“The molding of minds is about the noblest work that man or angel can do.”
At heart, Mann was an idealist, always on the lookout for good causes. He once said to a friend: "All my boyish castles in the air had reference to doing something for the benefit of mankind."
I am standing on the lawn of the Boston State House, looking up at a statue of the educator Horace Mann. His left hand holds a book, his right hand reaches out, and over his business suit hangs the scholar’s robe. The 9-foot bronze likeness was sculpted by Emma Stebbins, paid for by the teachers and schoolchildren of Massachusetts, and dedicated on July 4, 1865. On that day his friend and fellow humanitarian Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, in prose characteristic of the 19th century, celebrated “a man whose greatness consisted in his love for his fellow man, in his confidence in their innate goodness, and their capacity for improvement.” Why was Mann so venerated then? What makes him a hero for today?
Horace Mann grew up on a farm just outside the small town of Franklin, Mass., a town named after Benjamin Franklin. From an early age, Mann cut wood, raked hay, and pounded flax. “Industry, or diligence became my second nature,” he later wrote. As a boy, he read Noah Webster’s Grammar and some of the 116 books Ben Franklin had donated to the town. Mann also experienced sorrow. His father died of tuberculosis, and his brother Stephen died four years later, in 1810, when Horace was 14 years old. Stephen had been swimming on Sunday; according to the Calvinist minister Nathanael Emmons, he desecrated the Sabbath and in his unconverted state would go to hell. Bitterly, Mann turned against Calvinism and adopted a lifelong antipathy toward ministers who preached a punishing God.
As a teenager, Mann decided that only nearby Brown University could offer an escape from a life of farming. To prepare for Brown, he studied Greek, Latin, and mathematics and in 1816 entered as a sophomore. He came to love books and revere knowledge. As valedictorian in 1819, he delivered a commencement-day oration titled “The Gradual Advancement of the Human Species in Dignity and Happiness,” a speech that reflected his growing interest in humanitarian causes. After graduation, Mann studied law in Litchfield, Conn., moved to Dedham, Mass., and was later elected to the state legislature.
When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the Fourth of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, towns all over America solemnly took note of this amazing coincidence and paid tribute to the last of the Founding Fathers in the weeks following. In Dedham, the town leaders asked Horace Mann to prepare an address. Before a large crowd, which included Adams’ son, President John Quincy Adams, Mann praised Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and Adams as a prophet and peacemaker. John Quincy Adams would later write that Mann’s eulogy was “of splendid composition and lofty eloquence.”
While a member of the state House of Representatives and later as the president of the Massachusetts Senate, Mann learned how to craft legislation. He attended Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lectures and heard the sermons of the well-known Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, as well as those of Edward Taylor, the prototype for Father Mapple in Moby Dick. At heart, Mann was an idealist, always on the lookout for good causes. He once said to a friend: “All my boyish castles in the air had reference to doing something for the benefit of mankind.”
He maintained that high-caliber, tax-supported public schools could produce efficient workers, promote health, eliminate poverty, cut crime, and unite a society fragmented by class and ethnicity.
Mann’s commitment to philanthropy was deepened by catastrophe. In 1832, his wife, Charlotte, to whom he was deeply devoted, died at age 23. Disconsolate, Mann isolated himself and sank into a depression that robbed his energy and sapped his idealism. He found it hard to believe in a benevolent God and an ordered universe. Only gradually did he recover. He vowed that he would honor Charlotte’s memory by listening to his conscience, helping mankind, and working without respite.
In 1837, at age 41, Mann retired from politics, closed his law office, and accepted an appointment as the secretary of the Massachusetts state board of education, a job that paid a small salary and came with no formal power. In his private journal, he wrote: “The path of usefulness is open before me. ... God grant me an annihilation of selfishness, a mind of wisdom, the heart of benevolence.”
For the next 11 years, from 1837 to 1848, Mann traveled all over Massachusetts, peering into dilapidated schoolhouses, perusing antiquated textbooks, and listening to demoralized teachers. He made himself an expert on reading techniques and school construction and studied the best ways to teach geography, science, bookkeeping, and hygiene. To increase his knowledge, he traveled to Europe, observing how highly trained German schoolmasters maintained discipline without corporal punishment and taught reading to very young pupils. He started the Common School Journal, a professional biweekly that contained model lesson plans for teachers. In speech after speech, he tried to convince a skeptical citizenry that their schools were languishing and needed reform.
During his term as the secretary of the Massachusetts board, Mann produced 12 impassioned and detailed reports that were circulated all over America and convinced other states to implement reforms. In those reports, which eventually found their way to France, England, and South America, he maintained that high-caliber, tax-supported public schools could produce efficient workers, promote health, eliminate poverty, cut crime, and unite a society fragmented by class and ethnicity.
