Magazine article Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology

Giants of American Education: Horace Mann

Magazine article Technos: Quarterly for Education and Technology

Giants of American Education: Horace Mann

Article excerpt

HORACE MANN HAS BEEN CALLED THE FATHER OF AMERICAN "COMMON," OR PUBLIC, EDUCATION. INDEED, HE WAS A CHAMPION OF THE NON-PRIVILEGED CLASSES, A MAN WHO WORKED TIRELESSLY TO OVERCOME THE INJUSTICES IN OUR 19TH-CENTURY EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM. THIS IS THE FIRST IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES OF BRIEF BIOGRAPHIES OF GIANTS OF AMERICAN EDUCATION.

In the early 1830s, Horace Mann, a young representative in the Massachusetts legislature, headed a commission to build a "State Lunatic Hospital" to house mentally ill patients. These unfortunate people had previously been incarcerated--often in extremely vile and inhumane conditions--by county sheriffs. Mann insisted that the hospital include the most up-to-date systems of plumbing, ventilation, and food service. He was persuaded that a healthy environment and kindly treatment would alleviate, if not cure, many of the inmates' afflictions.

To the commissioners' dismay and chagrin, shortly after the hospital opened, a patient with a severe persecution mania claimed that the staff was poisoning him, and he threatened violence against other inmates. Then he escaped from the facility, panicking the neighborhood and forcing the commission to authorize several secure rooms for violent patients whose illnesses resisted the effects of humane care.

This lesson in the limitations of enlightened treatment failed to undermine Horace Mann's lifelong faith in the possibility of improving society through appropriate education and environment. This conviction apparently took root in his youth, when Horace's brother, 17-year-old Stephen Mann, skipped a Sunday of preaching to swim in a nearby pond, where he drowned. The loss devastated the boy's mother, widowed less than a year before, and his two brothers and two sisters.

Fourteen-year-old Horace Mann soon felt fear and outrage as well as grief, as the local minister decided that it was his duty, not to provide solace to the bereaved, but to exploit the event as an example to other young people in the parish. He railed against the "incurable viciousness" of those who "profane the Sabbath" and described for them the "lake which burneth with fire and brimstone." Mann later recalled that from this time on, he lost his faith in his family's traditional Calvinism and directed his efforts toward the betterment of society. "All my boyish castles in the air had reference to doing something for the benefit of mankind," he wrote.

Today, there is hardly a school district in the United States that doesn't have a building named for Horace Mann, the "father of the common school." Mann's claims to such paternity rest as much on the way he framed issues that plague public schools today as on his actions as Massachusetts's first Secretary of Education. A tireless public speaker of great eloquence, he learned to adapt the rhetoric of Puritan preachers to a faith in human perfectibility through good public schools.

Associating with anti-slavery and reform leaders, Mann came to his zealous advocacy of public education from a career as a successful lawyer and legislator. As a young representative, Mann had pushed for the regulation of liquor licenses and the reduction of the number of offenses subject to capital punishment. He worked to reduce occasions for imprisonment for debt and enthusiastically supported state investment in the newest transportation technology--railroads.

Although Massachusetts Colony had passed several laws and resolutions in the 17th Century that made its towns responsible for providing education for all children within their boundaries, in fact there was little financial support or enforcement of universal schooling. By the early 19th Century, when Horace Mann was growing up, public schools offered the bare minimum of education, often only to those families that could pay fees. Yearly school terms were rarely more than a few weeks long; absenteeism was extremely high; there were no common textbooks; buildings were inadequate and unequipped; and teachers were usually young, inexperienced, ignorant, and untrained. …

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