Orthodoxy Today
HORACE MANN, PART II: Prussia comes to America

This series of articles reviews key people in the origins of the current U.S. “public” (i.e. - government-sponsored) education system, the origin of the founders’ interest in education, what he or she contributed, and the fruit that has grown therefrom. My intent is not to lambast the U.S. school system, but to give Orthodox parents an understanding of the influences on the system and how those influences may translate to pressure on their children to abandon beliefs and core values parents are trying to instill at home. Forewarned is forearmed.

Go to Part I: Understanding the Origins of the U.S. Public School System: Horace Mann, Part I.

In 1837 Massachusetts governor Edward Everett, another Unitarian and someone who had spent time in Prussia and seen their school system first hand, proposed to the state legislature the creation of a State Board of Education (Messerli, 239-240). After some back and forth between the House and the Senate, the Board was established, the first of its kind in the United States. The Board, consisting of eight Governor’s appointees, was ostensibly begun as an “advising” organization to the town school committees of the state, yet those in the legislature who had encouraged its formation had an eye towards eventually making it much more than that. (Messerli, 240-241) To this end the first Board appointees were people with wide influence:

James G. Carter, teacher, owner of a private school and legislator; chairman of the House Committee on Education Reverend Emerson Davis, pastor of a Congregationalist church
Edmund Dwight, manufacturer and philanthropist, Unitarian
Edward A. Newton, banker and prominent Episcopalian
Robert Rantoul, Jr., lawyer, Democratic politician and Unitarian
Reverend Thomas Robbins, Congregationalist
Reverend Jared Sparks, historian, president of Harvard and Unitarian,
Horace Mann, president of the Senate, Unitarian

As the only salaried employee, the Secretary (the equivalent of the modern-day Director of a state agency), would be expected to “collect information” on the condition of Massachusetts schools and to “diffuse, as widely as possible, throughout every part of the Commonwealth, information of the most approved and successful methods of arranging the studies and conducting the education of the young.” (Seventh Annual Report, para.85) He had one duty: to prepare (on behalf of the Board) an annual overview to the Massachusetts legislature on the condition of the state’s “common” schools, excluding the private academies and the private “monitorial” schools in which one instructor, supervising as many as 500 children, used older students (“monitors”) to teach younger ones. (Messerli, 305-306).

The list of nominations for the post of Secretary was narrowed down to four men, three of whom were educators. The fourth was Horace Mann, the nomination of whom was somewhat surprising in light of the fact that Mann had taught only briefly and that at the college level, nor was he then a parent. However, several men who were advising Governor Everett decided that:

The reform of the common schools was too important and difficult an undertaking to be placed in the hands of a mere educator. What the group wanted instead was a man prominent in public life, with strong political connections. In addition, he needed to be dedicated and unselfish, driven by an inexhaustible reservoir of energy and a man, who, by the sheer force of his determination and will power, could both overcome a small hostile minority opposed to public schools and stir up a large apathetic majority which simply did not care….The job called for a man…[who] could fire the imagination of people, prick their consciences and forge a coalition of support for humanitarian causes. (Messerli, 241-242)

In other words, they wanted much more than a gleaner of information – they wanted an orator who could persuade the people and politicians that a government-run school system was the way to go. Mann’s family-taught education, along with his extensive reading, and law training had apparently educated him well enough to become just such a man. Surprisingly, Mann accepted the position, which involved resigning from the legislature to avoid conflict of interest, and accepting pay for the new position that was half that of his legislative salary.

While the position of Secretary involved reading hundreds of written reports from individual schools, it was no desk job: gleaning the information for the Annual Report to the legislature entailed organizing regional conventions and traveling “circuits” from city to city on horseback with one circuit covering as much as 500 miles. Considering the number of schools and the slowness of travel compared to modern times, one writer noted, “even if there were to be no new schools and [Mann] visited one school each day for the next decade, he still would not have set foot in every one.” (Messerli, 251).

