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«the aim of this paper is to induce doubt about the ethical rightness of compulsory education laws and inspire educators to imagine and begin to make ...»

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Education Without Compulsion:

Toward New Visions of Gifted Education

Barry Grant

the aim of this paper is to induce doubt about the ethical rightness of compulsory

education laws and inspire educators to imagine and begin to make a world in which

there are many different forms of gifted education. the paper does this in three ways. it

paints a polemical picture of gifted education as a minor variation on public schooling

and describes the contradictions and limitations this entails. it presents a short history of education in the united States to support the claim that compulsory schooling aims to shape the character of children in the interests of religion, government, corporations, and other groups. it argues that compulsory schooling is inconsistent with the liberal democratic value of the right to self-determination. the paper also offers a conception of education for self-development as one vision of what gifted education could be were it freed from the strictures of compulsory schooling.

The worst, the most difficult thing that affects us as people is the failure of imagination. We do not realize that various things are possible, which is to say that we don‘t realize that most everything is contingent, that things could be different.

—Alexander Nehemas (Carrier, 1998, para 28 from end) In the United States, most children ages 6 to 16, must, under penalty of law, attend school or a legislated equivalent. The failure of parents to adhere to state laws governing school attendance can result in fines and imprisonment (Novello, 1998). The failure of adolescents to attend school can result in loss of a driver’s license, fines, jail time, or commitment to court-mandated truancy programs (e.g., Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County, n.d.).

Gifted educators show little awareness that states mandate universal compulsory education, that compulsory education laws are ethically inconsistent with significant values of gifted education, that compulsory education sets severe limits on educational practices and Barry Grant is the chair of the master’s in professional counseling program at Argosy University in Dallas, TX.

Journal for the Education of the Gifted. Vol. 29, No. 2, 2005, pp. 161–186. Copyright ©2005 Prufrock Press Inc., http://www.prufrock.com 162 Journal for the Education of the Gifted philosophies, or that almost all of the ways in which gifted education “serves the needs” of gifted children are backed by state power.

The aim of this paper is to induce doubt about the value and ethical rightness of the compulsory education laws and inspire educators to imagine and begin to make a world in which there are many different forms of gifted education, all freed from the strictures of compulsory schooling. This is an ambitious aim. In the minds of many, compulsory schooling is education (Buckman, 1973).

The first section of this paper offers a polemical picture of gifted education as a minor variation on public schooling and describes the contradictions and limitations this entails. The second section is a brief sketch of the history of public education in the United States that illustrates how compulsory schooling serves the interests of religion, government, corporations, and other groups. The third section attempts to undermine the ethical foundation of public compulsory education by showing that it is incompatible with liberal democratic values. The fourth section presents a vision of gifted education as self-development.

Gifted Education and Public Schooling

Giftedness as we discuss it in our journals, investigate it in our research, and identify it in our protocols is primarily a public school-based phenomenon. Gifted education exists to accommodate certain “special” students in public schools (cf. Borland, 1997;

Sapon-Shevin, 1994). Gallagher (2002) argues that gifted education is defined almost entirely by social policy set by law, court decisions, and administrative rules (professional groups are the fourth source of policy). The practices of gifted education are, not surprisingly, mostly minor variations on regular public school programs and methods that leave untouched the main structures, values, and goals of public education. Enrichment, acceleration, leadership and creativity training, ability grouping, special curricula, and other forms and means of gifted education are conservative in their underlying theories and philosophies. They are public school tweaks. They do not address the root, the radical, of education.

Education Without Compulsion The bureaucracy of public schools leads gifted educators to inordinate worries about bookkeeping matters. Do we enter a child in the category of gifted, talented in math, creative but learning disabled, or... ? Gifted educational research with its investigations of the effects of grouping, effectiveness of new identification protocols, causes of underachievement, characteristics of gifted students, and impact of curriculum compacting on achievement test scores rarely leaves the public schoolroom. Gifted educators take seriously a nation at risk, Goals 2000, national Excellence, No Child Left Behind, and other government reports and laws as offering important and meaningful (though sometimes controversial) guidance for education. Many, including some of the most prominent, accept the “gifted as the nation’s greatest resource” (recently repackaged as “gifted as social capital”) justification for gifted education (e.g., Benbow, Lubinski, & Sanjani, 1995; Dai & Renzulli, 2000; Feldhusen, 1998; Renzulli, 2002; Schwartz, 1994; Tannenbaum, 2001; Treffinger, 1998). They justify public funding for gifted education on the grounds that gifted children or all children, properly cultivated, make essential contributions to the cultural and economic life of the country. In doing so, they implicitly accept government conceptions of economic health, cultural assets, and national well-being (Howley, Howley, & Pendarvis, 1995). I have found no discussion, no mention even, of alternative or radical education philosophies of education in gifted education literature, save in homeschooling literature (e.g., Kearney, n.d.; Rivero, 2002), an article by Piirto (1999) discussing postmodern pedagogy, and a presentation by Piirto (2000) on the ideology of gifted education. Critical pedagogy (Freire, 1968), the modern school movement (Avrich, 1980), deschooling (Illich, 1970), and the work of John Holt (1976), Paul Goodman (1964), A. S. Neill (1960), Murray Rothbard (1999), and other critics of public schooling seem not to exist for gifted educators.





