Compulsory School Attendance

Johnathan Pearce argues against the further raising the age of compulsory school attendance to 18.

Reading some history, it does seem as though we live in an age when in some ways, youngsters seem to stay young for much longer than used to be the case. By the time my old man was 18, he had already become an officer cadet in the RAF and by the age of 21, was navigating fast jet aircraft. One of my great uncles joined the naval academy at Dartmouth by the age of 15. The average age of many pilots in WW2 was 21. Now, if you believe the educationalists of today, a person aged 18 is not fit to put in charge of an electric toothbrush, and yet at the same time, things like the age of sexual consent have been reduced. So in some ways people are thought to be more mature, in other ways, less so.

He’s writing from a UK perspective. In the US, the trend has been towards postponing legal sexual maturity as well. A couple generations ago, it was considered perfectly normal for girls, especially in rural areas, to be married and having babies in their early teens; nowadays, outside underclass subcultures, they’re expected to have graduated college and established careers first.

I’m now as old as my parents were when I graduated high school and have yet to have my first child. That’s not particularly unusual among educated professionals these days. Indeed, I know many men who start having kids well into their 40s and even early 50s.

As to the issue of mandatory school attendance, like most such issues, drawing the line is difficult. Obviously, we don’t want small children making such decisions for themselves, given the consequences. At the same time, 15- and 16-year-olds are considered old enough to drive motorcycles and cars in most states and we routinely hold 12- and 13-year-olds accountable “as adults” when they commit crimes. Why aren’t they old enough to decide whether to go to school, especially if they can find gainful employment?

As a practical matter, requiring 17- and 18-year-olds, especially males, who don’t want to be in school to go creates all manner of disciplinary problems. Few teachers are able to handle them. At some point, you have to let those who don’t want to be there leave so that those who do want to be there can learn.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Caliban Darklock says:

    Has it occurred to anyone that the reason children don’t grow up as quickly as they once did is because we don’t let them?

    We Jews stand up at thirteen and say “today I am a man”. Maybe that’s a good blueprint. Maybe at thirteen, we should start treating our children like men and women instead of like kids.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Maybe at thirteen, we should start treating our children like men and women instead of like kids.

    Maybe so. The economy has changed rapidly, such that it makes sense to delay entry into the full-time workforce until much older. Unfortunately, though, it has meant that adolescence seems to continue well into people’s twenties. Indeed, I’ve known plenty of 30-something grad students who still live like kids.

  3. Bandit says:

    The economy has changed rapidly, such that it makes sense to delay entry into the full-time workforce until much older.

    I’m not sure how it makes sense – it’s just infantalizing adults – a bad by product of increasing affluence

  4. Its a real balancing act. At what age does someone pass from being a kid to an adult. Unfortunately, the school of hard knocks seems to be the most assured way. It tends to winnow out those who can’t adapt to the reality of the world. On the other hand, the top jobs tend to require you have something special. For a few it is some special talent (movie star, professional athlete, singer, etc.), but for most it is education followed by hard work.

    I think part of the problem is with the parents. Most of the personality is set by age 7. As a parent, if you haven’t done a good job on helping to instill a good character, then you are more likely to end up with the 20 something still at home. I believe in giving kids opportunities. That doesn’t mean that they are ready to move out on their own, but it does mean they can be ready to stretch their wing. My 14 year old has already landed a summer job. It won’t be fun for me to shuttle him to and from his job, but I’m happy to do it for him to learn. The work experience (getting up, working the entire day, having to focus on what you are being paid to do rather than what you want to do, etc.) is going to be a valuable lesson for him.

    For my kids, school laws about being mandatory take a distinct third place to family expectations to work hard/do well in school and understanding the opportunities associated with increased education.