The written reports from the schools only gave Mann additional motivation for his efforts to reform the system:

  • BUILDINGS were too small, in disrepair, in bad locations (one literally stood in the middle of a road) and suffered from poor or no ventilation. Furnishings were sparse with students sitting on whatever was available, most often long backless benches which one expert claimed caused curvature of the spine in the children. (Messerli, 297) At a time when indoor toilet facilities were rare, some schools did not even have an outhouse, so children relieved themselves in the nearby forest. At least one school didn’t have the forest and made no other arrangements, and was therefore censured by the local community for promoting immodesty.
  • TEACHERS: No certification was required of teachers, and new teachers were often recruited from transients passing through towns or from locals with no skills of any kind. According to Messerli, “newspapers and school reports were filled with complaints about poor teachers.” (255) Teacher pay was low, even for those times (ranging from $5 to $16 per month), and while they were provided with housing, in some towns this consisted of living with a student’s family for a week, then moving on to the next family. Families didn’t board the teacher because they wanted to; they boarded the teacher because doing so saved money by giving them a reduction in their school taxes or fees. In order not to “eat up” this savings, as little as possible was sometimes spent on feeding the teacher during the week they were present.
  • CONTENT: There was no state-wide curriculum and textbooks were collected from among books owned by students’ families. Door-to-door book salesmen marketed their wares directly to parents, who bought at their discretion. Thus textbook collections in schools were a hodge-podge of titles and subjects, varying widely from school to school.
  • CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT: Discipline in the form of corporal punishment was often over-administered and bordered on abuse. One schoolteacher boasted of having switched 50 students in one week.
  • PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT: Parental involvement and support of the schools ranged from “not much” to “a majority are very deficient in their duty.” Parents, once having surrendered their God-given rights to the hands of teachers, seemed to have little motivation to stay involved at all.

In short, Mann discovered that while Massachusetts had boasted for many years that it had the best school system in the U.S. at the time, in reality it had no “system” at all (Williams, 255). Even the private academies, while not under his direct jurisdiction, were a concern to Mann as he felt the latter diverted funds from the common schools.

Mann began his new job by persuading parents and governmental officials of the need for schooling – the centralization of education away from the home – then moved on to address the practical problems caused by such centralization: he began advocating for better forms of ventilation, the installation of individual student desks and seating with back supports, playgrounds, bells and classroom clocks.

Meanwhile the Protestant Puritan morality and work ethic on which Massachusetts had been successfully founded, began failing under the combined pressure of factory life and mass immigrations and the social unrest both created (Messerli, 340; Williams, 67-69). In 1834, mobs burned a Roman Catholic private school for girls, attended by both Protestants and Catholics (Messerli, 191-192), and in 1837, Mann’s own law office, in which he was living at the time, was set on fire by rioters (Messerli, 236-237); two weeks later another incident involving a collision between an Irish funeral procession and a pumper rushing to put out a fire resulted in rioting and bloodshed in the streets (Messerli, 237). As another author put it,

…an unsuspected pathological phenomenon was following the introduction of mass production into life…the barbarous life of the machine laborer made family ideals a hollow mockery….Urbanization spelled the collapse of worker families; there was no remedy for it. Fathers were grossly diverted by non-agricultural labor from the custody and training of their children. Claims of a right to society and fashion led to neglect by mothers, too (Gatto, 119)

For Mann, convinced that knowledge, not theology, was at the root of human morality, the need for education of the masses was blatantly obvious and urgent: it was the only way to change their behavior and thus society. As he put it,

If the spontaneous productions of the earth were sufficient for all, men might be honest in practice, without any principle of rectitude, because of the absence of temptation. But as the population increases, and especially as artificial wants multiply, temptations increase - and the guards and securities must increase also, or society will deteriorate.” (Messerli, 307)

As Mann said elsewhere: “Schools will be found to be the way God has chosen for the reformation of the world.” (Gatto, p.82-83) What God Mann is referring to is uncertain, but at any rate, Horace Mann had definitely chosen the school as his tool to reform the world. He stated,

The common school…and it alone, “is the institution which can receive and train up children in the elements of all good knowledge and of virtue, before they are subjected to the alienating competitions of life. This institution is the greatest discovery ever made by man – we repeat it, the common school is the greatest discovery ever made by man. (Williams, 341)

The question became how to begin “reformation of the world” in the whirling maelstrom of Massachusetts common schools.


