A tireless determination and boundless energy fueled Horace Mann to improve the dire shape of public schools in early nineteenth century Massachusetts.
Mann came from a poor family and grew up on a farm in Franklin, Massachusetts. As a child, he was educated in the local one-room schoolhouse which, according to him, was in a state of major disrepair.
He entered Brown University, where he prepared for a career in law. After brief stints in law and business, Mann committed himself to social reforms, including the construction of a state insane asylum and leadership in the temperance movement.
In 1837, serving as state senate president, Mann turned his attention toward public schools, starting a crusade that lasted the rest of his life.
Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, public school students attended classes for only a few weeks each winter, often in poorly equipped schoolhouses with untrained teachers.
Using his position in government and his experience as a social reformer, Mann established the state board of education and departed from the senate to serve as the board’s first secretary.
Seeing public school as a way to improve and equalize educational opportunity, Mann comprehensively surveyed the condition of the state’s schools, established training institutes for teachers, increased the length of the school year to six months, and gathered support for more funding for teacher salaries, books and school construction.
Mann’s life and work present a number of interesting paradoxes. A crusader for universal education that embraced different social classes, Mann also worked to promote industry, canals and railroads as Massachusetts State Senator and as head of the Senate.
He often argued for public education in economic terms, saying that it would increase the wealth of individuals, communities, the state and the country as a whole, while teaching respect for private property.
Mann argued that all children should learn together in “common” schools, yet he did not take a stand against school segregation in his own city of Boston.
He lived at a time of tremendous social change when immigrants were pouring into the Northeastern states, farmers were leaving rural areas to work in factories, and cities were growing rapidly with crime and poverty on the rise.
Some historians believe that Mann and other reformers were alarmed by the upheaval, and promoted state regulated public education as a way to bring order and discipline to the working class in this rapidly changing society. Threatened by the growing population of urban poor, Mann and his fellow reformers placed a major emphasis on “moral training,” standardization and classroom drill.
Many historians, however, see Mann’s legacy as positive, contending that overall his contributions led to a more egalitarian and democratic society. Some credit Mann with spearheading the most successful progressive social movement of the 19th century: Public Education.