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

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 II: HORACE MANN, PART II: Prussia comes to America.


There is, in some Christian circles, a mistaken notion that “thou shalt not judge” is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet when one studies the New Testament writings closely, one finds repeatedly that we are to judge. It is what and how we judge, and with what attitude, that is key. One of the instructions Jesus gave was to judge, not the person, but the end product, the fruit:

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits…every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” (Matthew 7:16).

Mark Mitchell put it this way:

There are two facets to educating a child well. The first is to recognize that education is not merely the accumulation of facts, but that it has an unavoidably moral aspect….Judgment is a necessary part of moral decision-making, and judgment must be cultivated through practice. And an important part of this practice comes through encounters with historical and literary characters.

We have now had government-controlled public schooling in the United States since 1852. The time of fruit-judging has come and some of the fruit is bad. Perhaps it is now time to look at the “historic and literary characters,” that started the system.

HORACE MANN (May 4, 1796 – August 2, 1859)

Horace Mann

Horace Mann is generally considered the founding father of the U.S. public school system. In reality Mann built on the foundations laid by others who went before him. His single biggest contribution to the American school system was the importation to Massachusetts in 1852 of the Prussian system of schooling children in large groups by age, a system which then spread to other school districts across the U.S. and to other countries and is still in use today.

To understand what a radical change this was, one must know something of U.S. history. For the 200 years preceding Horace Mann, beginning with the coming of the Puritans in the 1600s, a different system had prevailed: education had been predominantly a function of family and church and children had been educated in mixed-age groups. This method of educating children can clearly be found in the Scriptures, where Abraham was commended by God for passing on the faith: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord…” (Genesis 18:18), and where Moses tells the children of Israel, “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them [to] thy sons, and thy sons’ sons…” (Deuteronomy 4:9). The Book of Proverbs was written from a father to his son, to instruct the son in the ways of dealing with others. From these passages we glean two pillars of education: it was God-centered and family-taught, predominantly by parents and grandparents.

The new British colony that later became the state of Massachusetts had been founded by Puritans, Protestant refugees from religious persecution in England, who wanted liberty to live out their religious beliefs and teach them to their children. The earliest U.S. law regarding education, written in 1642, required that parents teach four things: reading, writing, the laws of the land, and religion (Howard, 16). The motive for teaching reading was to enable children and adults to read the Bible. The purpose of both Bible-reading and the reading of other books was the imitation of Jesus Christ and other men and women of good character.

Note that “education” did not mean “schooling”. In fact, few in either Europe or “the New World” at the time were familiar with “schooling” in the sense we now understand it in the U.S.: a large building young children go to, in which they learn from a teacher who is not their biological relative, while arranged in groups by age. In some areas of the world this system is still absent, though not necessarily unknown. As Rev. Michael Oleksa tells us, “My grandmother never went to school a day in her life. She never had the opportunity. Her village in western Ukraine didn't have one, nor did any other town she ever heard of.” However she was familiar with the concept.

Puritan families in Massachusetts believed that everyone had the right to educate themselves, using whatever sources and opportunities were available to them, and that parents were responsible for their children’s education . Ninety-five percent of the youth in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries received an education of this type in some form: taught by their parents or other family members, self-taught through extensive reading, learned directly from experts through an apprenticeship, or by learning in small, multi-age church schools taught by pastors. Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and many others, including Horace Mann, were the proof that family and self-education in the course of real life succeeded.

In the U.S., however, two forces began to apply pressure on the home-education system: the migration westward, which reduced the number of generations living in one household, and the expansion of manufacturing and its attraction of a steady income for laborers. The latter lead to a reduction in family farming, which in turn meant that more fathers and older brothers were working away from home. With father and older siblings in the fields or laboring elsewhere to earn a wage, and mothers struggling to keep households going with no grandparents, aunts, or uncles available to assist, parents found it more and more difficult to teach children at home. By 1787, the federal government entered the picture: the Continental Congress issued the “Northwest Ordinance” affecting the Northwest Territory, which encompassed the modern states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The Ordinance stated “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged” (Article 3). According to the U.S. Department of State’s document “USA Education in Brief” the Northwest Ordinance also required that every new town set aside one parcel of land out of every 36 for a common school (US Dept. of State, 12). However, these were still “one-room schoolhouses” with students in mixed-age groups and older students often teaching younger ones. And “religion” (meaning Protestant Christianity) was still taught in the schools.