By 1838 Mann had found what he felt was the crux of the whole matter: Teach the teachers to teach properly and they would take care of changing the classrooms and involving the parents and would become so good at teaching that towns would willingly pay higher salaries and improve facilities. What exactly was the best method of teaching the teachers became a burning question for Mann. At the time, the few training courses offered were in either universities or private academies, limiting the number of people who could afford to take them, and often being only a single course on pedagogy (the theory and practice of teaching) in a program aimed at other purposes. None of them were complete programs resulting in a degree, or even certification. (Messerli, 304)

The answer had arrived three years before via a transatlantic ocean-going vessel: Mr. Charles Brooks, a fellow Unitarian, spent forty-one days in the presence of a Dr. H. Julius, hearing about the Prussian school system. By the end of the trip

Julius had completely convinced Brooks of the superiority of the Prussian system of education, especially the network of state-controlled teachers’ seminaries. By the time he returned to [Massachusetts], Brooks was an unquestioning convert, fired with a zeal for his new cause which approached fanaticism. (Messerli, 261)

Or, as Brooks himself put it, he “fell in love with the Prussian system, and it seemed to possess me like a missionary angel.” (Messerli, 298) Brooks’ zeal expressed itself in speaking and writing on the Prussian school system at every turn, even going so far as to pay for newspaper ads on the subject. Mann, exposed to Brooks’ ideas at a conference at which Brooks spoke, felt Prussia held the answer: centralized government-controlled training of teachers. (Williams, 262)

There was only one problem: the Prussian system was “no creation of some fickle village or town board” but “an instrument of the state” and their curricula were “first and foremost a matter of national political policy.” (Messerli, 393). There the focus of teaching was to “systematically, efficiently, and unswervingly” achieve national goals, not local or family goals. In addition, Prussia was ruled by a king with absolute control, and was neither a republic nor a democracy. Thus, the “will of the people” meant nothing. The general public and legislators alike feared that imitating the Prussian school system might lead the U.S. to also imitate its autocratic form of government.

Mann agreed that dictatorial control of schools was to be avoided and said so in his Second and Third Annual Reports. He later claimed to be interested only in the methods used to teach teachers and students (Seventh Annual Report, para.97). He was convinced that teaching the teachers was the only way to begin reform in Massachusetts.

Even before he visited Prussia, Mann took the seed of the idea and propagated it. Not trusting existing universities to be “non-sectarian” enough, and wanting more control over the curriculum, Mann began a long campaign to create “Normal” schools, the term then used in Prussia to denote schools dedicated solely to training teachers. By struggle and hard perseverance with both the legislature and the general public he succeeded in getting two Normal schools approved and funded (Seventh Annual Report, paragraph 8). Still, he began seeking a way to travel to Prussia to gain more information and a needed first-hand look at the methods used there.


In 1840, while still basking in his and others’ success in the establishment of the Normal schools, Mann was hit by a firestorm of attack from an unexpected source: the same Massachusetts House Committee on Education which had created the Board of Education ordered an investigation into Mann, the finances of the Board of Education, and where the State Board of Education was headed. The final Majority Report claimed that Normal schools were an “unnecessary waste,” and that the Board either had no authority at all or was usurping authority vested by the people in the Legislature itself . Either way they felt the Board should not be supported by the State. Finally, the Report sounded an alarm concerning Mann’s and other Board members fascination with the Prussian system and warned that what they desired to do was to “place a monopoly of power in a few hands, contrary, in every respect, to the true spirit of our democratical (sic) institutions.” (Messerly, 329)

The investigating committee wrote the Majority Report after only four days of investigation, recommending the Massachusetts State Board of Education be killed. While the investigation lasted days, the attack on Mann and the battle over whether the legislature should approve the report continued for three months, requiring Mann and his supporters to defend themselves at every turn, including outside the legislature. Finally, in March 1840, the legislature rejected the Majority Report by a vote of 245 to 182. Mann’s supporters included “orthodox” Trinitarian Christians as well as the newer liberal Unitarians and Transcendentalists. (Messerli, 333)

Mann himself believed he had a destiny to fulfill. Of Mann’s 1842 Fourth of July speech, given in Boston and which resulted in a standing ovation, an author writes, “He had triumphed in Boston, and as he walked from the dais to the main floor of the [meeting hall], he knew he was doing for his own generation what his ancestors had done at Lexington, Concord, and Breed’s Hill.” (Messerli, 378).

