This column is in response to a post written by Catherine Kus yesterday on this very blog. In it, she argues for mandatory schooling until the age of eighteen, as proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union Address. While I respect Catherine’s passion and verve about this issue, in my view she could not be more wrong.
Mandatory schooling is a terrible idea at any age, but to insist that there is no more valuable use of an eighteen year old’s time than attending high school is ludicrous. What about athletes who can earn vastly more money by competing full time at young ages than they could ever hope to earn with a college degree? There are loads of incredibly successful people who were high-school dropouts. An abbreviated list includes some of the country’s finest actors—Marlon Brando, Leonardo DiCaprio, Humphrey Bogart, Johnny Depp—not to mention Richard Branson, The Wright Brothers and Albert Einstein. If high school were mandatory, there might be no Virgin Records, Godfather movies, airplanes or theory of relativity. Why force teenagers to remain in an education system that is, let’s face it, far from the envy of the world, when they may have better ideas on how to lead their lives?
Then there is the issue of children of poor families. In a time of high unemployment and general economic hardship, is it right to tell teenagers that they must refrain from working, thereby contributing to what may well be a painfully low family income? Is it more important for those in poverty to learn algebra, or earn enough money to help their parents put food on the table? The argument that a diploma can boost wages in the future holds little weight for a family that is struggling to get by today.
I find President Obama’s implication that the government has better ideas about how teenagers should spend their time than they or their families do enormously conceited. Individual choice and the liberty to pursue goals that are in line with one’s personal skills and ambitions is the road to prosperity for us as a nation, not forced conformity to an arbitrary standard imposed by government bureaucrats. Every child has different needs, and a one size fits all solution handed down from above only hinders individual development.
My parents chose to home-school me and my sister despite the hostile legal environment at the time, because they believed that the flexibility and individuality of such an arrangement would allow us to better flourish than the cold rigidity of the school system. Today, both my sister and I hold post-graduate degrees and have excelled both in school and in extracurricular activities. The federal government did not want to allow this, insisting that only its all-seeing eyes knew what was best. Such claims were laughable then and they are laughable now.
Children are unique individuals, not some homogenous race of carbon copies. Until the feds recognize this fact and stop imposing top-down solutions more appropriate to assembly lines than to human development, the education system in this country will never improve.