Thus far, it’s the lectures and reading from my Law and Education course that has provoked the most intense interest from me. Maybe it has something to with the novelty of the topic; I’ve read countless books and articles about learning theory, classroom practice, and the history of schools, but I know comparably less about the legal rulings and constitutional protections that undergird the modern school system. Maybe it has something to do with the clarity and elegance of certain legal arguments, especially ones that serve broader conceptions of liberty and virtue. But I think my interest has most to do with the intellectual challenge of reconciling the competing values and principles at play in major judicial proceedings. This kind of critical engagement requires such effortful and intentional concentration, and a constant changing of one’s mind. There is so much mental activity required to make sense of the law, and determine how it applies in cases where notions like personal freedom, religious liberty, and civic virtue make equally compelling claims.
Take a case I recently reviewed; Wisconsin vs. Yoder (1972). This case concerned a conflict between the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment (which protects religious liberty), and Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law, which required children to attend public or private school from age 7 to 16. Here’s a brief summary. The Amish community in Wisconsin refused to abide by a policy that required their children to attend school until the age of 16. Instead, Amish children completed primary schools, and then rejoined their community, where they lived and practiced the values of the old Amish tradition, which emphasized “informal learning through doing, a life of ‘goodness,’ rather than a life of intellect; wisdom, rather than technical knowledge; community welfare, rather than competition, and separation from, rather than integration with, contemporary worldly society.”
Well, my first impression after reviewing the case, is that the Amish had a social responsibility to send their kids to school until those kids reached adulthood. If the Amish were allowed to bypass compulsory school attendance laws on religious grounds, than this provision might set a precedent whereby any religion could make a similar claim. Children might be indoctrinated into theocratic belief, and denied exposure to the democratic values that define political citizenship. Children might be forced into work at an early age, thus violating labor laws that protect their rights. Finally, Amish children might be denied the liberty to choose an education that was right for them, thereby allowing parents to raise their children “in ignorance.”
But the matter is not so simple. The Amish are a religious society that live in isolation from contemporary society, and their religious doctrine and social order goes back centuries. The Amish are law abiding and self-sustaining. The Amish also comply with the requirement to send their children to primary school, where they can learn educational basics. After primary school, they argue, Amish children would be at risk of exposure to different beliefs, and teachers who might be indifferent or opposed to Amish culture. These factors might compel Amish children to leave the Church, which would spell the end of the Amish community. In these ways, the Amish fulfill two principles of the Free Exercise clause; they have a sincere religious belief, and they can show that a policy or action burdens their religion.
Then there is an argument for which I have the most sympathy. If we interpret the religion clauses of the first amendment to protect religious practice in a general sense, then we’d be allowing thinkers like Thoreau to reject compulsory high school education, under the pretext that it turns children into cogs of the capitalist system. While Thoreau isn’t religious like the Amish, his action are motivated by a compelling transcendent moral doctrine–with roots going back centuries, like the Amish. Why couldn’t he then challenge any governmental requirement that prevents him from exercising his philosophy?
In the end, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled that the Amish church were constitutionally protected from compelling their children to attend high school. But the arguments in the case raise fascinating questions about whose liberty is most important, the liberty of the state, the liberty of parents, the liberty of religion. And Wisconsin vs. Yoder also shows the importance of interpretation in determining the meaning and application of the law.
And this process of analyzing cases like this is why the intersection of education and the law is so fascinating.