By 1843, however, political struggles, continual circuit-riding and extensive lecturing had taken a toll on Mann’s health. Friends invited him to travel to Europe with them and he accepted, planning a working holiday in which he would visit as many European – and especially Prussian – schools as possible. The other members of the Board agreed to his absence from the state’s schools for a year and thought Mann’s plan to survey European schools while there a good one. Just four weeks before leaving Mann proposed marriage to Mary Peabody, a long-time friend, who accepted. They were married on the day of departure, and the trip to see European and Prussian schools became a honeymoon as well.


When Mann left for Europe he was leaving U.S. shores with several assumptions firmly in place:

  • The “nobly-endowed” had a moral obligation to educate the lesser endowed. (Messerli, 337)
  • That all children everywhere were the same and could be taught the same way. (Messerli, 344 and Seventh Annual Report, para. 97)
  • Schooling was the key to maintaining the form of government in the U.S. (It must be noted that writers and leaders before Mann had emphasized that education, not any one particular form of it, was the key to maintaining a republic. Mann, however, was referring not only specifically to schooling but also to maintaining a democracy.)
  • Schooling should be non-sectarian. Mann staunchly claimed that he was not against the teaching of “religion” in schools, only against the teaching of any one particular sect’s dogma. His reasoning: the dogma taught would change from year to year as one group or another gained control of the schools through gaining the ascendancy in local or state politics, resulting in conflicting ideas and confusion for the children.
  • Teaching the teachers was the key to successful schooling. By “successful” Mann meant that schools turned out moral democratic citizens, not just individuals who could read, write, and do math. If the teachers were taught how to effectively pass on morality and citizenship skills as well as subject matter, the entire nation could be steered in the right direction. To that end Mann’s Normal schools accepted only “persons” who could “furnish certificates” and “other probable evidence of their possessing high intellectual powers and a good moral character.” (Seventh Annual Report, para. 10)

Mann began his European tour in Liverpool, England. His visit to England reinforced his belief that the U.S. had the better form of government and a better system of schooling. At the same time England’s social class system and its resulting injustices shook his soul: if England, with her great age as a nation and great wealth, could go so far astray, what hope did England’s offspring, the young United States, have of avoiding the same fate? Mann became convinced by the very absence of a national school system in England that such a system would be the saving of the U.S. (Seventh Annual Report, para.141) With fresh determination he moved on to Prussia, believing that its model school system would provide the answers. In this he was not disappointed, stating:

Arrange the most highly civilized and conspicuous nations of Europe in their due order of precedence, as it regards the education of their people, and the kingdoms of Prussia and Saxony, together with several of the western and south-western states of the Germanic confederation would undoubtedly stand preeminent, both in regard to the quantity and quality of instruction. (Seventh Annual Report, para. 145)

Besides England and the Germanic states, Mann’s tour also included Holland, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Belgium. With the exception of England, all had nation-wide systems of schooling.

When he returned to the U.S., he had become firmly convinced of some additional tenets (Messerli, 307):

  • Corporal punishment was unnecessary. (Seventh Annual Report, para. 91)
  • A prescribed unified curriculum was needed if schools were to be successful
  • Schooling should be publicly controlled and publicly funded: Immigration, the change from farming to labor, and the downturn in the economy all decreed that the numbers needing schooling had outstripped the ability of individual parents and towns to meet the need. Therefore, funds for the support of schools should be centrally pooled, and given back to each town only in proportion to the town’s raising of matching funds (Seventh Annual Report, para.148).
  • Attendance must be compulsory for all children if the schools were to be the moral savior of society and the producer of good citizens and a literate workforce. This, with public control and public funding, would combine to form the foundation for an all-encompassing school system. (Messerli, 343).
  • A national school system was needed to achieve these goals, not just a state-wide system (Seventh Annual Report, para.163), or else non-democratic nations would quickly surpass the U.S. in literacy and production (Messerli, 404)


Mann, having thrown out both the concept of sin and Jesus Christ as the only solution, was convinced that schooling was the cure for all that ailed society, including poverty (Messerli, 492) and that it was up to a select few, the “nobly endowed” to teach the masses. In his Twelfth Annual Report, he wrote:

