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Impactof Horace Mann

Observing the Grassroots of PublicSchool: Why Mann’s Philosophy Was Not the Answer

Horace Mann

By Whitney Dotson

Less than a span of two centuries ago, an institutiontermed the “common school” was introduced with great expectations toMassachusetts soil. Notable schoolmaster and head of state school board HoraceMann deemed the historic landmark the hope of social “improvement,” and themeans of producing moral, enlightened citizens of the country’s children(ASSS). By as early as 1860, legislations regarding the length of the schoolday and year had been confirmed as nationally binding, and Mr. Mann had earnedthe title “father” of the nation’s government-funded establishment (Gangel,277). The briefest glimpse into academic and moral significations withinAmerica’s modern school system, however, would certainly disappoint thepedagogue’s aspirations. As a disconcerting forty-three percent of childrenunder the age of twelve leave grade school illiterate and rates of suicide,premarital sex, and pregnancy out of wedlock increasingly incline among thecountry’s scholars, statistics would appear to disprove Mann’s revelations(Brown). In his zeal, he had erroneously discounted the reality of sin andassumed the perfectibility of man. A basic review of the historical context andfoundational thoughts effectuating the educational philosophy of Horace Mannwould disclose that education which is simultaneously redemptive and liberatingis found only in a biblical understanding of knowledge and man in theirrelation to God.

In Colonial America and prior, the majority of childrenwere instructed to an extent domestically through parental instruction orself-schooling—some being so well-prepared as to enter college at age thirteen.When more rigid establishments became prevalent, parents continued to recognizetheir roles in child-training and understood the warrant of their position indoing so, often over-seeing administrative duties as school board membersthemselves (Beliles, 104). The esteem placed upon Christian knowledge withinthese sectors was evidenced in the fact that horn books and slates reflectedtheological truths (Beliles, 103). The ecclesiastical field in the pursuit ofacademics was so revered and closely tied that clergy often advised curriculumchoice or served as instructors, and the Bible typically represented thedoorway to reading as well as to personal piety and understanding. Universitiessuch as Harvard and Princeton, in addition, were later constructed in hope ofpropagating the ministry (Beliles, 104). Compulsory restrictions of anykind were hardly considered as teachers and school board alike relied heavilyupon the advice and participation of parents (ASSS). Primary schools anduniversities, also, were tax-exempt and operated without the use ofgovernmental subsidies. Contrary to popular assumption, literacy rates soaredwithin this period, and students capable of independence and trade wereproduced (ASSS).

The concept of subsidized schooling first gained seriousconsideration in America with the expansion of religious differences andpoverty posed by increased European immigration, and the onset of surroundingnational advances (Thattai). Until this time, children were generally sent toprivate facilities or common schools, locally authorized and supported(Beliles, 103). Denominational groups including Anabaptist and Presbyteriancredence were expressly designed so that familial guardians could expose thenext generation according to the doctrinal training that they chose. Respectedfigures, however, had begun to imagine a non-sectarian system as beneficial tothe virtuous upbringing of varying social classes (Gangel, 137). William Pennenvisioned the establishment as the opportunity of protecting Quaker childrenfrom persecution in a largely Calvinistic America; Reformation leaders JohnCalvin and Martin Luther had years before sanctioned the public school as apotent channel for furthering the Great Commission in which every child couldfreely learn the Bible (Gangel, 226). Nearly always, the thought of universaleducation was primarily understood as a crusade against the negative elementsof religious persecution or atheism. Such considerations ironically renderedthe admiration for an approaching foreign advancement which would successivelycontribute to changing the face of American schooling—and eventually serve, inpart, as the outline for the philosophical devising of Horace Mann.

