But now I want to turn to the violence we do to our children by forcing them into schools. When schooling is compulsory, schools are, by definition, prisons. A prison is a place where one is forced to be and within which people are not free to choose their own activities, spaces, or associates. Children cannot walk away from school, and within the school children cannot walk away from mean teachers, oppressive and pointless assignments, or cruel classmates. For some children, the only out—the only real way to quit—is suicide. As writer Helen Smith put it in her book, The Scarred Heart, in describing the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who had been regularly bullied in school: “After missing fifty-three out of the required one hundred and eighty days of school, she was told that she would have to return to school or appear before a truancy board which could then send her to a juvenile detention center. She decided the better alternative was to go into her bedroom and hang herself with a belt. … In times past, she could have just dropped out of school, but now kids like her are trapped by compulsory education.”
Lots of words have been spent on the problem of school bullying and related problems such as students’ general unhappiness, boredom, and cynicism in school. Nobody has found a way to solve these problems, and nobody ever will until we grant children the freedom to quit. The only way to solve these problems, ultimately, is to do away with the coercion.
When children are truly free to walk away from school, then schools will have to become child-friendly places in order to survive. Children love to learn, but, like all of us, they hate to be coerced, micromanaged, and continuously judged. They love to learn in their own ways, not in ways that others force on them. Schools, like all institutions, will become moral institutions only when the people they serve are no longer inmates. When students are free to quit, schools will have to grant them other basic human rights, such as the right to have a voice in decisions that affect them, the right to free speech, the right to free assembly, and the right to choose their own paths to happiness. Such schools would look nothing at all like the dreary institutions we call “school” today.