Education Letter to the Editor

Compulsory Schooling: Was Edison Right?

October 30, 2006 1 min read

To the Editor:

Compulsory schooling until a diploma is earned or a student reaches the age of 21 is now getting a big push from the National Education Association (“NEA: Earn a Diploma or Stay in School Until Age 21,” Oct. 11, 2006). It’s the union’s response to the dropout crisis. Coincidentally, compulsory schooling to age 21 would require more teachers, meaning expanded membership, revenues, and clout for the NEA.

But consider the fate of this youngster, had compulsory attendance—even to age 14—been Michigan law in the 1850s:

He started school at age 8, but returned home in tears after three months; his teacher called him “addled.” His mother took over his education by reading with him.

At the age of 12, he persuaded his mother to let him apply for the post of newsboy on the Port Huron-to-Detroit train, which left at 7 a.m. and returned at 9:30 p.m., giving him a six-hour layover in Detroit, where he spent time in the library. He sold fruit and produce from Port Huron to Detroit and evening papers on the return trip.

Total formal classroom instruction: three months. Thomas Alva Edison was essentially unschooled, giving him a heck of a head start on his 1,000-plus patents. Abraham Lincoln got a similar start. He recounted attending “some schools, so-called,” but for less than a year altogether.

Could it be that both boys’ parents and their indifferent state governments were on to something?

Tom Shuford

Lenoir, N.C.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Compulsory Schooling: Was Edison Right?