…the Common School…when its faculties shall be fully developed, when it shall be trained to wield its mighty energies for the protection of society against the giant vices which now invade and torment it – against intemperance, avarice, war, slavery, bigotry, the woes of want and the wickedness of waste – then there will not be a height to which these enemies of the race can escape, which it will not scale, nor a Titan among them all, whom it will not slay. (Twelfth Annual Report, para.12)

Following the system he’d seen in Prussia, Mann and others called for public funding and government control of common schools, built a system of centralized teacher training facilities, instituted teacher certification procedures and began moving to standardize the student curriculum and textbooks, laying the groundwork for others yet to come, such as John Dewey and the capitalists. As Messerli states:

Few understood the momentous social movement then under way, and even fewer understood that within it the very nature of education and the society which it shaped would change, with the implementation of a comprehensive public system based on textbooks, lesson plans, graded instruction, and certified teachers. (Messerli, 347)


During His Time

Mann’s ideas, as put forth in his public speeches, legislation (he went on to become a member of the U.S. legislature), writings, journal, correspondence and his twelve Annual Reports, had a large ripple effect. While similar changes came simultaneously to the nearby states of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, many of those changes were instigated by friends of Horace Mann, a large number of whom were fellow Unitarians.

The ripple continued outward, further afield: Mann’s writings and published speeches were often reproduced in the quantity of 10,000 – 20,000 for use in mass mailings, were reproduced in newspapers widely-circulated across the United States (including readership in the new western territories) and even made their way to England before Mann ever arrived there. In addition they were sometimes translated into other languages, including German during the wave of immigration from that country in the mid-1800s. (Williams, 348-349)

Through History

At a time when masses of immigrants from various countries, cultures, and religion were flooding into the U.S., including German Lutherans and Roman Catholics from both Germany and Ireland, Mann’s fear of the multiplication of religious sects was well-founded. By 1982, 130 years after Horace Mann’s reforms, there were 8,000 Protestant denominations in the U.S. (or more, depending on how you counted them), not to mention the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. (Barrett) Nor does this take into account the ever-increasing numbers of non-Christian religions.

In the area of religion in schools, Mann seemed so focused on his own time that he remained blind to the foundation his work was laying for the future: in 1827, sectarian texts were forbidden, while use and reading of the Bible was encouraged. Seventeen years later, in 1844, Mann, in his Seventh Annual Report, dedicated his longest paragraph to the negative effects of using the Bible as a stand-alone textbook (Seventh Annual Report, footnote 2). Yet in 1846, Mann could still state to a critic,

…you accuse me before the world of being opposed to religion in our schools. I regard hostility to religion in our schools, as the greatest crime which I could commit against man or against God. Had I the power, I would sooner repeat the massacre of Herod, than I would keep back religion from the young. My own conscience acquits me of your accusation. I call the All-Seeing Eye to witness that it is as false as anything ever engendered in the heart of man or friend. (Messerli, 434)

However, note that Mann, as was his practice, refers to “religion.” Once the U.S. moved out of a predominant culture of Calvinist Protestantism, his readers and hearers should have inquired of Mann of “what religion?” and of “which God?” he was speaking. However, because at that time Massachusetts was still predominantly a Protestant Christian state, these questions were rarely asked because the answers were assumed to be common knowledge. Indeed, Mann had to defend keeping “religion” in the schools in order to gain the cooperation of the majority of citizens and to obey the laws then in force, while at the same time wanting to keep out traditional Calvinist and “orthodox” Trinitarian doctrine.

The battle over religion in schools continued after Horace Mann’s death. In the late 1800s Darwin’s theories were taken up by atheists as evidence against the Bible’s creation story. Then in 1925, a media storm erupted over the infamous Scopes trial, a storm involving the teaching of evolution in the schools. By 1962 not only had the Bible been removed from schools, but prayer as well.

