Why it’s Time to Remember What ‘Compulsory’ Education Needs to Mean

by Je’anna Clements


For many years in many countries, ‘compulsory education’ has been interpreted to mean that the state can force the parent to force the child to attend any school that the state prescribes. For homeschooling, it can limit families to doing so only with permission and according to imposed registration conditions. Following a state-mandated curriculum and assessment regime is often required.

This interpretation of the phrase ‘compulsory education’ is exactly that. It is just one of several interpretations. When Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the drafting committee of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), she made it clear that their inclusion of the word ‘compulsory’ had nothing to do with forcing children. Instead, ‘compulsory’ referred to the absolute obligation of state and parent to provide meaningful, quality elementary educational opportunities for each and every person.

Why is it important to return to that interpretation now in 2023, when so many countries have been doing things the other way for so long? 

Firstly, Eleanor and her international UDHR colleagues knew that the wrong interpretation of ‘compulsory’ would inevitably lead the world back to fascism once again – as we are now witnessing. Secondly, these experts understood that you cannot force a person to fulfill their rights in prescribed ways without destroying those rights and dehumanizing that person in the process.

When parent and state have an obligation to provide suitable educational resources, the emphasis is on the best interests of the child, and on the quality of the resources provided. Education then becomes about supporting well-being and thriving. It becomes about optimizing the development of the whole human being to reach their full potential. This kind of education respects, protects and promotes the full range of rights for children including the right to play, and the right to participate in decisions about what educational options are best for themselves.

When instead, ‘compulsory’ is interpreted to mean forcing the child, then the emphasis is on forcing the child, regardless of the suitability and quality of educational resources that they are forced to endure. It lets states (and some extremist parents) get away with mere indoctrination rather than the kind of education that truly empowers and helps children reach their full potential. It incentivizes both the state and private school franchises to opt for cheap factory-model school systems that focus on managing children efficiently, rather than truly supporting children to fulfill their right to an education that helps them achieve their full potential. ‘Education’ then becomes dehumanizing, rather than being the means to optimize human potential. This kind of education quickly strips the child of all of their other rights, too.

What we need to remember, is what Eleanor knew. Hitler could not have risen to power without a society trained to mindlessly obey authority through generations of ‘compulsory’ schooling. She was 38 years old when the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) pushed through the wrong kind of ‘compulsory’ education law in Oregon in 1922. The KKK justified this by saying that “We must have a compulsory education system to reach and uplift every future citizen,”1 so that “all our humanity might live in harmony.”2 Sound familiar? How about a slightly more private (and honest) statement made by the same KKK leader Hiram Evans, “We will grind out Americans like meat out of a grinder.”3 This second statement is the inevitable consequence of the worst interpretation of the word ‘compulsory’ when applied to education. 

The Oregon law forced parents to force children between the ages of eight and sixteen to attend public schools – and only public schools, “with some exceptions based on age, health and access to a parent or private teacher.” Parents or guardians who broke the law would be fined or imprisoned.The United States Supreme Court promptly declared the Oregon School Law unconstitutional saying that “the child is not the mere creature of the state.”4

Unfortunately, since Eleanor’s death, the KKK’s model of ‘compulsory’ education has increasingly become the preferred option for many regimes around the world.

Time and again well meaning people make the mistake of hoping that forcing children into schools will “uplift every future citizen,” so that “all our humanity might live in harmony.” Time and again, the result is that students become little more than “meat out of a grinder.”

It’s time to let Eleanor rest more peacefully in her grave. It’s time to remind the world that ‘compulsory’ needs to return to her intent for it. Human dignity is the underpinning of the entire concept of Human Rights. It’s time to remember that education needs to be rooted in human dignity and the best interests of the child – not in politics, profit, or administrative convenience.




If this article resonates with you, you could choose to –

  • wait a few days before going public on this so that we can prepare to act in solidarity – see the timelines below. In the meantime you might choose to

What else can you do?

Join the growing movement of people from all around the world to create inclusive conversations about what we want the word ‘compulsory’ to mean for education going forward! We’re going to do this all together around the world at the same time for maximum impact.

Step 1 – a) go to https://www.mylifemy.education/ now to take a look at the Resolution adopted at IDEC on this issue. Don’t do anything else just yet except quietly spread the word to like minded folks to get ready for Step 2. 

b) You can contact compulsory@mylifemy.education or allfhree@gmail.com to volunteer to get this news into various media for your country or region for the weekend of the 18th and 19th November – there are press kits available.

c) You can also contact compulsory@mylifemy.education or allfhree@gmail.com to volunteer to join a translation team for your language.


Step 2 – go to the new link that will be sent out on the 20th November (International Day of the Child) to find links to news articles to share. Share to as many social media platforms as possible, and Like and comment on what others have shared in order to raise visibility.

Step 3 After 20th November, guidelines will be sent out on how to submit your own feelings and comments to the United Nations and/or post your own opinions on social media, and get these widely shared. There will also be announcements of live events and other suggestions on how to grow this conversation further.