Why did the US enact compulsory education? The wikipedia article actually isn't very helpful, at least where the intentions of the people who campaigned for this are concerned. I seem to remember hearing in high school that this had something to do with the Progressives, and they were concerned that everyone (regardless of their ability to pay) needed a basic education. Am I remembering any of that right? I have also heard this was a way to limit child labor. My real interest is in the motivations: why did people at the time think that children should be educated, and how did their reasons change as the 19th century transitioned into the 20th? I'm down to read primary sources.

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    Did the United States ever enact compulsory education? I thought that was only a subject of State law. – bof Sep 14 at 0:34

From about the mid-19th century on, there were four distinct trends occurring that all motivated, in unison, the development of compulsory education. These trends occurred throughout all of Western Europe as well as North America at roughly the same time.

First was the desire to eliminate child labour. By ensuring the registration of all children, and then assigning them all to designated schools and classrooms, legislation against child labour became much more effective. In many rural areas (including most of North America) the school year was deliberately scheduled around the planting and harvest seasons.

Second, growing nationalism created a desire to ensure assimilation of minorities. To that end, national curricula were designed so that a "national dialect" was taught to all children throughout each nation. Parisien throughout France and Algeria; Berliner Deutsch throughout Prussia and then Germany; Wiener Deutsch throughout Austria; British English throughout England; etc.

Third, increasing suffrage of first men and then women created a desire that citizens be capable of educating themselves about their world, and its political policies and platforms. In an age when the newspaper was king, this required the ability to read at a high school level.

Finally, the increasing technical demands of industrial jobs required a better educated workforce. A workforce capable of reading, writing, and basic arithmetic calculations, whether measuring parts, cashiering, or taking dictation, was fast becoming a requirement in an industrial society. Evidence for this is clear in the massive explosion of mail order sales in the latter half of the 19th century, leading into the development of the Sears Catalogue business in the 1890's. Prior to that time catalogue sales were pretty much restricted to books, but in the late 19th century much of a farm family's purchases were by catalogue, requiring that even the traditionally least literate segment of society become capable readers.

So, regardless of the governmental level at which the details of education policy were crafted and implemented, national policies in all of the four areas above drove the increasing trend towards universal education of minors. Details vary by nation, but in every Western Culture from Berlin to San Francisco, Oslo to Naples, national policies in these areas were driving educational policy towards universality.

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    Fine if this is an unordered list with arbitrary sorting. But if not, I'd use Finally, 2nd, (unsure about the rest, as it would be my opinion, unreferenced ), well or the exact other way around if you want to go from least to most important… [My English teacher used to claim that the US system was/is designed primarily to keep the children off the streets…-> social control] – LangLangC Sep 14 at 12:09
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    @LangLangC: I was ordering them chronologically, more or less. Your point re social control is only relevant in cities, as farm kids always have more chores to do. Also I believe that aspect only becomes relevant after elimination of child labour has potentially put the children on the streets, so to me the two are closely linked. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 14 at 13:36
  • Do you have primary sources or good secondary sources for the final reason? – fourierwho Sep 14 at 21:02
  • @fourierwho: I'm going to go with the massive explosion of mail order sales in the latter half of the 19th century, leading into the development of the Sears Catalogue business in the 1890's. Prior to that time catalogue sales were pretty much restricted to books, but in the late 19th century much of a farm family's purchases were by catalogue, requiring that the least literate segment of society become capable readers. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 14 at 21:20
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    That 'catalog reason' is a thought new to me. And another, separate, bullet point to add? – Separate because it mixes supply and demand into one. (They are for sure connected, but coming from opposite sides.) – LangLangC Sep 14 at 22:28

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