Today schools are once again encouraging religion in the schools – only this time the religions being introduced and encouraged are Transcendental Meditation (c. 1957 on), Yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, while Christians must fight hard to get the same rights now accorded to these other religions: In 2000, two students in a Houston, Texas, area school had their personal Bibles taken from them by force, called “garbage” and thrown into a trash bin. The girls were expelled from class and the mother was told Child Protective Services would be called if the girls were not picked up in thirty minutes. Another child had his Bible taken away and was also forced to remove a book cover featuring the Ten Commandments. (Adherents) In 2002, in Massachusetts, a second-grade student was stopped from reading aloud in class from a book on the “first Christmas” because the book talked about the birth of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholic students have been suspended for wearing a rosary (similar to Orthodox Christian prayer ropes) and Christians of all varieties have been suspended for praying for their nation around school flag poles. (ACLJ) Meanwhile, a school district in California has a mandatory course on Islam.

According to news reports, the class requires students to pray “in the name of Allah the Compassionate the Merciful,” to chant “Praise to Allah, Lord of Creation,” to “pretend” they are Muslims, wear Muslim clothing to school, stage their own Jihad, and select a Muslim name from a list to “replace” their own name. (ACLJ)

Mann, while insisting that he had no desire to remove “religion” from American schools, had removed Jesus Christ and God from his own life, and formed his own theory of “moral obligation” out of which, he said, his life flowed. (Messerli, 20; Williams, 13) It is therefore not too surprising that the flow of his non-Christian Unitarian life merged with others to ultimately become a flood attempting to sweep away all evidence of Christianity in public schools.

Mann insisted on a unified national curriculum that all students might share the same knowledge and become good citizens and laborers. This ultimately led to standardized testing, something that actually began early on: three of Mann’s compatriots administered standardized tests in 1845 in Boston in a successful attempt to show that students taught by traditional “masters” (non-certified teachers) were failing to be taught anything at all. (Messerli, 418-419). Amazingly, modern standardized testing still seems to show the same results in connection with certified teachers: in 1972, 2,817 students scored above 700 on the SAT test. In 1994, on an easier version of the SAT, the same group numbered only 1,438 – a decline of fifty percent. (Gatto, 55). The Winter 2010 edition of Activity, the newsletter of the foundation behind the ACT test, states,

More than 7,000 students drop out of high school each day. Of those who stay, only 25 percent are prepared to enter college or the workforce without remediation in English, math, social studies, and science. (page 9)

Horace Mann persuaded Massachusetts parents to make one small change: send their children to public schools for a few hours a day. In 1852 Massachusetts implemented the first compulsory attendance law for children, dictating that children from age 8 to age 14 must attend twelve weeks of school per year. Today, compulsory school attendance laws - while varying from state to state - have expanded to encompass children as young as 5 years and as old as 18 years (Answers.com) with 180 - 220 days per year of required attendance (A Nation at Risk).

Ameican Classroom

Standardized curricula and testing necessitated arranging students by age, which made it easy to test students, whose results in turn reflected the skill of the teacher. Arranging by age in grades, coupled with compulsory attendance laws, today result in children as young as five being away from parents and with peers more than eight hours a day and often seven days a week, depending on sports and extra-curricular involvement. Twelve years of daily separation from family leads students to become dependent on peers for emotional support and has ultimately resulted in the development of negative “peer pressure,” bullying and gangs that our schools are now trying to solve. Those attempting to find solutions are doing so without changing the root of the problem: neither families, real life, nor work environments segregate by age.

The same social pressures are still pushing on the school system as existed in Mann’s day: instead of the Irish and German immigrants of Mann’s day, today we have the influx of illegal Mexican immigrants. With them come the same questions white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants of Mann’s time faced: Do we feed them? Clothe them? Put them to work? Or send them back? Only now those questions are being asked by people of all races, including the children and grandchildren of African-American, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants who came previously. And they are now asking, “How do we live our Atheist/Buddhist/Christian/Muslim beliefs in regard to these immigrants?”

Messerli notes:

…the “masses” whose behavior troubled [Mann’s] composure rarely reacted en masse, but demonstrated a pluralism of motives, and were unwilling to adopt uncritically his set of WASP [White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant] values as promulgated through the schools. Within their loyalties, to their families, churches, neighborhoods, laboring associations, and ethnic enclaves, they acted according to a rich variety of motives and exhibited a degree of independence and idiosyncrasy not always present in the older nativist groups….In attempting to broaden and systematize the function of schooling, and create a uniformity of what took place in the classrooms of the Commonwealth, he was inadvertently narrowing the concept of education. To create an educational ecology of formalism was to risk sacrificing many of the imaginative, spontaneous, poetic, and aesthetic indigenous lessons to be experienced in the emerging American culture. (Messerli, 347)

