May 4: Birth anniversary of Horace Mann, architect of American public schools systems


His mother delivered Horace Mann on May 4, 1796, the last full year of the administration of President George Washington.

Mann died August 2, 1859.  In those 63 years, Mann became at least the co-architect of the concept of public schools.

Today, few outside schools of education know who he was, or what he did (no, he’s not in the Texas TEKS).

Daguerrotype of Horace Mann, about 1850, by Southworth and Dawes

Daguerrotype of Horace Mann, about 1850, by Southworth and Dawes; from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikipedia

We can get a brief snapshot from the website accompanying the PBS series, Only a Teacher, Schoolhouse Pioneers:

Horace Mann (1796-1859)

Horace Mann, often called the Father of the Common School, began his career as a lawyer and legislator. When he was elected to act as Secretary of the newly-created Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, he used his position to enact major educational reform. He spearheaded the Common School Movement, ensuring that every child could receive a basic education funded by local taxes. His influence soon spread beyond Massachusetts as more states took up the idea of universal schooling.

Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals. He declared, “Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” Mann believed that public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being. He observed, “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” The democratic and republican principals that propelled Mann’s vision of the Common School have colored our assumptions about public schooling ever since.

Mann was influential in the development of teacher training schools and the earliest attempts to professionalize teaching. He was not the first to propose state-sponsored teacher training institutes (James Carter had recommended them in the 1820s), but, in 1838, he was crucial to the actual establishment of the first Normal Schools in Massachusetts. Mann knew that the quality of rural schools had to be raised, and that teaching was the key to that improvement. He also recognized that the corps of teachers for the new Common Schools were most likely to be women, and he argued forcefully (if, by contemporary standards, sometimes insultingly) for the recruitment of women into the ranks of teachers, often through the Normal Schools. These developments were all part of Mann’s driving determination to create a system of effective, secular, universal education in the United States.

Further Reading

Mann, Horace.  Annual Reports on Education, 1872; Massachusetts System of Common Schools, 1849

Messerli, Jonathan. Horace Mann, A Biography, 1972

Did you catch that?  By 1838 Horace Mann figured out that good teachers were the key to improving schools, and so he set about creating systems to educate and help teachers do their work.

Arne DuncanMike MilesDan Patrick? Bill Gates?  Anybody listening?

Oh, yeah, we knew Diane Ravitch is listening, and working hard to make things better.

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4 Responses to May 4: Birth anniversary of Horace Mann, architect of American public schools systems

  1. […] May 4: Birth anniversary of Horace Mann, architect of American public schools systems (timpanogos.wordpress.com) […]

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  2. Jude says:

    We have a locally famous Horace Mann; I talk about him on my cemetery tour because he connected with Teddy Roosevelt when he was hunting bears near Rifle. The teachers always ask me if he’s related to the Horace Mann they know, and generally it turns out that they only know about their Horace Mann because of insurance.

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Oddly, the intention of producing good citizens disappeared as a result of right-wing complaints about the kinds of citizens schools produce.

    Industrialization of schools ran rather rampant from about 1890 into World War II — students divided into groups, taught subjects separately, made to sit in rows, shut up, and ask questions only with permission — and even a factory bell to signal time to change class, go to lunch or go home. That’s separate from what most of us regard as citizenship training, I think.

    Some people do not want good critical thinkers — famously, the Texas GOP platform last year condemned critical thinking, and said it must be banned from schools. They don’t want kids who can read Jefferson and realize that Texas GOP vice chair David Barton lies with his claims about what Jefferson said.

    Together, it blends into a big mistake: A lot of people think a “good worker” is someone who shuts up and follows the rules.

    I spent four years at American Airlines training managers and workers that good citizenship on the job meant getting up and wandering around to get the tools needs, talking constantly to keep up social communication lines, which will save our tails in emergencies, and shouting out when we see things wrong, without waiting for someone to “call on us.” In short, we were undoing a lot of that conditioning from school. It was essential for safety, and it boosted profits when we did it.

    I don’t know if they still teach that at American.

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  4. By coincidence, a friend and I were discussing Mann over supper just last evening. I didn’t realize it was the anniversary of his birth, though.

    It seems to me, Ed, that his ideal of producing good citizens has to some extent been abandoned in favor of merely producing good workers. Do you think that might be true? I assume you would know more about the current most widespread goals of public education than I do.

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