Horace Mann's Vision of the Public Schools

April 21, 2006

Chapter 1
The Early Years
The idea that there should be free, locally tax-supported schools did not begin
with Horace Mann. Just a few years after it was established, the Massachusetts Bay
Colony General Court passed in 1647, a decree that required that towns with over fifty
residents appoint a master to teach all children to read and write and that communities
with more than one hundred residents establish a grammar school to prepare youth for the
university.1 Although Massachusetts took the first step toward the establishment of public
education, various types of schooling evolved, at least for some children, in each of the
colonies. Significant differences emerged in various sections of the country during the
colonial period.
In the South, which was politically dominated by the owners of large plantations,
tutors were hired for the children of plantation owners. Young men were taught basic
academic skills along with proper social graces and how to manage slaves. In addition,
the daughters of these families were instructed on how to be a successful hostess. Selftaught
poor white farmers who were literate often taught their own children, but formal
schools were not readily available for most children in the South until the 19th century.
Teaching slaves to read and write was actually illegal in many of the Southern states.2
The middle colonies, which would include New York, Pennsylvania, and
Delaware, saw the development of numerous church-sponsored schools. These schools
were established to accomplish several goals. Often students were taught in the native
language of the dominant group in the community in an attempt to preserve the original
language of the family. There also was heavy emphasis on the religious beliefs of the
denomination that sponsored the school. Thus, in the Hudson Valley in New York State,
the Dutch Reformed Church was active in setting up their own schools, while in
Pennsylvania, it was the Society of the Friends or Quakers who offered opportunities for
children in a number of communities.3 Interestingly enough, the schools established in
Pennsylvania rejected corporal punishment, which was prevalent in most other schools
and also opened their doors to Native Americans and the children of slaves. All of these
parochial schools focused on reading, writing, and mathematics, along with religion.4
The most important steps toward a truly public school system were made in the
New England colonies. In 1789, after the American Revolution, the Massachusetts
legislature passed a law which expanded on the legislation enacted during the colonial
period. Although the previous bill mandated a community-sponsored school, under the
new amendment, the responsibility was lodged with the local towns and not the church.
Elected local officials were given the duties that had formally belonged to ministers, to
inspect schools as well as to supervise the curriculum and urge student attendance.5 This
did not take religion out of the schools in Massachusetts as students were still taught
using the Bible and they also were required to learn the tenets of the Puritan religion.
Until almost the mid-19th century, support for local schools remained very
limited. Even the Massachusetts initiatives did not require a free education for all
children and most families were charged tuition. It is true that many towns contributed
funds to pay for the education of poor children. Along with what we would now call
elementary schools, grammar schools were established for older boys. The purpose of
such schools was clearly to prepare them for the ministry, as the clergy in New England
towns were both the spiritual and political leaders of the community. During the 18th
century in Massachusetts, the commitment of the town governments to provide schools
gradually declined. Even though all of the New England colonies except Rhode Island
enacted legislation similar to that of Massachusetts by 1671, by the middle of the 18th
century, it was the private schools in the largest towns that provided the best educational
opportunities. None of the colonies outside of New England “attempted systemic”
legislation mandating public education.
Even as late as 1837 when Horace Mann accepted the newly created position of
Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, the goal of providing a quality, publiclysupported
school for all children in the state was not even close to being accomplished.
