Thursday, May 5, 2016

Horace Mann, Champion of Public Education

It is a bit ironic to be posting this article in praise of public education from Japan, where I have come to help celebrate the centennial of Seinan Gakuin, the private school system founded by Baptist missionaries. Nevertheless, I am serious in what I write here about public education and its great nineteenth century champion, Horace Mann.
Some of my best memories from when I was a high school student are of going to nearby Maryville, Mo., for music contests. They were held at the school whose official name since 1972 has been Northwest Missouri State University.
One of the things I remember seeing on that campus as a high school student was a building bearing the name Horace Mann Laboratory School. At the time I didn’t know who Horace Mann was, but I later learned that he was one of the most important persons in the development of public education in the United States.
That school was founded 110 years ago, in June 1906. Interestingly, Mann was born 110 years before the beginning of that educational institution in Maryville that bears his name.
Born in Massachusetts on May 4, 1796, from ages ten to twenty Mann had no more than six weeks’ schooling during any year. He made use of the town library, though, and at the age of 20 he enrolled at Brown University, graduating in three years as valedictorian. He went on to become an outstanding educator and politician.
After graduating from Brown, Mann practiced law before winning a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served from 1827 to 1833. Then he served in the Massachusetts Senate until he became the head of the nation’s first board of education in 1837. In his biography titled Horace Mann (1974), Robert B. Downs called Mann “a highly effective missionary for universal public education.”
In addition to the school in Maryville, Mo., there are more than 70 other Horace Mann schools scattered across the nation.
There were also people named after him. For example, recently I posted an article about Julian Bond (see here). His father’s name was Horace Mann Bond—and he also became a distinguished educator, serving as the first African-American president of Lincoln University (in Penn.) from 1957 to 1972.
Often called “the father of American public education,” Mann championed six innovative educational principles:
(1) the public should no longer remain ignorant; (2) that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public; (3) that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds; (4) that this education must be non-sectarian; (5) that this education must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society; and (6) that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.
Perhaps the most controversial of Mann’s principles was that it be non-sectarian. That idea was opposed by clerics who thought that education should include religious indoctrination—something that was being done widely at the time, and which R.J. Rushdoony (introduced recently here) and his followers think ought to be done in home schools now.
Mann became the first president of Antioch College (Ohio) in 1852. There he employed the first woman faculty member to be paid on an equal basis with her male colleagues. Mann’s commencement message to the graduating class of 1859 included the words, “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” 
Those words are still repeated at every commencement ceremony at Antioch College—and, indeed, they are words well worth considering.


  1. Very interesting, Leroy. Thanks. It's a shame the marriage between conservative religion and right-wing politics in this country has and is assaulting our educational ideals.

    Your blog reminds me of some good points made by Richard Rorty. In an essay in his book, Philosophy and Social Hope, Rorty draws an interesting distinction between elementary eduction and higher eduction. It makes practical sense to view the former as the place to instill a culture as it is. He doesn't use the word "indoctrination," as I recall, and he's not talking about religion at all. He writes: “Even ardent radicals, for all their talk of ‘education for freedom’, secretly hope that the elementary schools will teach the kids to wait their turn in line, not to shoot up in the johns, to obey the cop on the corner, and to spell, punctuate, multiply and divide.” But then the latter, nonvocational higher education should lead students to creative quests and criticism, to the construction of a new self and more. He writes: “The point of non-vocational higher education is…to help students realize that they can reshape themselves—that they can rework the self-image foisted on them by their past, the self-image that makes them competent citizens, into a new self-image, one that they themselves have helped to create.”

  2. Thanks, Anton, for your substantial comments about Rorty and his views. As you may or probably don't remember, I previously posted an article (on 6/30/13, see the link below) about Rorty, but I didn't write anything about his views on education, and I have not read the book you referred to.

  3. I fear the assault on public education is more than just an unhappy side effect of conservative religion. There is a broad economic strategy at work in the modern world where the rich and powerful attempt to privatize everything public, so as to create a profit stream out of it. An excellent overview of the process was written by Naomi Klein a few years ago in "The Shock Doctrine." For good measure, more recently she wrote "This Changes Everything" about the pending climate disaster.