Students, he argued, deserved a stimulating curriculum and well-written textbooks adjusted to different age levels. Mann believed that schools should teach students how to read, spell, and write, but their more important goal was to build character. Early examples, he said, were powerful examples, and lessons taught in classrooms would last a lifetime. Mann made large claims for schools, frequently quoting from Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Like Jefferson, Mann believed that training in character would produce responsible and virtuous citizens who would make the republic flourish. “Never will wisdom preside in the halls of legislation,” he wrote, “until Common Schools ... shall create a more farseeing intelligence and a pure morality than has ever existed among communities of men.”
Rather than advocating vocational education for the poor and classical education for the privileged, Mann championed a revolutionary idea: a high level of general education for all citizens.
To build character, Mann recommended that students study exemplary lives. He praised the study of “biography, especially the biography of the great and good, who have risen by their own exertions from poverty and obscurity to eminence and usefulness.” In his second report to the voters of Massachusetts, he talked about how reading uplifting books could inspire the young student: “Sages imbue him with their wisdom; martyrs inspire him by their example; and the authors of discoveries ... become his teachers.” Rather than advocating vocational education for the poor and classical education for the privileged, Mann championed a revolutionary idea: a high level of general education for all citizens.
Mann’s vision required that teachers have intellectual and moral power. They must not only know their subjects thoroughly, but also command a wide range of pedagogical methods and be able to preserve order. So he persuaded the legislature to create teachers’ colleges and to increase salaries. Regularly, he celebrated teachers: “Teaching is the most difficult of all arts, and the profoundest of all sciences,” he wrote in his First Annual Report.
In his 11-year campaign to improve public schools, Mann would make enemies: wealthy people who favored private schools, workers who depended on their children’s labor, orthodox ministers fearful of a Godless curriculum, local politicians resentful of state control, teachers who believed in corporal punishment. But he consoled himself with the belief that “the molding of minds is about the noblest work that man or angel can do.”
Mann was not perfect—and we know more about his flaws because he kept a detailed journal. He complained, indulged in self-pity, demonized his enemies. On his way to Nantucket to give a speech, he admitted he was sick of education. And of course, like many crusaders, he made excessive claims for his cause. Behind the soaring rhetoric about the transforming power of education lay a melancholy man, unable to sleep, plagued by illness, morbidly attached to the memory of his first wife. Like many great individuals, even reformers and humanitarians, Mann was ambitious, sometimes egotistical. He liked being the center of attention, and at times seems to have had a martyr complex. Ralph Waldo Emerson made this trenchant remark about genius in his journals: “Take egotism out, and you would castrate the benefactors. Luther, Mirabeau, Napoleon, John Adams, Andrew Jackson; and our nearer eminent public servants,— Greeley, Theodore Parker, Ward Beecher, Horace Mann, Garrison, would lose their vigor.”
Horace Mann was the first to articulate a unified vision of how schools could transform, unite, and preserve the republic. Most importantly, he tried to implement his vision.
But I find Mann heroic, worthy of the statue of him that stands in front of the Boston State House. Though born poor, he never craved wealth. He lived on a small salary in dank boarding houses, traveled at his own expense, and gave his savings to the cause of education. Even though he rejected Calvinism and became a Unitarian, he retained Christian charity. He had a conscience that could never be quiet and a belief in America’s future that he never relinquished. Idealistic, he combined the incisive mind of a good lawyer with the politician’s ability to maneuver.
Others had championed public schools. Horace Mann was the first to articulate a unified vision of how schools could transform, unite, and preserve the republic. Most importantly, he tried to implement his vision. He traveled hundreds of miles by horseback and stagecoach, speaking in towns and cities until his body collapsed and his voice gave out. He roamed the halls of the state Capitol, asking legislators to support his education bills. At night, he wrote the reports which even today demonstrate an impressive range of knowledge, as he shifts from physical education to choral music to phonics.
At the end of Mann’s crusade, schoolhouses had been improved, teacher salaries increased, the school year lengthened, and new high schools established. Mann was that rare hero: the practical dreamer and the political idealist. To Thomas Carlyle, the 19th- century apologist for heroes, sincerity was the most important quality of a hero. To Emerson, it was perseverance. Mann had both.
At the end of Mann's crusade, schoolhouses had been improved, teacher salaries increased, the school year lengthened, and new high schools established.
Today, Mann is remembered as the father of American public education, but his career did not end when he resigned his post as secretary of the board. When John Quincy Adams died of a stroke on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1848, Mann was picked to fill his seat. He crusaded against slavery with the same zeal he had exhibited in his fight for public schools. Defeated in a bid for the Massachusetts governorship, he took over as president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1853, and for five years fought an uphill battle to solidify a school committed to coeducation, equal opportunity for African-Americans, and a nonsectarian Christian morality.
Two months before he died, Horace Mann gave a last speech in which he advised the senior class of Antioch: “I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week as A Hero of Education