When Mann began to visit the existing schools, he found poorly constructed one-room
structures lacking even the most necessary supplies. Most schools were being taught
primarily by unqualified and uncommitted young men, many of whom stayed in the job
for only a brief period. School sessions were short with the older children attending most
often during the winter months when they were not needed on the farms. Younger
children frequently went to school during the summer. It was also true that there was little
communication between teachers and those who were responsible for the community
schools. As Horace Mann observed in a lecture shortly after accepting his new
In this Commonwealth, there are 3,000 public schools, in all of which the
rudiments of knowledge are taught. These schools, at the present time, are
so many distinct independent communities; each being governed by its
own habits, traditions, and local customs. There is no common,
superintending power over them; there is no bond of brotherhood or
family between them. They are strangers and aliens to each other. As the
system is now administered, if any improvement in principles or modes of
teaching is discovered by talent or accident, in one school, instead of being
published to the world, it dies with the discoverer. No means exist for
multiplying new truths, or preserving old ones.5
During his tenure as Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, Mann visited
approximately 1,000 schools. He found deplorable facilities which lacked adequate
heating, lighting, and ventilation. There were no blackboards, no standardized textbooks,
and the only teaching method was having students memorize their textbook and recite
what they had memorized back to the teacher. Most of all, he was appalled by the
inequality of the system that had evolved in his state. Wealthy children were in school for
longer periods, and the poorest often failed to attend because they lacked even the
minimal tuition fees. At one point, Mann suggested that the state of Massachusetts took
better care of its livestock than its children. He was also vehemently opposed to the
means of punishment being used by school masters, noting that they “crowd from forty to
sixty children into that ill-constructed shell of a building, there to sit in the most
uncomfortable seats that could be contrived, expecting that with the occasional
application of the birch they will then come out educated for manhood or womanhood.”6
Despite the fact that schools were far from excellent even in the middle of the 19th
century, the importance of providing a quality education for all children was at least
discussed by some of the leaders during and after we gained our independence. Following
the American Revolution, one of the most outspoken champions of state-supported
schools was Philadelphia physician, Benjamin Rush. One of the founding fathers, he
spoke out and wrote frequently about the need for publicly-supported schools. He
believed that our newly established democratic government “created a new class of duties
for every American.” For his home state of Pennsylvania, this meant creating “free
district or township schools that would teach reading, writing, arithmetic and the English
and German languages.”7 These schools would provide a common education which
would “render the mass of people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily
for a uniform and peaceful government.”8 The thoughts expressed by Benjamin Rush
would be echoed fifty years later by Horace Mann as he was promoting the need for
common schools.
Even President Washington articulated his support for education. In his first
message to Congress he included the words that “there is nothing which can better
deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in
every country the surest basis for public happiness.”9 The members of both houses of
Congress agreed in their responses to the President.10
Perhaps the most eloquent of the proponents of education for the masses was
Thomas Jefferson. While agreeing with Rush on the importance of education in a
democracy, Jefferson did not support the idea that schools should “impose political
values or mold the virtuous republican citizen.” He instead believed that the function of
education was to make the common man literate enough to exercise reason and to
develop political beliefs. For Jefferson, public schools would also help to identify an elite
which would then be sent on to college to prepare for leadership. This group would
become a natural aristocracy.11
Ever the optimist, Jefferson was also convinced that education and knowledge
would improve the human condition. This too would be one of the underlying
assumptions in the thinking of Horace Mann. In 1818, while in retirement at his home at
Monticello, an aging Jefferson wrote that:
Schools should be established to provide tuition-free education for three
years for all male and female children. In these schools, children were to
be taught ‘reading, writing, and common arithmetick’ [sic], and the books
shall be used therein for instructing the children to read shall be such as
will at the same time make them acquainted with Grecian, Roman,
English, and American history. 12
Despite Jefferson’s lifelong support of public education, he was not successful
either as a leader in Virginia or as President of the United States in establishing a system
of tax-supported elementary schools. In fact, despite their belief in the importance of
education, the generation of the founding fathers accomplished little in providing
educational opportunities for the new nation’s children. The Constitution which they
wrote and ratified did not mention the word education and did not delegate the
responsibility for establishing schools to the federal government. Instead, it has been an
accepted fact for most of our history that education was a power that was reserved for the
states. Even so, during the first three decades of the 19th century, state governments did
little in the field of education. The probable reason for their reluctance to interfere with
the pattern of local control was that schools had been established and governed by local
communities for two hundred years. It would take a generation of strong and committed
leaders to establish the role of state governments in providing common schools for the
children of their state. Foremost in this group of leaders in the decades of the 1830’s and
1840’s was Horace Mann of Massachusetts.
1. V. T. Thayer, Formative Ideas in American Education, (New York: Dodd, Mead, and
Company, Inc., 1974), 4.
2. James C. Klotter, “The Black South and White Appalachia,” Journal of American
History, (March 1980), pp. 832-49.
3. Robert F. McNergney and Joanne M. Herbert, Foundations of Education, (Boston:
Allyn and Bacon, 1998), 48.
4. Peter S. Hlebowitsh and Kip Tellez, American Education: Purpose and Promise,
(Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth, 1997), 17.
5. Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education, the National Experience: 1783-1876,
(Cambridge, MA: Harper and Row Publishers, 1980), 155.
6. Editors Sarah Mondale and Sarah B. Patton, School: The Story of American Public
Education: (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 27-28.
7. Cremin, American Education, the National Experience: 1783-1876, 116.
8. Cremin, American Education, the National Experience: 1783-1876, 117.
9. L. Dean Webb, Arlene Metha, and K. Forbis Jordan, Foundations of American
Education, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill, 2000), 169.
10. Webb, Metha, and Jordan, Foundations of American Education, 169.
11. Joel Spring, The American School: 1642-2004, (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 50-51.
12. Spring, The American School: 1642-2004, 52.