A New Model

In 1806, Germany, then known as Prussia, maintained an army of paid professional soldiers. A defeat by Napoleon and the amateur French army at the battle of Jena was a severe wound to Prussian national pride. A series of well-written stinging speeches by atheist philosopher Johann Fichte, titled “Addresses to the German Nation,” urged the idea that individual rights and liberties must be sublimated to the good of the nation. To achieve that end, children must be separated from their religious parents and have ingrained into them, from a young age, ideas and skills that would ensure the supremacy of the fatherland. As Stephen Covey might have put it, Prussia began “with the end in mind” and those ends were the transferring of obedience from the parents to the state, knowledge sufficient only for one’s appointed place in life (anything above that would make one discontented with one’s lot), and national uniformity of thought, word, and deed (Gatto, 132-133)

Even before Prussia’s school system was in place, their army’s impressive victorious return engagement against Napoleon won them the admiration of the American people. When America gave a poor showing at the hands of the British during the War of 1812, America’s admiration for Prussia increased and a small covert group formed whose stated purpose was to “Germanize” American education, beginning in neighborhoods where the American poor and new immigrants resided, large groups which needed not only teaching, but inculturating into American history and language in order to successfully join the growing ranks of the wage laborers. (Gatto, 134) The focus of education had shifted from imparting “religion, morality, and knowledge” to, as Thomas Jefferson put it in 1778, “promoting the public happiness.” (“A Bill for the More General Diffusing of Knowledge”)

Enter Horace Mann

Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography (Tarbell) tells us Horace Mann, born in Franklin, Massachusetts, in May, 1796, was the son of a “farmer in limited circumstances, and…was forced to procure by his own exertions the means of obtaining an education. He earned his school books when a child by braiding straw, and his severe and frugal life taught him habits of self-reliance and independence.”

That description of Mann is not entirely accurate: years later, when a biographer had described Horace Mann as “self-made”, his sister Rebecca, whom he used to follow around while she did her household chores, reminded him sharply that he did so with a Noah Webster grammar book in his hand while she heard his lessons therefrom, telling him, “every day of your life, when with your parents and sister at least, you were at school and learning that which has been the foundation of your present learning” (Messerli, 12). When not learning at home or at church Mann did the rest of his learning from books borrowed from the town library, given by Benjamin Franklin (for whom the town was named). This “library” was a collection of just over 100 books, chosen by a friend of Franklin’s in England, and consisting mostly of religious titles aimed at adults (Williams, 7). Horace Mann, later a lawyer and state senator, was a shining example of the success of the family-based education system.

He also had brief experiences with schools. Mann’s hometown, Franklin, Massachusetts, had a group of six small one-room “winter” schools, so named because they only operated during six weeks in the winter, the only time older children could be spared from the home and farm. The schools were overseen by the local pastor and the six weeks culminated with displays of the children’s learning before the parents in either visual, oral, or written form.

Change Agent

Life events were about to convince Horace Mann that some of what he learned in home, church, and school was worse than useless. First, as the nation began to grow, families which had raised food and raw materials to feed and clothe their own members began to find sources for the selling of goods to consumers outside the family. For the Mann family, straw braiding, a component of the local hat making industry, became just such a “cottage industry.” Unfortunately this actually had a somewhat unexpected and negative effect on the family, shifting the center of provision from the father to the women and children who had the small dexterous hands needed for consistent braiding. His father found it humbling, and Horace Mann found it galling, to be doing “women’s work” and that for long hours to satisfy the needs of invisible consumers in unseen towns and cities (Messerli 17). The more he braided straw, the less time Mann had for pleasure or learning (Williams, 3-4). From this experience may have arisen Horace Mann’s stance against child labor in any form.

