Formalism Over Function: Compulsion, Courts, and the Rise of Educational Formalism in America, 1870–1930
by Ethan L. Hutt - 2012
Background/Context: Though the impact of the legal system in shaping public education over the last sixty years is unquestioned, scholars have largely overlooked the impact of the legal system on the early development and trajectory of public schools in America. Scholars have given particularly little attention to the period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when states began passing laws requiring that children attend school for some portion of the year. These laws brought an end to the era of voluntary schooling in America while posing a difficult set of legal and educational questions for judges who had to interpret and apply them. The evolving logic of these decisions subsequently shaped the role, purpose, and form of education in America.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article offers a legal history of compulsory education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In doing so, it seeks to understand the role that courts played in shaping the character and development of the modern school system by examining court cases that stemmed from the passage of compulsory schooling laws. By examining decisions from both before and after the passage of these laws, it is possible to trace shifts in judicial thinking about the role and purpose of these laws and to recognize the role that these rulings played in developing a specific vision—and particular grammar—of schooling.
Research Design: This article is a historical analysis that focuses exclusively on cases brought in state courts relating to the rights of parents to control the education of their child before and after the passage of compulsory schooling laws. Though the rulings examined were issued by individual state courts and state supreme courts, attention is paid to the sharing of ideas between courts from different states and the collective vision of the purpose of compulsory school laws that resulted.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The shift from voluntary to compulsory schooling that occurred at the turn of the century was attended by an equally dramatic shift in the educational vision articulated by judges. The courts began the period with a view of the aims of education as being synonymous with learning, only to end the period with a view of education as being synonymous with attendance at school—a change that represents a shift from educational substance to educational formalism. Thus, this article argues, the history of compulsory education is also the history of the rise of educational formalism, and the courts played an important, and as yet unrecognized, role in legitimating and facilitating a vision of schooling that privileged certainty and order over substance and complexity.
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