Life Under Compulsion: From Schoolhouse to School Bus


“Imagine,” said my friend, “how long it takes the bus to go from Little Anse,” a village at the extreme end of the island where my family and I spend our summers, “all the way out to the Academy, stopping every five hundred feet.”

“It must take an hour at least.”

“Try an hour and a half, twice a day.”

The people of Little Anse and the two neighboring villages are fierce defenders of their local church, St. Joseph’s, where Masses have been said for many decades in French.  They are determined that, if one or two of the four churches on the island must close, it won’t be theirs.  But they no longer have a school to defend with that same determination.  The Academy, as the high school is called, is, like most such institutions in the United States and Canada, in the middle of nowhere, inaccessible except by bus, and set far from the road so as to discourage casual visitors.

Why do people invariably enjoy visiting old one-room schoolhouses?  They are human places, on a human scale, for the education of little human beings.  It isn’t just that one knows, without having to think about it consciously, that the planks and joists where pegged together by the hands of the same people whose children would go to school there.  It’s that the whole idea of the school is founded upon their natural desires and intentions.  There is the boiler, to keep the class warm in winter.  There is the woodshed, for the boiler.  The men would stock that shed, and boys would haul the logs in when needed.  There is the schoolyard, cleared for play.  There are the windows, for natural light and for fresh air when the spring comes.  There is the American flag, and a portrait of Washington, Father of the Country.  There are the books, tailored for children, certainly, but also compact, without wasted space – for books were expensive.  The readers are filled with folk tales and poems and historical fiction and, for the older children, selections from Cicero, Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope.

The school looks in part like a home, or a small town hall, or a chapel.  Appropriately so, since it is a public extension of the home, in harmony with the virtues encouraged by the church.  As at home, as in church, children intermingle, the older ones seeing to the younger ones.  There is no unnatural separation by year of birth.  The teacher is hired by the people, for their purposes; he or she is not a member of a cabal intent upon subverting the purposes of their employers.  The school belongs to the people who live there.  It is their free and liberty-making creation.

Such schools, or schools somewhat larger but similar, used to be everywhere.  One of my earliest memories is of a wooden schoolhouse painted blue, not five hundred feet from our back door – burning to the ground.  My mother went there when she was a little girl.  When she was older, she walked to the small high school “downtown,” a little less than a half a mile away.  That structure, next to the rectory and the Catholic church and across the street from the parish hall, the Knights of Columbus, a candy store and a barber shop, met its fate around 1970, when three towns consolidated into one district and built a new high school, sprawling, expensive, ugly, and inaccessible.  The last time the building was used was as a home base for the town’s centennial celebration in 1976.  It remained boarded up for years, till it was condemned and torn down.  Now a little park and garden commemorate where the high school – where my mother learned Latin, in a graduating class of about thirty –used to be.

For a long time, the poison of compulsion was kept in check by poverty.  People simply couldn’t afford to destroy the natural institution to benefit the unnatural.  There was no way to whisk hundreds of children miles away to the impersonal Academy, built by contractors and staffed by people largely unknown and with purposes of their own, for whom parents are either compliant clients, no-shows, or pests.  So, even though it was made compulsory for children to attend school, the compulsion had not yet begun to characterize the kind of school they were to attend.  But that state of affairs could not last.

It did not survive the revolution in transportation that replaced legs with wheels.  But what really killed it, as it seems to me, was the new “science” of education peddled at the teachers’ colleges.  It hardly matters what that “science” would decree.  It might have, in a Dewey-less world, decreed a classical education for everyone; that would have been superior to the flattening pseudo-democratic education it did decree, but it still would have carried the bacilli of compulsion.  The point is that teachers, usually of modest intellectual attainments, came to feel themselves armed with “science,” as against the “prejudices” of their employers the parents, whom it was their sacred duty to oppose, if need be.  Hence came the wave upon wave of educational “innovation,” all impossible without the precondition of compulsion.  No smart-aleck teacher, alone in a small schoolhouse, would have dared to introduce anything so staggeringly stupid as the basal reader or the New Math (that is, Set Theory for little children) or the replacement of history with current events or the wholesale ditching of geography or the introduction of modish obscenity in English classes or the celebration of sodomy in health class (!), without being fired – after having had to face the withering scorn of the employers, the parents, some of whom, for keenness of intellect, could no doubt have used that teacher to mop the floor.

I’m not saying merely that the nature of the modern school makes the imposition of such madness possible.  I’m saying that – unless there is a concerted effort to resist – it makes that imposition inevitable.  For the whole structure of the school declares the insignificance of the person and the all-importance of the system; children are not taught, but managed.

