being done in the schools parents must do it. Learn something and pass it on. Can you sharpen a knife by hand? I taught my son in 15 minutes and you don’t need an expensive stone, the bottom of a cup will do.

    There’s emotional bonding too but we don’t talk about that. We use glue for bonding.

  34. Peter Smith

    Hi SW,
    The family broke down and continues to break down…People, with bad families…Families are often bad

    Yes, it happens. On the other hand there are a great many good families. In my parish church we often celebrate long lived marriages and it is always an occasion for rejoicing when a couple reach the 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 or 60 years mark or somewhere in between.

    But this is about children. The question is about the best environment for nurturing children during the progression from dependency to autonomy and what needs to be present to make that environment optimum.

    The natural unit for performing this task would seem to be the family. With your criticisms of the family you seem to be questioning this assumption.

    Is that the case? If so, what realistic, practical alternative is there? What would you propose?

    And if you don’t propose to replace this institution, how would you go about improving it?

    These are serious questions, designed to take the discussion beyond criticism into the realm of understanding.

  35. Peter Smith

    Hi OMB,
    Reading is a good thing as long as the sieving action of critical awareness is there

    I believe that extensive reading of a wide range of material develops this faculty.

    The thing that’s missing in schools where it once was a part of the curriculum is what the Americans call shop.

    I agree with you completely. Two years ago the head of surgery at a major London university complained that his surgery students were severely lacking in the tactile, manipulative skills required for surgery. He put this down to the decline in crafts hobbies among children and adolescents.

  36. Peter Smith

    Hi OMB,
    …in particular who bleed for the proletariat but have never raised a blister.

    I loved this comment. It is indicative of the extraordinary hypocrisy which pervades American faux liberalism, with their Woke wing fixation on their genitals.

  37. s. wallerstein


    There are no magic solutions.

    We should all pay more attention to children in families around us. There’s the erroneous idea that children “belong” to their parents and because of that, many of us are wary about getting involved with the children of other families. In addition, this is a hysteria about child molesting and most of us fear that if we approach children, we could unjustly be accused of being pedophiles.

    However, many times an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a neighbor, a school teacher can play an important role in the life of a child who does not receive the right type of attention at home.

    More free preschool programs should be made available so that kids, from a very young age, have the opportunity to get out of often toxic family networks. In one Santiago municipality (what is called “Santiago” on your map is actually made up of scores of independent municipalites) the mayor has the schools stay open until 10 PM so that kids with problems in the home, instead of hanging out on streetcorners exposed to drugs, etc., can play sports and participate in artistic workshops after normal school hours.

    By the way, not all happy long marriages are good for the children involved. My parents were happily married for over 70 years: they really got along well with one another, but they did not get along well with either of their kids.

    The worst are bad possessive parents. My parents were not good parents, but they were in no way possessive. They sent us both off to camp every summer, to countless Saturday and afterschool programs, and took numerous vacations and weekends without our presence. So we both had a lot of other inputs in our childhood, which is healthy. For example, when they went away, they would leave us with a wonderful, warm live-in babysitter who made us marvellous desserts and let us watch TV whenever we wanted to, unlike our parents who rationed TV watching.

    As I said, the worst kind of parents are non-caring possessive parents who do not let their kids stray from their side and thus, work their toxic influence on them without letting in other inputs. Kids, I stress, do not belong to their parents.

  38. In general it is interesting that the two profs should not have discussed the virtual compulsion to attend University and third level education unless of course you wish to be left on the scrap heap of life. A ridiculous idea but one which is self fulfilling as employers use credentials as a sorting device. I asked my friend who was a lab technician in a hospital with a degree in science if without this degree anyone with a little training could take their place on the ‘piss bench’. Yes they could. My friend left his good job to take up gardening and continues to turn away from me when he takes out his wallet.

    Is continuous education becoming a racket?

  39. Well, that wasn’t the topic.

  40. ombhurbhuva

    More or less tangential than the Covid Passport?

  41. the dog that did not bark in the night-time. But prithee is it more or less tangential than the covid passport?

  42. I don’t understand.

  43. I suggest you do your own podcast with Crispin on the subjects you’d like to discuss, if you are dissatisfied.