More on Mann

  • 1820-1822: tutor of Latin and Greek, Brown University
  • 1821-1823: librarian, Brown University.
  • He also studied at Litchfield Law School (conducted by Judge Tapping Reeve in Litchfield, Connecticut)
  • 1823: admitted to the bar in Norfolk, Massachusetts.” (Ibid)
  • 1827: elected to the Massachusetts legislature as representative from Dedham, active in issues concerning education, public charities, and laws for the suppression of intemperance and lotteries.
  • 1830: married Charlotte Messer (d.1832)
  • 1830: Thomas Gallaudet invents a picture-based whole-word system of teaching the deaf to read. It’s premise: that education should be regarded as a science, and that, therefore, “Mind, like matter, can be made subject to experiment.” (Gallaudet, letter to William Woodbridge.) Later writes a picture-based primer, "The Child’s Picture Defining and Reading Book," aimed not at deaf children, but at expanding his system to teach all children, hearing and non-hearing alike.
  • 1833: Became chair of the Board of Trustees at the Massachusett’s state lunatic asylum in Worchester, which he previously helped to found. Elected to the Massachusetts State Senate as representative from Boston.
  • 1836-1837: President of the State Senate, and sometime majority leader. Focused on infrastructure, funding the construction of railroads and canals.
  • 1836, August: Boston Primary School Committee adopts Gallaudet’s picture-based primer for the entire school district.
  • 1837: Boston Primary School Committee reports Gallaudet’s method a success, based on speed of learning when compared to an alphabet-based teaching system saying it brought a “pleasant tone” to the classroom by “removing ‘the old unintelligible, and irksome mode of teaching certain arbitrary marks, or letters, by certain arbitrary sounds.’” (Gatto, 68) Yet students ultimately end up with a much-reduced vocabulary compared to their peers taught to read via phonics and the alphabet.
  • 1837-1848: Mann serves on the Massachusetts state Board of Education. Begins his series of twelve “Annual Reports” which are widely read across America and beyond.
  • 1838: Mann endorses Gallaudet’s primer in his Second Annual Report. Mann’s wife, Mary Tyler Peabody, writes own whole-word primer.
  • 1838: Mann meets George Combes, author of “that extraordinary book, The Constitution of Man” in which Combes claims phrenology operates on strictly natural laws, which Mann feels offers psychological theory to back up phrenology’s “science”.
  • 1840: Nationwide literacy rate: 93-100%.
  • 1843: Combes helps line up Mann’s visit to Europe, including a visit to Prussia.
  • 1843: Horace Mann married Mary Tyler Peabody, sister-in-law to author Nathaniel Hawthorne. She accompanies him to Europe.
  • 1844: Mann issues his Seventh Annual Report, in which he claims “I am satisfied our greatest error in teaching children to read lies in beginning with the alphabet.” The report stirred up an outcry among Boston’s schoolmasters, who stated “We love the secretary [Mann] but we hate his theories. They stand in the way of substantial education. It is impossible for a sound mind not to hate them” (Gatto, 69).

The economic influence of the straw braiding had another effect: because demand was so high, and so much time was spent supplying the demand, the Mann family’s involvement with church began to slip. Their original high-ranking status in the church was evidenced by their owning of a “family pew” passed down through three generations of Manns. Owning a pew was a custom originating in the “old country” (England) in which families paid money to sit in a particular pew each week in church. It was far different from simply donating a pew in which anyone can sit and having your name on a donor’s brass plate on the end panel. Owning a pew indicated both social status and wealth since only the fairly well-to-do could afford to purchase pews. It also showed commitment to the church and became a form of voluntary submission to peer pressure, for being absent from such a pew was seen as a disgrace, and the pew could not be used by any other family when empty.

Mann’s family were Congregationalists, descendants of the Puritans who still espoused a rather severe form of Calvinistic belief that some were destined by God for heaven and some were destined for hell. For fifty-four years the town of Franklin sat under the “hell-fire and damnation” preaching of Pastor Nathanael Emmons. While he also apparently preached about God’s love, what stuck in young Horace Mann’s mind most was his preaching about hell and the need to escape damnation (Messerli, 20). Decades later, Mann wrote:

I remember the day, the hour, the place and the circumstances, as well as though the event had happened but yesterday, when [at the age of twelve or fourteen] in an agony of despair, I broke the spell that bound me. From that day, I began to construct the theory of Christian ethics and doctrine respecting virtue and vice, rewards and penalties, time and eternity, God and his providence, which with such modifications as advancing age and a wider vision must impart, I still retain, and out of which my life has flowed” (Messerli, 20; Williams, 13).