As Eric Hoffer, a migrant farm worker who became a longshoreman, says,

Only here in America were the common folk of the Old World given a chance to show what they could do on their own, without a master to push and order them about. History contrived an earth-shaking joke when it lifted by the nape of the neck lowly peasants, shopkeepers, laborers, paupers, jailbirds, and drunks from the midst of Europe, dumped them on a vast virgin continent and said “Go to it, it is yours!” (Eric Hoffer, as quoted in Gatto, xiii)

John Taylor Gatto points out that one of the biggest effects Mann’s school system had was the eventual stifling of individuality. Today students dress like a million other peers or join gangs, and when asked why by parents teens will say they are “expressing their individuality” The fact that the definition of “individuality” has changed to even allow it to be applied to cookie-cutter dressing or complete conformity in gangs is the natural result of decades of schooling focused on teaching children to be uniform and to “belong” via the use of cookie-cutter textbooks in cookie-cutter classrooms with the results being tested on cookie-cutter standardized tests. There’s only one problem: children are NOT cookies. By choosing to dress like peers or join gangs, students are expressing their free will. Replace regular clothing with uniforms and they’ll find some other way to exercise their will.


Nearly 150 years after Horace Mann led the way in Prussianizing the school system of Massachusetts, the system is firmly established in every state in the U.S. Compulsory attendance in government-regulated schools funded by public tax money proved to be a solid foundation. Whether the public school system has provided any better education than the systems before it, is debatable. That it has processed more students is certainly true.

Without the Biblical understanding of the concept of free will, and the understanding that beyond teachers, school administrators, and the state, is the God who loves, communicates, and disciplines, Man must reinvent the wheel, coming up with an explanation for personal misbehavior and society’s ills, and then inventing a solution. For Horace Mann, the explanation was a lack of being taught and his solution was schooling. Looking at the results of this system in the lives of its pupils, we can see that it stifles individuality. It is only in the context of the Christian understanding of being made in the image of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit – the Three in One - that such individual talents as creativity, or love of music, or a knowledge of words can fully be understood, encouraged, and come to fruition. As the Psalmist said “My substance was not hid from Thee when I was made in secret.” God sees us as individuals, not as peer groups or standardized-test takers.

Sophie Koulomzin, a Russian émigré to the U.S., mother, grandmother, and teacher of Religious Education at St. Vladimir’s Seminary for seventeen years, states,

Christian education has as its object the education of a person. Whether it deals with an infant, a young child, an adolescent, or an adult, it must deal in a personal way with the individual at whatever level he exists: speaking his language, understanding and sharing his needs and concerns, loving him as he is. (Koulomzin, 10)

While she may have been speaking of “Christian education” in the sense of teaching the Christian faith, the point can also be taken as a serious pun: that Christians who teach must remember that students are individuals with individual needs.

The public school system also stifles the following of conscience. Fr. Vasile Catalin Tudora writes,

The secular knowledge that our children are acquiring in school is giving them a certain point of view on the world that I am not sure is the right one. Using it they will certainly understand the world a little better, but is this going to be enough for them? Is the secular education really going to open their eyes or [will it] actually make them see what the society wants them to see, while leaving aside everything else?”

Aside from homeschooling or private schooling, is there hope for children in the public school system in the U.S.? Yes. In God there is always hope. My recommendations:

  • Ground them in prayer and God’s word. As a Roman Catholic educator put it, just after the French Revolution, “Education is the art of helping young people to completeness; for the Christian, this means education is helping a young person to be more like Christ, the model of all Christians."  (Moreau)
  • Home educate your children. That is, teach your children as much Christian content as possible at home, before they enter the school system and while they’re in it (see Sophie Koulomzin’s book and the website of Phyllis Onest, longtime Orthodox Christian educator, for charts on what Christian concepts are suitable for what age ).
  • Teach them to educate themselves: how to recognize in themselves frustration at poor teaching, how to formulate the questions they want to learn about, how to satisfy their curiosity and the desire to learn, and how to find good-quality answers. Teach them to learn and they will never be at the mercy of poor teaching.
  • Stay active in the schools and classrooms. Know your rights as a Christian parent and the rights of your Christian student.