Defying common assertion, the conventionalform of public education known today began as an attempt to remove what wasperceived by radical thinkers to be religious indoctrination in domestic andreligious establishments (Carson). At the height of thenineteenth century, the civilized world seemed intent upon change; adetermination to right the wrongs of society through an emphasis upon knowledgeand governmental regulation had entranced the European realm. Outside nationswatched as Germany erected an academic system, contestably the first in itsform (Thattai). Distinctly tied to government and presumably theologicallyneutral, school fused with state in enforcing civic allegiance among youths.Mandatory attendance laws were constructed upon the threat of separatingdisobedient parents from their children (Thattai). The Prussian creationconvinced countless of the merits of humanitarian efforts in socialreconstruction, and inspired many with the feeling that advancement could beachieved at the hands and wit of man. The theory that man’s suffering layin the deterring action of religion impressed the minds of rising Americanphilosophizes and reformers, and eventually succeeded in removing church fromstate matters. With time and reason, it was perceived, truth could be deducedthrough the progress of “evolutionary developmentin whichindividuals found ultimate definition in their ability to conform to the designof society (Mann).

Philosophy is an inevitable aspect of any field ofknowledge as it determines how and what one perceives to be truth. It is themethod of attaining a certain goal, and the worldview of the mind’s eye. Thephilosophical tenets of Horace Mann were a compilation of the principles ofmoral perfection and Unitarianism, of natural theology and social progressivism(Badolato). Born in 1796 in Franklin, Massachusetts, Horace was a faithfulattendant of a local congregational church from infanthood. Following a tragicincident involving the accidental death of his brother, however, he abandonedthe Calvinistic teachings of Nathaniel Emmons as a youth (Ritchie). Unwillingto face the biblical reality of a judicial God, Mann forsook any concept of adivinity less than his own perception of “kindness and ethical integrity(Ritchie).” Only a few short years following, he transitioned hismembership to First Parish Church of Dedham where he accepted the religionof Unitarianism. In contrast to the teachings of Reverend Emmons, theindividual was confirmed there a generally good being who could be easilyredirected to perfection, and the deity of Christ and the presence of originalsin were denied.

Though Mann certainly acknowledged the existence of evilin the world, his insistence upon its domination depicted it a force of merenegativity rather than a grave spiritual hindrance. While biblical reading wasintegrated into initial classrooms and curricula, doctrine was regulated, andScripture was esteemed more for its virtuous, rather than spiritual, character.Mann’s Transcendentalist perspective and enthrallment with the naturalencouraged a sensual, experiential pursuit of knowledge which re-popularizedthe secular classics and fostered a temporal worldview based upon externalcontrol. The antidote to the woes besetting mankind, Mann believed, lay inthe structure of formal education (Mann). In a perspective not unlike hiscentury colleagues, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, criminology andanti-patriotism could be dissolved if only the arm of governmental supervisionwas extended. To Mann, salvation lay in the hope of education, and human errorresided whenever ignorance prevailed and circumstance failed to offerenlightenment (Mann).

Abandoning the professions of his Protestant background,Horace concluded the value of the individual as dependent upon the intellectualability. With enlightenment came prosperity and “power”—without which, humanitywas indistinguishable from the animal realm (Mann). Mann understood the sourceof strife as the inequalities plaguing his fellow man. Whether by deliberate ornatural circumstances, individuals climbed the social system while othersremained unfortunate, even to the point of destitution. He sought to dissolvesuch barriers through the blending effect of a false “tolerance”regarding issues of contention. A form of academic democracy combining studentsof varying religious and cultural contexts would allegedly provide everyone theopportunity to prosperity. In reality, however, this philosophy only resultedin expanding moral weakness and a spirit of statism.

Without the certain doctrines of sin and grace, humanismabandons persons to the bondage of fellow men, leaving the weaker vulnerable tothe subjection of the elevated. Such a theory assesses the value of humanity assomething to be earned, and limits knowledge to a self-centered scope. In hisrefusal to recognize man biblically, Mann misplaced his trust in humanauthority. In his refutation of the Trinity, he denied the liberating viewsof individual government and Christian conversion. As Christ was perceivedas neither God nor sovereign and man was neither spiritually void nor innatelydepraved, the value of the Cross was negated. Inevitable was the gradualimpingement of freedom in the forms of governmental intrusion and moralautonomy. In truth, Mann failed to recognize the grave consequence of ignoringthe biblical format for authority, and the demand and purpose for culturaldominion. Typified in the Garden and re-instated in the Great Commission, God’sintention for mankind in general was to utilize all in available power to exaltHim; from cultivating the ground to becoming spiritual fishermen, humanity wasdesigned to discover and emit His character as ambassadors and according toappointed roles. Civic and governmental duties, while to be revered andhonored, were in reality only earthly reminders of His justice and intolerancetowards sin. Familial roles such as parental instruction and disciplinerevealed His character of righteousness and love. Such earthly representativeswere situated not to replace divine authority, but to represent His hand andcharacter in His hatred for the transgression of law, and the innate value oflife. Unless man is internally governed by the Holy Spirit, he cannot and willnot cease from tyrannizing others or transgressing society.