Apparently his older brother Stephen felt similarly, skipping church one Sunday (which the Congregationalists deemed the Sabbath and a day of extended worship) to go fishing, in the course of which he drowned. Pastor Emmons used the fact that he had been unconverted (by Congregationalist standards) before his death as fodder for another of his fiery sermons, delivered at Stephen’s funeral. Horace Mann, struggling with his own grief and with that of his mother, whom he idolized, hoped for some word of sympathy which never came. During the sermon, Mann heard his mother groan at hearing that her son Stephen would burn in hell and at that moment “a sudden change took place in Horace’s thinking; he declared hatred to a creator as thus pictured” (Williams, 13; emphasis in the original).

From then on, Mann constructed a God to fit his own wishes. Though he frequently used the term “God” in later writings and continued to struggle to understand God as he had created him (especially after the death of his first wife, whom he also idolized), he never returned to Christian beliefs. Instead, Mann joined with the Unitarians, a then-burgeoning rebellion against all things Calvinist which espoused the “divinity of man” while at the same time denying the divinity of Jesus Christ (somewhat of an oxymoron, in light of the fact that Jesus was, in their own system, at least a man and therefore, by their own standards, divine). They also denied the doctrine of the Trinity and rejected the “total depravity of man” so ingrained in Calvinist belief.

Mann also rejected Bible reading for children, agreeing with another writer that the “holy book” is excellent, when “well-understood and rightly used….But an exclusive acquaintance with it is not sufficient to expand the mind and prepare it for the duties of life.” (Mann, 7th Annual Report, 21). With Bible reading no longer the end goal, Mann saw no need to emphasize the teaching of reading and began to downplay it.

At 20, Mann entered Brown University, which today says of itself:

Brown’s climate of openness and cooperation can be traced back more than two centuries to its founding as the third college in New England and the seventh in America. Brown was the Baptist answer to Congregationalist Yale and Harvard, Presbyterian Princeton, and Episcopalian Penn and Columbia. At the time, it was the only one that welcomed students of all religious persuasions…. (http://www.brown.edu/web/about/history)

Mann graduated three years later, in 1819, as valedictorian of his class. According to author Isa Tarbell the title of his valediction speech was “The Progressive Character of the Human Race.” A later source lists the title as “The Gradual Advancement of the Human Species in Dignity and Happiness.” (Williams, 23) In either case the title clearly stated his belief in the divinity of Man without the need for God, and set the direction for his entire career.

Mann went on to study law, was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts and went on to become a state representative from Dedham, and, later, Boston. Boston, to which Mann moved in the mid-1830s, was considered a “seat” of Unitarianism.

Having rejected the Calvinist God (and indeed the Christian God), and having rejected both Calvinism’s teaching that humans are controlled by God and it’s opposite, the ancient Christian belief in free will and its emphasis on self-control of the passions, Horace Mann is left with Man as a starting and ending point. This raises a significant question: In a system beginning and ending with Man alone, how does one control negative passions such as anger, rebellion, mischief, and lying?

Mann found his answer in the “science” of phrenology, which claimed personality traits like love had physical locations in external bumps on the brain and that such personality traits were strictly governed by natural laws, but that one who might have a large bump in an area ruled by a negative trait could learn to exercise his or her mind and repress the trait, while building up other, more desirable, traits. (Messerli, 350). He also found support there for his downplaying of reading in schools: phrenology founder, Francois Joseph Gall believed that too much reading caused insanity (Gatto, 68). Mann was so taken with phrenology that his Sixth Annual Report to the Massachusetts state Board of Education in 1842 was a plea for classrooms to be “phrenologized” (Gatto, 69). He was especially impressed with Scottish lawyer George Combe’s book Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects, going so far as to send it to his sister, telling her:

I know of no book written for hundreds of years which does so much to ‘vindicate the ways of God to man.’ It’s philosophy is the only practical basis for education (Messerli, 352).

