Horace Mann is justly remembered as the father of the public school system. Committed to a progressive religious vision of the American republic, he devoted his life to shaping institutions that would shape the nation.
Born into a modest farming family in Franklin, Massachusetts, Mann received little formal schooling. The most significant influence on his developing mind was the town’s orthodox minister, Nathaniel Emmons. Breaking with Calvinism during adolescence, Mann embraced liberal Christianity and a passion for personal betterment. With the help of tutors, he quickly mastered sufficient Latin and Greek to enter Brown University; three years later, he graduated class valedictorian.
After two unsuccessful years teaching the classics, Mann entered Litchfield Law School. Passing the bar in 1823, he set up office in Dedham. He soon made a name for himself, and in 1827 was elected to the state legislature. Strongly supportive of scientifically grounded moral reform, Mann was the moving force behind the establishment of the state’s first public asylum for the insane. Based upon the principles of moral treatment perfected in America by the physicians of the Hartford Retreat, this experience introduced Mann to physiological and pedagogic theories that would inform his future ideas on education.
Mann’s political success—he eventually became president of the Massachusetts Senate—was accompanied by private sufferings. The death of his first wife in 1832 took an enormous emotional toll; his hair is said to have turned gray overnight. At the same time, Mann inherited crippling debts that forced him to live out of his law office for three years. Although he received support from Elizabeth and Mary Peabody and the famed Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, Mann’s rise from despair seems to have been secured through his missionary-like commitment to the cause of education.
After a ten-year campaign highlighting the deplorable condition of Massachusetts schools, James Carter, an important champion of public schooling, persuaded the legislature to establish a state board of education. But if Carter expected to be appointed secretary, powerful friends of education realized that the board’s limited charge (collecting facts and diffusing information) necessitated a leader with Mann’s moral force and legal knowledge.
Why did Mann abandon his political career for such a poorly paid and nebulous appointment? In his diary, he speaks of a religious awakening brought on by reading George Combe’s Constitution of Man. Grounded in principles governing the innate structure and development of the brain, Combe’s phrenological text drew moral imperatives from physiological laws. Knowledge of God’s workmanship was the key to Christian duty and human happiness. By revealing practical ways to regulate the passions and strengthen reason, it promised the possibility of educating the population for rational and virtuous citizenship in the new urban industrial world. To this end, Combe and his co-worker James Simpson had formulated a comprehensive plan for a national system of public schooling in Great Britain. Embracing child-centered pedagogy, a scientific curriculum, standardized systems of administration, and teacher training, the scheme eventually fell foul of religious opposition to nondenominational instruction.
However, as Mann’s crusade demonstrated, the phrenologists’ plan was perfectly suited for Protestant New England. Resonating with nativist ideals, it provided a compelling political script fusing Christian duty, personal improvement, and social progress. On his appointment as secretary in 1837, the first book Mann turned to was Simpson’s Necessity of Education. The following year, Combe visited Boston and the two men developed a lifelong bond. A true disciple, all of Mann’s subsequent writings bear the stamp of Combe’s philosophy.
To promote his cause, Mann toured the state collecting information, establishing a network of local support groups, and delivering lectures on the importance of education to the future of the republic. As a panacea for social ills, he promised a system of tax-supported common schools to meet the needs of all children, irrespective of class or creed. Eschewing privilege, distinctions were to be founded solely on merit. Mann did recognize significant moral and intellectual differences between the sexes, but demanded a full, if distinct, education for women in order that they could fulfill their unique sphere of influence in society.
In the Common School Journal, Mann promoted scientifically informed instruction; in his annual reports, he presented statistics designed to pressure local action and government legislation. His first major initiatives included founding normal schools, establishing school libraries, and improving facilities. Although such sweeping changes inevitably stirred political and religious opposition, he was able to marshal the broad support necessary to cement the authority of the board and the basic elements of his statewide plan.
But Mann had his sights on more far-reaching reforms. After touring Europe, he publicized the Prussian system, making a powerful case for the superiority of child-centered practices over the hard-line methods of traditional teachers. This caused a good deal of controversy among a group of Boston masters, but Mann’s subsequent exposé of their questionable successes and harsh discipline only added to his case. By the end of his twelve-year tenure, he could boast a standardized curriculum, teacher training, and a statewide system of administration—all of which he codified in legal statutes that would serve a template for the advancement of public schooling across America.
In 1848, Mann was elected to the House of Representatives, where he fought a bitter six-year battle against the expansion of slavery. Tiring of Washington, he mounted an unsuccessful bid for the Massachusetts governorship before accepting the presidency of Antioch College in Ohio. Ever the phrenologist, he spent the last five years of his life cultivating the physical, intellectual, and moral qualities of the West’s future leaders. He banned alcohol, tobacco, and coffee; offered instruction in the laws of physiology, political economy, and moral philosophy; and ensured that only the virtuous received diplomas. Secure in the achievement of his life’s work, he famously used his final baccalaureate address to implore students not to “die until they have won some victory for humanity.”
- Messerli, J. (1972). Horace Mann: A biography. New York: Knopf.
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