Most of all, focus on the benefits received and the individual milestones your child achieves. God always brings good out of man’s attempts: the good is never wasted and the bad is mitigated. Look for and give thanks to God for whatever good He has brought your way through the public school system.

Next article: The Focus Shifts: From Educating Citizens to Educating For Business


ACT. “Rigor & Readiness Initiative Responds to National Crisis in Education.” Activity, Winter 2010.

Adherents. http://www.adherents.com/misc/school_houston.html

American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). http://www.aclj.org/Issues/InDepth.aspx?ID=20

Answers.com. www.answers.com/topic/compulsory-school-attendance

Barrett, David A. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900—2000 (ed. David A. Barrett; New York: Oxford University Press, 1982)

Gatto, John Taylor. The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation into the Problem of Modern Schooling. Pre-publication edition, 2000/2001. NY: Oxford Village Press. Text available on the Internet at http://www.johntaylorgatto.com

Koulomzin, Sophia. Our Church and Our Children. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2004.

Messerli, Jonathan. Horace Mann, a Biography. 1972. NY: Knopf

Moreau, Fr. Basil. Christian Education, Abridged Edition. Austin, TX: Holy Cross Institute. Available online at www.holycrossinstitute.org Fr. Basil Moreau (A.D. 1799-1873) was the founder for the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC), a Roman Catholic order whose calling included starting schools wherever they were needed, including the U.S., Canada, and many other countries. Members of the order founded the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1842, two years before Horace Mann made his trip to Prussia.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/index.html April 1983. Accessed 5 June 2010.

Oleksa, Rev. Michael. “A Free Education is a Gift Not to be Squandered.” Anchorage Daily News, 17 September 2002, as found on http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/OleskaEducation.php

Onest, Phyllis. http://www.phyllisonest.com/

Tudora, Fr. Vasile Catalin. “Education and True Knowledge: What our Children are Missing in School Today” http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Catalin-Education-And-True-Knowledge.php

Wikipedia contributors, "A Nation at Risk," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Nation_at_Risk&oldid=347162663 (accessed June 5, 2010

Williams, E.I.F. Horace Mann, Educational Statesman. New York: MacMillan, 1937.

Wilson, Douglas. The Case for Classical Christian Education. 2003. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.


For more on why the U.S. founding fathers chose to form a republic rather than a democracy: Hall, Verna M. Edited by Joseph Allen Montgomery. The Christian History of the Constitution of the United States of America: Christian Self-Government, Volume 1 (Bicentennial Edition) (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1975 [original edition 1960]) This is a compilation of primary source documents.

For information on how Texas textbook decisions affect other states, see Friedman, Emily. “Texas Curriculum Review Sparks Debate About Religion: Does Religion Have a Place in American History?” 29 July 2009. Last accessed 31 May 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/US/Story?id=8166798&page=1

For more information on the rights of Christian parents and students in public schools, see American Center for Law and Justice, http://www.aclj.org/Issues/InDepth.aspx?ID=20

For those who would like to practice life-long learning themselves, or train their children in it, the most common way of structuring and documenting self-learning is the centuries-old “4R” (Research, Reason, Relate, and Record) approach, also known as a learning “portfolio.” This approach has the advantage of teaching students research and documentation skills that will be the foundation of both college success and life-long learning. Because there are so many sources of information on this process, please contact the author of this article at LSandersWrites@gmail.com for more information. She will be happy to point you toward portfolio resources that will meet your particular needs.

Finally, there are many Orthodox Christian education resources available on the Internet, and we encourage you to explore them.

Go to Part I: Understanding the Origins of the U.S. Public School System: Horace Mann, Part I.

Laura D. Sanders is a freelance author, editor and bibliophile in Austin, TX where she lives with her husband, Dn. Niketas Sanders, and attends St. Elias Orthodox Church. She graduated from the public school system and later became involved with homeschooling families. She has a B.A. in English Literature, is a member of the Writers League of Texas, and on the Advisory board of Plain English USA (wwww.plainenglishusa.com). The daughter of a Roman Catholic father and a Methodist mother, she was raised Episcopalian, finally finding her heart’s true home in Orthodoxy in 1997.

Published: July 22, 2010

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