Gifted education is an innocent, ignorant of the history of public schooling, its own history (Borland, 1990), and the role of ideology, corporations, foundations, industry groups, religions, and other institutions in instituting compulsory schooling and shaping school agendas (Gatto, 2001; Howley et al., 1995; Spring, 1994). Buffeted by charges of elitism, favoritism, discrimination, and ineffectiveness 164 Journal for the Education of the Gifted (e.g., Treffinger, 1998) and doubts about the reality of “giftedness” (Borland, 1997), we worry about our funding and future and struggle to reinvent ourselves to be able to carry on “meeting the needs” of the gifted—through compulsory public schooling. When we establish private schools, we largely recreate public schooling as superior college preparation.

None of the contributors to a recent volume aimed at rethinking Gifted Education (Borland, 2003) propose educational models that challenge compulsory schooling or even acknowledge that schooling is compulsory. Most of the rethinking is just thinking how gifted education can better fit into public schools. Heng (2003), the most radical of the authors, calls for gifted education that is “beyond school,” but not beyond compulsory schooling. She defends “a learner-centered vision for education.... in which children are regarded as ends not means” (p. 59), but she doesn’t see the contradiction between compelling students to attend school and treating them as ends.

The consequences of the limited visions of gifted educators include impoverished views of life, constricted and narrow development of children designated as gifted, an acceptance of the status quo workings of government and corporate power, and moral contradictions. Gifted education could be a means of intellectual and personal liberation, but it is mostly a tool of power (cf. Howley et al., 1995; Margolin, 1994; Pendarvis, Howley, & Howley, 1999). We want school to be for children, but as long as we compel attendance, school is necessarily something we do to children. Gifted educators want gifted children to develop their selves, realize their potentials, create new and amazing art and ideas, deepen their spirituality, and even develop their intellects and critical faculties. But, they never challenge the limits placed on these tasks by public schools and compulsory schooling, and they don’t face the moral contradiction of compelling students to attend school and then helping them develop their selves and talents.

Personal growth and talent development concern core aspects of children’s being, their deepest selves. Attempts to influence these in situations that children, alone or guided by their parents, are not free to reject are coercion, not help, insults, not expressions of respect, no matter how well-meant. Imagine if we adults were forced to attend Education Without Compulsion institutions in which we were “helped” to realize ourselves by people who really cared about us. We would loudly object that our liberty to develop ourselves as we choose would be violated, no matter the good intentions of our helpers.

One explanation for the limited visions of gifted educators may be that gifted education is simply parasitic upon universal compulsory schooling: It has no other raison d’être than to advocate for and serve a small group of “exceptional” children in public schools, which are assumed to serve “average” children pretty well. If public education really was individualized, as Borland (2003) advocates, “gifted” education and “gifted” children would become moot. But, the aspirations of gifted educators and even the implications of individualized schooling push against the practical and ethical limitations of compulsory schooling. Some gifted educators have educational visions that cannot be realized in compulsory settings, though they seem unaware of this. For example, Roeper’s (1990) vision of education for life; Schultz’s (2002) vision of character education as a “process where adults, adolescents, and others engage in the development of community” (p. 10); Piechowski’s (1998, 2000) work on spiritual giftedness; Schultz’s and Delisle’s (1997) work on the relationships among curricula, self, and visions of the good life; and Heng’s (2003) call to serve children’s search for meaning cannot be realized practically or ethically in compulsory settings. Gifted education is ripe for articulating educational visions that explicitly reject compulsion.

See for yourself. Take any conception of giftedness: asynchronous development (Silverman, 1997), a minimum IQ score, Renzulli’s (1977) three rings, or talent—if you belong to the new wave in gifted education (e.g., Feldhusen, 1998). Take any conception of life and The Most Important Things (Grant, 2002; Schultz & Delisle, 1997) and anything else you think is important to the growth and education of young people. Now, imagine gifted education independent of compulsory public education. Imagine it without governmentmandated learning objectives, standardized tests, minimum seat time, age grouping, school as preparation for the next grade level, and textbooks chosen by a Texas school board. Imagine it without the necessity of preparing individuals for school, college, and career (Grant, 2002; Roeper, 1990). Imagine gifted educations that place 166 Journal for the Education of the Gifted the development of the individual in the great realities of life—self, sex, ethics, power, spirit, meaning, community, nature. I think you will see that your vision of gifted education is more vital and important than the visions operating in compulsory public schools.

The History and Goals of Compulsory Education

Compulsory public education, by its nature, exists to change children, to shape their minds, character, values, skills, and conduct. The founders of the United States and the founders of public schooling knew this, argued about it, and defended or opposed government roles in education for this reason. The history of education in America deserves a treatment that shows multiple points of view on the forces, rationales, hidden agendas, and philosophies that influenced public education. What I offer only touches on highlights and a few major points of views on the forces driving public education in the United States. I hope it is sufficient to incite doubt about the goodness, necessity, and inevitability of compulsory education.

The first compulsory education law in the colonial United States was passed in 1642 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It required parents and masters to provide an education in reading and trade. Among the reasons for this law were “concerns that youth readily accept the developing religious, political and social patterns and become good citizens of the state and of the newly established church” (Kotin & Aikman, 1980, p. 12). The Massachusetts Bay Colony was largely populated by Calvinist Puritans who were keen to keep their kids firm in the faith (Rothbard, 1974). By 1671, all colonies except Rhode Island had passed compulsory education laws based on the model of the 1642 Massachusetts Act and a 1648 refinement (Kotin & Aikman). “For the first time in history the state assumed clear responsibility for the education and training of all children” (Kotin & Aikman, p. 14). In 1647, the Governors of Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law that towns of a certain size must have an elementary school where children could learn to read the Bible. This act, also known as the Old Deluder Satan Act, was passed to ensure that children were armed with the knowledge of Education Without Compulsion scripture in their battle against Satan (Kotin & Aikman). Children, however, were not compelled to attend school.



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