Affirmed in numerous biblical passages is the principleof personhood or individuality (Jeremiah 1:5)—the belief that every man wasknit specially and uniquely by the Creator, and for His will (Jeremiah 29:11).Scripture recounts the simultaneous presence of a sinful nature and divineresemblance imbedded in every soul (Romans 3:23; Genesis 1:27). Despitemaintaining the image of God and a spirit distinct from the created world,man’s ability to reason and will have been hindered by natural and deliberatewickedness (Romans 3:23). According to the inspired author James, evil isneither aroused by any force or form of determinism, but comes solely from thedesire of man’s heart (James 1:27). It is imperative, then, that the studentreceive knowledge competent in offering the wholeness of his being to originalpurpose and function. True knowledge is found first in the “fear” of theLord (Proverbs 1:7). It is centralized upon and measured in the recognitionof God’s omniscience and revealed Word. Within Scripture, information isdetermined as profitable only according to its supporting object and motive.Proverbs denotes that knowledge can abase with foolish pride or establish onewith earthly riches, yet is of little consequence outside the favor of theLord. In an ever-eternal view, knowledge is depicted as supremely significantwhen ascribing to the intimacy of fathoming the Savior (John 20:31). Though includingintellectual assent, this understanding surpasses the mind, and grasps thespirit, gradually sanctifying the whole person. It is only in this instructionand hope that a genuine hope for world-reaching reconstruction can be imagined,and in which the testimony for which Christ died can be manifested (John 3:16).

A biblical education presupposes a need forcorrection. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary specifically denoteseducation as a means of reforming the “temper” and general unruliness inpersonality and thought of the child. Implied is the act of training, molding,and improving from darkness to enlightenment, from unruly to tame. Such atheory initializes with the imperfect state of natural man, and seeks to edifyhim. In a Scriptural knowledge of the doctrine of total depravity (Romans3:23), instructors gain insight as to what they may reap from their students.The realization that sin has fogged man’s wholeness—mind, spirit, and soul—andthat only the Holy Spirit can shed light upon any misunderstanding, encouragesthe teacher who may have otherwise apprehended a performance of perfection fromeither herself or her pupils. Such an understanding decries any hope ofimprovement outside a biblical conversion, and concentrates upon the innercondition and needs of each classmate. Implied in such foresight is the totalsovereignty of God—His domain and right over every facet of the universe, andthe responsibility of each man to submit to His government. Inconceivable inthis recognition is any form of human dominance or totalitarian authority whichtrespasses upon the natural rights of His children, or the order which He hasrevealed!

—Whitney Ann Dotson

Badolato, Robert. “The Educational theory of HoraceMann.” January, 4, 2008. [available online] at:

Beliles, Mark A. and McDowell, Stephen K. America’sProvidential History. Providence Foundation. Charlottesville, Virginia. EightEdition. 1989.

Brown, Martha C. “Poor Reading-Instruction Methods KeepMany Students Illiterate.” January 31, 2001. [available online] at:

Carson, Clarence. B. “The Dilemmas of Public Education.”The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. Volume 33, Issue 9. September 1983. [availableonline] at:

Gangel, Kenneth O. and Benson, Warren S. ChristianEducation: Its History and Philosophy. Wipf and Stock Publishers. Eugene,Oregon. 1983.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids,Michigan. Zondervan Publishers.1984

Mann, Horace. “Horace Mann Quotes.” Homepage. [availableonline] at:

Ritchie, Susan. “Horace Mann.” [available online] at:

Thattai, Deeptha. “A History of Public Education in theUnited States.” [available online] at:

This entry was posted on Monday, August 23rd, 2010 at12:23 pm and is filed under Education.

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