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Attorney, politician, and reformer of U.S. public education Horace Mann transformed the nation's schools. Mann was a gust of wind blowing through the doldrums of nineteenth-century teaching. In 1837, he left a promising career in law and politics to become Massachusetts's first secretary of education. In this capacity, he rebuilt shoddy schools, instituted teacher training, and ensured widespread access to education for children and adults. These reforms not only revived the state system but also inspired great national progress. The spirit of opportunity and the duty of citizenship guided Mann: "In a republic," he said, "ignorance is a crime." Later, he served in the U.S. Congress before becoming a professor at and the president of Antioch College. Besides these contributions, his legacy to U.S. education is still felt in the contemporary debate over school prayer. He helped wean education from its religious origins in order to create a truly public system.
Mann was born in poverty on May 4, 1796, in Franklin, Massachusetts. His father, Thomas Mann, was a farmer in Franklin. Neither his father nor his mother, Rebecca Mann, received much formal education, which was not widely available in the years following the American Revolution. Little opportunity existed for Mann, a sensitive boy driven to tears by hellfire-and-brimstone sermons on Sundays. Although an avid reader, Mann never attended school for more than ten weeks of the year. His extraordinary mind might have gone no further than the family's ancestral farm were it not for a traveling Latin teacher who tutored him when Mann was twenty. Provided with decent instruction, Mann's gifts were revealed: he qualified for entrance as a sophomore to Brown University. He graduated with high honors in 1819; remained briefly as a tutor in Latin and Greek; enrolled in Litchfield Law School, in Connecticut, two years later; and was admitted to the bar of Norfolk County in 1823.
Mann practiced law for fourteen years while making his name in politics. He first won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1827; election to the state senate, where he served as president, followed in 1833. He left his mark on the legislature in two ways: by seeking state help for mentally ill persons and by passing the landmark education bill of 1837. The law created a board of education at a time when Massachusetts's public schools were barely limping along. Buildings were crumbling, teachers underpaid, and teaching methods erratic. Much the same could be said of the nation's public schools. In Massachusetts, moreover, one-third of the children did not attend school at all, and one-sixth of all students attended private schools. To clean up this mess, the 1837 law called for the appointment of a state secretary of education. Mann, despite the promise of further success as a lawyer and politician, took the job.
Over the next twelve years, Mann's success was stunning. His efforts rebuilt Massachusetts's education system from the ground up: he centralized control of its schools, invested in better facilities, established institutes for teacher training, revamped the curriculum, discouraged physical punishment, and held annual education conventions for teachers and the public. Educators nationwide sought out his ideas, published in a bimonthly magazine that he founded, called the Common School Journal, as well as in annual reports. In 1843, pursuing new ideas for improving the quality of Massachusetts's system, he toured schools in eight European countries. His praise for the rigors of the German model brought him into open conflict with schoolteachers back home, who thought him critical of their work. Mann stood his ground; he had not spent five months abroad only to be bullied by the status quo.
"Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men,—the balance wheel of the social machinery."
Even more controversial was Mann's position on Bible reading in public schools. In the mid-nineteenth century, the practice remained a leftover from the colonial period, when schools were each run by a church of an individual sect, or group. Mann thought Bible reading useful for teaching moral instruction, and he promoted it, but only so long as it was done without comment. As a Unitarian, he did not want teachers imposing views on students of different faiths; this had often led to bitter disagreements. (In the early 1840s, disputes over classroom Bible reading would cause Catholic-Protestant riots in New York and Philadelphia.) Under Mann's influence, Massachusetts adhered to the law it had passed in 1827 banning sectarian instruction (instruction specific to or characteristic of a particular religious group) from public schools. Orthodox church leaders sharply attacked Mann, one calling his policy "a grand instrument in the hands of free thinkers, atheists and infidels." History was on Mann's side, however. The sectarian influence would continue to die out over the next half century, a historical trend culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark rulings banning school prayer in 1962 (engel v. vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 82 S. Ct. 1261, 8 L. Ed. 2d 601 ) and Bible reading in 1963 (abington school district v. schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844 ). Ironically, the prayer ban arose from an attempt by administrators of education in New York to compose a bland, inoffensive prayer in the spirit of Mann's anti-sectarianism.
Mann spent the last decade of his life in public service and education. Resigning the education secretary's post in 1848, he won election to the U.S. Congress and served there four years. A run for governor of Massachusetts failed in 1852, and he accepted the offer of the presidency of newly founded Antioch College, a multiracial school for men and women, where he also taught courses in philosophy and theology. The college suffered financially. Mann's health failed, and he died August 2, 1859, at the age of sixty-three. Shortly before his death, at a commencement ceremony, he left the graduating class to ponder this sterling ideal: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
Blanshard, Paul. 1963. Religion and the Schools: The Great Controversy. Boston: Beacon Press.