    One of the key goals of public education is teaching basic citizenship to the population. People who want to restrict education to "the three Rs" are indulging in the anti-intellectualism so common in America. Which also conveniently teaches children to become pawns on someone else's chess board, instead of free and independent citizens. Some of the needed education begins early, as was once expressed in Robert Fulghum's book title, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Other skills, from conflict resolution to balancing a check book, need to be learned later. Unfortunately, from drivers education to sex education, the forces of ignorance have frequently prevailed. The war on critical thinking is ferocious. The predators prefer that the prey not understand.

    1. Thanks, as always, Craig, for your important comments.

      One of the problems is that those who espouse conservative religion are often also supporters of "the rich and powerful."

      It was interesting that you mentioned Fulghum's delightful book. Just yesterday I saw the memorial listing the names of all the missionaries who have taught at Seinan Gakuin. One was Sarah Fulghum, who taught in the kindergarten in the 1920s. She was a relative of Robert Fulghum.

  4. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago once again shares significant comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing up Horace Mann and public education.

    "Being married to a retired public school teacher, we are strong supporters of public education. We both believe that more, not fewer, and smaller elementary schools are needed with lower student-to-teacher ratios. Elementary schools set the stage for educational success down the road.

    "The issue of inequitable funding also needs to be addressed. This is the result, by and large, of funding schools with real estate taxes--wealthy districts have better funded schools.

    "Private schools allow wealthy citizens to undermine the public schools. In some districts in the South, white citizens send their children to private schools and then vote to lower real estate taxes so that the public schools, largely attended by minority children, are seriously underfunded."

  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, a lifelong seminary professor, writes,

    "Thanks for remembering him, Leroy. Your tribute is timely in this era when public education is under fire in many states in the U.S. I’m thankful that many of my former students are rallying support for public schools in Texas and Kentucky."

    1. Charles Kiker here: I think Nancy Bean is one your former students Glenn Hinson. At any rate she has an M. Div. from SBTS, about 1979 or '80. She is a public educator in Texas, an advocate of public education, and a candidate for Texas Legislature HD 93. (Daughter of Charles and Patricia; wife of Alan Bean.) See her FB site NancyBean4TX.

  6. Charles Kiker again: Also worth mentioning that our second President, John Adams, was an advocate for free public education for all. In his day, I don't know whether he really meant all, or all free males. He might have meant all. His wife believed women were really citizens.

  7. My hope is to continue to make a difference in the lives of people I meet - especially those I seek to serve. I have seen the results, especially with immigrants from around the world, youth exchange students, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and neighbors. That is enough for me.

    My brothers intentionally put their children in a Christian school in Louisville because of the very inferior nature of the public schools. We intentionally put our children in public school in the communities where we have lived, because of the quality of education and for exposure to the real world and its issues. We have had people condemn us for not living in the central city with mediocre schools, and also for not sending our children to Christian schools. Through the years my parents got me the best education they could. I attended just about every variety except Motessori - Catholic, international fundamental Christian, international private, correspondence home-school (Calvert, and U of NE), excellent public, and mediocre public. Each has pros and cons. I also very much remember the tragic decision of forced bussing which brought gang violence to our neighborhood and forced the middle class white flight to the suburbs. (We were not wealthy, it took Dad until age 45 to pay of his college loans, but they did the best they could.) Governments mean good, but have a way to causing trouble for the citizenry. Religion has its issues too, regardless of brand.

    There is far too much government intrusion into the public schools. New concepts of education come and go - as my wife, a public school teacher states "This too shall pass." As has been well documented, the one area not evaluated in education is parental support in and out of the schools. Children with parents who are supportive of education do MUCH better, regardless of the school type. Dr. Ben Carson is a very good example. I am also grateful that my parents encouraged reading, and listening to various media sources - AFRTS, BBC, RSA, SYT, VOA, VOK...