I began this essay by considering the absurd distance the children of a place called Little Anse had to ride to go to school, and the three hours it rips out of their lives, every day for more than nine months of the year, for thirteen years.  It is a cruel thing to do to children.  But it is appropriate, because it’s a cruel place they are riding to.  No one would impose such a burden on them, and no one would build such a place for them to go to, without either the power to compel, or the habit of being compelled.  A free people would find both the ride and the destination repugnant.  More on the destination in my next essay.

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Anthony Esolen is Distinguished Professor at Thales College and the author or translator of 28 books, on literature, culture, and the Christian faith, among them the three-volume Modern Library translation of The Divine Comedy, and, most recently, In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press). He and his wife Debra also produce a web magazine, Word and Song, dedicated to a revival of interest in the good, the true, and the beautiful, through traditional hymns, poetry, classic films, popular music from its golden age, and the quirky history of the English language.


  1. My 3 boys are homeschooled in conjunction with a little community that meets every Thursday for review/preview, shared science and art projects and a bit of music thrown in. A couple of years ago, in the first meeting of the fall, I attended the opening assembly in the morning. I was struck by the David v Goliath nature of it all. On one side, a behemoth system staffed by experts, with doctoral degrees piled to the sky, tens of millions of dollars of facilities, professionals, curricula and technology. On the other hand, a couple of dozen moms armed with dry erase boards, flash cards, recordings of learning songs and homemade lunches. And insofar as the quality of education is concerned, it isn’t even a contest.

    The little platoon of moms wins, hands down.

    In business, in education, in politics, in life – human scale wins every time.

  2. This past weekend, I found myself in Charleston, South Carolina, the Holy City, at a reunion. Among the things we did was to visit a plantation, Drayton Hall, now a ward of the a private foundation as a project of restoration. Just the week before, I had been attempting to convey to my students that at their historical roots, the terms “res publica” and “res familiaris,” where not a dichotomy between that which was controlled by the government or the state versus that which was a matter of the family. In Drayton Hall, we learned that the public rooms, places of public matters such as parties, receptions and business meetings had one form, a formal form of architecture, and the private rooms, not open to the public, i.e. the guests or the business men, were simple and off limits: a perfect example of “res publica” and “res familiaris” in microcosm.

    The same was true, even in my childhood and adolescence, for schools: they were public spaces as opposed to the private spaces. Churches were public spaces. Places where associations met and even businesses were public spaces. Public had not yet become synonymous with “government” or the “state.”

    It is precisely in the 1960’s, at least in our climes, when the “state,” usually the federal government started ordering school consolidations, destroying a community commonwealth in the process, and when that same government through fiat court decisions ruled that teachers were no longer members of local communities acting in public spaces but were rather agents of the state over against which students, as emerging “citizens of the state” had rights, thus creating an adversarial relationship between teachers, no longer in loco parentis but agents of the states, and students whose constitutional rights had to be protected. Who would protect those rights? Why, the very state of which the teachers, the adversaries of the students, were the agents.

    So, consolidation and Hobbesianation of all public and now even private spaces go hand in hand!

  3. Conservatism is a dead letter until subsidiary philosophy returns to the current insensate generation. Aside from Federally backstopped banking, I know of no more effective foe of the notion of subsidiary thinking than the current befuddled Kafka-esque habitues of “No Child Left Behind”. None shall be left behind of course, because all will be Boarhawged to a dim treading of troubled waters. All the better for the idiot State to maintain their fool’s stance of “Great Protector”.

    The State, of course, loudly professes innocence because it possesses the “best interests of the many”. Ho ho ho, the “many”, by definition, can never arrive at a such an exalted state as “best interests”. No, as is usual for the Utopian, a benchmark will be drawn out of the air and then everyone will be pounded into the form for their own good.

  4. First the modern public school is a product of the institution as machine metaphor, and so like a factory, children are taught assembly-line style. It is an industrial institution, not a human one. And while public schools have always (for example, see Sparta) been an anti-family institution, the trend to use schools against the family seems on the rise. The idea that the schools should be teaching children sexual morality is totally incompatible with any natural social order. Public schools today are increasingly taking on the role of enculturing children with encouragement of both the right and the left, and this is unhealthy.

    This is why movements like towards homeschooling, if done responsibly, are so important.

  5. […] Life Under Compulsion: From Schoolhouse to School Bus from Front Porch Republic. By Anthony Esolen, need I say more? For a long time, the poison of compulsion was kept in check by poverty. People simply couldn’t afford to destroy the natural institution to benefit the unnatural. There was no way to whisk hundreds of children miles away to the impersonal Academy, built by contractors and staffed by people largely unknown and with purposes of their own, for whom parents are either compliant clients, no-shows, or pests. So, even though it was made compulsory for children to attend school, the compulsion had not yet begun to characterize the kind of school they were to attend. But that state of affairs could not last. […]

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