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Are Compulsory School Attendance Laws Necessary? Part 2


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Both the Unitarians and the liberal Protestants began to view the public schools and compulsory attendance as the most effective means of maintaining the Protestant character of American culture in the face of massive Catholic immigration.

The fact that the Irish were poor and unschooled did not endear them to the proper Bostonians. Charles Fox, master of the Boylston School, said that he was “exceedingly annoyed by a set of miserable, dirty ragged boys, of wretched parents, who generally are about our streets and wharves.The fact is that some parents will not send their children to any school; they want their services to procure chips, to beg, or steal — in fine, to get anything in any way they can.They will not attend school, unless they are deprived of their liberty.” (The Culture Factory by Stanley K. Schultz, p. 292)

Actually, the major cause of truancy among the immigrants was the need to work and help their families survive in the new world. Child labor was widespread but not as horrendous as later depicted by liberal historians. In fact, for many children, the factory was a very adequate school. Stanley Schultz writes (p. 295):

“Harriet Robinson, a Boston girl who started work in the famous Lowell mills at the age of ten, recalled that the greatest hardship was having to be on duty ‘nearly 14 hours a day. But in every other respect it was a pleasant life. We were not hurried any more than was for our good, and no more work was required of us than we were able easily to do.’ She viewed the cotton factory as a good ‘school’ for life for many young people like herself. ‘For, without this incentive to labor, this chance to earn extra money and to use it in their own way, their influence on the times, and also, to a certain extent, on modern civilization, would certainly have been lost.”‘

But the Boston Unitarian elite viewed the situation from their own lofty perspective. Schultz writes (p. 256):

“Edmund G. Loring, chairman of the Visiting Committee of the School Committee in 1846, offered that body’s opinions that ‘it is a matter of daily remark, that immigration is constantly countervailing the Puritan leaven of our people, and reducing the scale of public morality and public intelligence.’ Unless the ignorance, bad manners, and corrupted morals of the foreigners ‘are corrected by our schools,’ Loring queried, ‘what foundation is there for the hope of those who are hopeful of the final fortunes of the country?’ The following year, George B. Emerson reported to the Committee that ‘some provision has been made for vast accessions to our population by immigration from foreign countries of persons of every age, and of every condition of ignorance.’ But, Emerson pointed out, much remained to be done about those whom street life educated only to vice and crime. ‘Unless they are made inmates of our schools,’ he warned, ‘many of them will become inmates of our prisons.'”

And so, by way of a compulsory attendance law, the truants would be imprisoned in school rather than in jail. There was no question in the minds of the educators that compulsory attendance meant depriving the truant of his or her freedom in the interest of a higher good defined by the elite.

In 1848, the city marshall of Boston was ordered to find out how many truants and vagrants there were in Boston. He found 1,066 children between the ages of 6 and 16 who were either vagrant or truant Considering the fact that in 1849 the total enrollment in Boston’s public schools was 20,589, the truants amounted to about 5%. In other words, without compulsory attendance laws, 95% of the city’s children were attending school.

Nevertheless, both the politicians and educators were determined to force that 5% into the schools. A compulsory attendance bill was introduced in the state legislature. Several legislators spoke against the bill, arguing that such a law threatened parental rights over their children. To swing public opinion in their favor, the educators launched a propaganda campaign in favor of the law in the press and also at the November 1849 convention of the State Teachers’ Association.

On May 3, 1850, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill authorizing the towns and cities to make any needed provisions for habitual and unemployed truants and to establish penalties for those parents who profited from “their wretched gains or.dishonest pursuits.” And in 1852, the Massachusetts legislature passed the first statewide compulsory school attendance law in the U.S. The new law required every child between the ages of 8 and 14 to attend public school for at least 3 months every year; six of those weeks had to be consecutive. Any parents who kept their children out of school were subject to a fine. The law exempted children with mental or physical ill health and children receiving equivalent education by other means.

It didn’t take long for Catholics to figure out that the new law was crafted to force Catholic children into Protestant schools. One Catholic spokesman expressed his opinion of the common schools without mincing any words. He wrote:

“So far as Catholics are concerned, the system of Common Schools in this country is a monstrous engine of injustice and tyranny. Practically, it operates a gigantic scheme for proselytism. By numerous secret appliances, and even sometimes by open or imperfectly disguised machinery, the faith of our children is gradually undermined, and they are trained up to be ashamed of, and to abandon the religion of their fathers. It was bad enough, if this was all done with the money of others; but when it is accomplished at least in part, by our own money, it is really atrocious. It is not to be concealed or denied, that the so-called literature of this country, the taste for which is fostered by our Common Schools, and which is constantly brought to bear on the training on our children, is not of a character to form their tender minds to wholesome moral principles, much less to solid Christian piety. In general, so far as it professes to be religious, it is anti-Catholic, and so far as it is secular, it is pagan.” The Catholics then tried to get the authorities to authorize the creation of Catholic public schools for Catholic children.. But the authorities argued against such schools on the grounds that if the Catholics were permitted to have their own public schools every religious sect would demand the same.

In the end, the Catholics realized that their only recourse was to create a private parochial school system of their own, which is what they proceeded to do. The rest is history. State after state passed a compulsory school attendance law in the belief that the Prussian-Massachusetts model was the way to go.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This is Part 2 (of 3) of “Are Compulsory School Attendance Laws Necessary?” which appeared in the September 1990 issue of The Blumenfeld Education Letter, P.O. Box 4516 1, Boise, Idaho 83711. Copyright 1990 by The Blumenfeld Education Letter. Reprinted by permission.

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    Samuel L. Blumenfeld is the author of "Is Public Education Necessary?"