From Combes Mann received the spark that lit the passion of his life, the belief that he had a moral obligation to others in society who were less well-endowed by Nature. Mann, writing to a friend who couldn’t attend, tells what happened:

We had a divine lecture from Mr. C. tonight. It was on moral responsibility. Heads badly organized, dragged down into vice by the force of evil passions, [Mr.C.] considered as moral patients. Those which were balanced and hung poised between good and evil, he held liable to triumph or to fall according to circumstances. But on those, nobly endowed, to whom heaven had imparted he clearsightedness of intellect and the vehement urgency of moral power, he imposed the everlasting obligation of succouring and sustaining the first in their weakness and temptation and of so arranging the institutions of society as to withhold the excitements of passion and supply the incentives to virtue to the second class. It was like the voice of God… (Messerli, 351).

Mann had found his new God and his new religion: he had replaced Calvinism’s depravity of Man and God’s salvation from it through Jesus Christ with a belief in the divinity of Man without God, and replaced God’s predestination to heaven or hell with Nature’s predestination to good or evil as explained by phrenology, a predestination that, unlike God’s, could be overcome or improved by the efforts of the individual.

Mann and his fellow Unitarians began to use the term “democracy” (originating from demos – the people) rather than “republic” to describe America. The two are completely different forms of government, and the U.S. founding fathers understood that democracy (direct rule by the people) was not strong enough to carry a nation, ultimately leading to chaos and despotism. Thus they deliberately chose to found a republic. Our U.S. pledge of allegiance still states “…and to the republic for which it stands…”

In all of this, Mann had replaced God with himself: it was twelve-year-old Horace Mann who judged that Calvinism’s theology was wrong. It was an older Horace Mann who judged that Bible-reading was bad for children. Horace Mann himself judged that he was a member of the “nobly endowed” class from a phrenology standpoint. And Horace Mann and his fellow phrenologists replaced Christ-like compassion and mercy with a Nature-based “moral responsibility” to help others less “nobly endowed, ” with themselves set up as judges of who fell into that class of people.

Logically, the education of children in the ways of Unitarian belief in the divinity (and self-sufficiency) of Man required “saving” children from the influence of their Christian parents and the Bible by moving education out of the home and church and into a supposedly “neutral” location – the school, controlled not by parents or pastors but by government: first the towns, later the states, and still later the federal government. What began as a “moral obligation” to assist the “less nobly endowed” ultimately led to compulsory government-sponsored schooling.

In the next article: “Prussia comes to America”


Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography as found on Wikipedia, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Appletons%27_Cyclop%C3%A6dia_of_American_Biography/Mann,_Horace .

Gatto, John Taylor. The Underground History of American Educaion: 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

Howard, Donald R. Crisis in Education: Public Education a Disaster…There’s New Hope for Parents. 1990. Green Forest, Arkansas: New Leaf Press

Jefferson, Thomas. “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”. 1778 As found on http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/A_Bill_for_the_More_General_Diffusion_of_Knowledge

Messerli, Jonathan*. Horace Mann, A Biography. 1972. NY: Knopf

Mitchell, Mark T. “Educaion Normal.” Touchstone Magazine, Sept. 2009. As found on http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/blog/2009/09/30/education-normal

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

Tarbell, Isa Carrington. "Mann, Horace." Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Appletons%27_Cyclop%C3%A6dia_of_American_Biography/Mann,_Horace.

US Dept. of State, “USA Education in Brief” As found on http://www.america.gov/media/pdf/books/education-brief2.pdf#popup

Williams, E.I.F*. Horace Mann: Educational Statesman. 1937. NY: MacMillan.

*Note: E.I.F. Williams and Jonathan Messerli frequently refer to “Orthodox Church”, “orthodox Church”, or “Orthodox Christianity.” Though it is not always clear to what they are applying the term, they are, in any case, not referring to traditional “Eastern” Orthodox Christianity. Most likely they are referring either to the Congregationalist/Calvinistic beliefs that were the community norm for two hundred years in Massachusetts and thus considered “orthodox” or the “right way” (as opposed to the then-new Unitarianism), or they are referring to the Anglican or Episcopalian Church. Traditional “Eastern Orthodox” Christianity was still mostly unknown in the U.S. at this time.

Go to Part II: HORACE MANN, PART II: Prussia comes to America.

Date posted: May 20, 2010