Early Childhood Education

Mann, Horace (1796-1859)

 

While Thomas Jefferson provided important discussions on public education and developments in European education had their immediate impact on public education in the United States, Horace Mann deserves particular credit for both establishing the American system of public education and devising its basic aims in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1837, when asked to head the newly formed Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann was a lawyer and rising star in Massachusetts politics. From his college days, Mann had been an idealist with a religiously inspired yearning to serve and reform. And so, with service and reform in mind, Mann forsook his promising careers in law and politics for the uncertainties of a career in education.

For a little over a decade, Mann used the office of head of the Massachusetts board to reflect on what public education in the United States should mean and to lead a reform movement to establish a system that would support public education. Each year, as head of the board, Mann issued his annual reports on the state of public education in Massachusetts. By the 1850s, those reports became a blueprint and motive for making public education compulsory.

Mann defined the American public school in ways that still apply (Cremin, 1957). First, public schools meant schools for all. Public schools were to be excellent and inclusive so as to successfully compete with private institutions and thus to become the great equalizer in society. Moreover, for Mann, public schools were to be the main instruments for curing society’s ills and for molding a diverse population into one common, American character defined by a common set of values.

Mann’s commitment to creating inclusive schools was no less a commitment than that of the most ardent proponents of inclusion today. However, the arguments he gave then were quite different from those given today—because the context was different. Aside from diversity in social and economic class, diversity in the 1840s meant sectarian diversity within Christianity, the main groupings being Calvinists and non-Calvinists, Protestants and Catholics. It is easy for us today to ignore these categories or treat them as being trivial compared to the categories that define diversity today. However, for the American populace in the 1840s, these categories mattered every bit as much as do those used today to define diversity.

For Mann, as for many in contemporary American society, the hope and aim of public education was and is to help children learn to function well as citizens in a diverse society where group differences are respected even as common values are practiced. Therefore, for Mann, public education meant a moral education needed to develop children into good citizens, citizens who would insure that the new republic would thrive.

Mann also championed a broad view of public education. For Mann, public education meant liberal arts education, an education that went beyond a narrow definition of education in terms of apprenticeships and education for specific vocations. Mann’s view was that all children, not just the children of the rich, should know great literature, be trained in math and science, and have experience with the arts (especially singing). In addition, all children should be taught how to live a healthy life.

But Mann was more than a moralist and idealist. He was also a practical man—as shown in the way he promoted a system that would grow and sustain his vision of public schools. That system included central oversight at the state level—to insure that local leaders did not shortchange schools to appease taxpayers. However, the heart of the system was local involvement in schools and providing training for carefully screened teachers.

Regarding local involvement, Mann argued tirelessly against selfish views of property and for views rooted in his own Unitarian Christian theology. He argued that property should be thought of as on loan to us for the purpose of caring for our neighbors, not just ourselves, and for caring for future generations as well. For Mann, our taxes and time helping local schools are sacred obligations. Mann’s arguments helped establish a system of local control and oversight of schools that is still a cornerstone of American public education today.

With respect to teachers, Mann argued against the prevailing view that anyone can teach and that teaching need not require special training. Mann saw teaching as one of the most demanding professions. For Mann, not only must teachers know their subject matter, they must also know pedagogy. Furthermore, teachers must be persons with exemplary moral character, for their character serves as the mirror in front of which children practice how to behave.

Horace Mann provided American society with a new vision of public schooling, one that to a certain extent defines much in contemporary understanding of what we should mean by public education and public schools, at least with regard to essentials. Those essentials include a commitment to public education for all and to a broad and liberal education that promotes knowledge, character, and physical health. They also include local involvement and oversight of schools and having a core of trained teachers with exemplary character.

Horace Mann, and the reform movement he led, began a cycle that would become a recurrent theme in the history of American public education (Katz, 1968). Mann’s idealism, his optimistic faith in the power of public schools to perfect humans and cure society’s ills, led to reform but it also led eventually to disillusionment and disengagement as Mann’s assumptions proved wrong. Mann assumed that all groups, including diverse groups of working class families, would welcome the kind of education he was promoting. By the 1860s, it was clear that many groups experienced compulsory public schooling as defined by Mann as an imposition, not as a means to develop and succeed. Mann’s optimistic vision did not, then, match the reality and complexity of American pluralistic society.

Today, American educators wrestle with this same issue of matching a progressive, idealistic vision of public education to the complex reality of American society—particularly to the reality that families differ significantly in what they want and do not want from public schooling. Mann’s legacy lies, then, more in his defining an ideal than in his providing the details needed to realize that ideal.

Further Readings: Cremin, L., ed. (1957). The republic and the school: Horace Mann on the education of free men. New York: Teachers College; Cremin, L. (1965). The genius of American education. New York: Vintage Books; Glenn, M. (1984). Campaigns against corporal punishment: Prisoners, sailors, women, and children in antebellum America. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; Katz, M. (1968). The irony of early school reform: Educational innovation in mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts. Boston: Beacon Press.

W. George Scarlett