By Jack Wilkie
Horace Mann was a Massachusetts state senator in the 1830s, born and raised during the turn of the century when men like Benjamin Rush were advocating compulsory schooling. Mann’s political career was boosted by his election as president of the state senate in 1836, which eventually led to his appointment as the first secretary of education in Massachusetts (which also made him the first secretary of education anywhere in the United States). In this position he began to study the school system within his state and came to believe that it needed improvement.
Mann observed that masses of immigrant children were coming to the country with a different religion (Catholicism), a different cultural background, and a different worldview than many of the other children in the state. Building on Rush’s belief that education was useful for uniformly developing children into citizens who fit within the system, Mann believed those immigrant children needed to regularly attend school for such training. Naturally, he presented his plan as a much more philanthropic effort in the beginning, attempting to set up “common schools” to help every child. What was the problem with this publicly declared goal to help children of all ages? The national literacy percentage was considered to be in the high nineties.
America was literate beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, and not merely book-literate. Americans were broadly proficient in the formidable “active literacies” of writing, argumentation, and public speaking, things which had actually been a crime to teach ordinary people under British colonial rule.i
So, the truth about the 1840s is that American education was in pretty good shape. It would be difficult to produce literacy rates that were any higher than those that America boasted in the years before compulsory education. So, we can safely say that Mann’s crusade had a different motive than the improvement of education. He truly wanted to give the state the ability to influence and mold the next generation.
Of course, this plan was hindered by one big problem; school attendance was largely optional. In looking for solutions to this roadblock, Mann took off for Europe in 1843 to observe what had been done in the Prussian schools. Beginning in the early 1700s, Prussia adopted a system of government-controlled schooling, and Horace Mann knew that the blueprint for the state schools he wanted to implement could be found there. German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte described the goal of the Prussian education system by saying that “schools must fashion the person, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”
Mann and the group he traveled with returned with great praise for the Prussian system, urging Massachusetts to take on the ideas that were so necessary for his plan of molding the next generation of children. While some of his ideas were rejected at the time, two key ideas lived on––the establishment of compulsory common schools and the uniform training of teachers. Massachusetts became the first state to implement compulsory education in 1852, and teachers began to be trained in streamlined “normal schools.”ii (John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education provides an excellent in-depth look at Mann’s beliefs and how they have been implemented over time.) This idea is where the shift from parental control over children to state control began.
Joel Turtel summed up the Prussian effect by saying this about it:
Now think about our public schools today. They mirror exactly the Prussian education principles noted above. First public schools promote collective learning and conformity to authority… Second, the school day is divided into fifty-minute periods, and during each period children learn a different subject… Learning becomes disconnected and superficial… Third, public schools increasingly usurp parents’ job of raising and educating their children and teaching them moral values.iii
Mann said it himself : “We who are engaged in the sacred cause of education are entitled to look upon all parents as having given hostages to our cause.”iv So, he took that cause upon himself and left an immeasurable mark on American society. The developments we saw in American education and parenting beginning in 1850 and extending throughout the 20th century even to today find a large amount of their roots with Horace Mann. More than any other, he blurred the lines between parental control and state control with regards to children.
By Jack Wilkie