Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans- Horace Mann

Jun 25, 2015 by

Horace Mann

Horace Mann

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Fifty Greatest Americans- Horace Mann

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, this venture into the realm of “Fifty Greatest Americans” now takes us into the realm of education. I know of no other name that is so singularly associated with American Education than Horace Mann.

His early years – and his early education- what were they like? 

Horace Mann was born in Franklin, Massachusetts on May 4, 1796. His father was a farmer, and when he grew old enough he went to work on the farm. As a result, Mann was only able to attend school for approximately six weeks a year. He was, on the other hand, able to utilize the local library to supplement his education. This was obviously a successful process: admitted to Brown College when he was twenty, Mann graduated three years later as the valedictorian. For two years, Mann was employed as a tutor of Latin and Greek, and then for another two years he was a librarian at his alma mater. While he was employed at the Brown library, Mann also studied law at the Litchfield School. In 1823, he passed the Massachusetts bar examination, and opened a law practice. In 1827, Mann ran for public office, winning a seat in the Massachusetts legislature. It was in this capacity that he would first become involved in educational reform. 

2) How did he first become involved in the structure that we call “school” and the process that we call “education”? 

When Mann was first elected to the Massachusetts legislature, he became involved in a number of causes, primarily the establishment of a state lunatic asylum. It was only after ten years of service in the legislature that Mann clearly became associated with the realm of education. This came about when Massachusetts established the very first state education board in 1837, and Mann was appointed as that body’s secretary. Once installed in that position, Mann left politics and concentrated on his new responsibilities. 

3) What were his first formal contributions, and then his more informal contributions? 

Mann had an immediate impact on education in Massachusetts. Upon becoming the secretary of the state education board, he immediately set out to visit every school district in Massachusetts. After completing his tour, Mann began an effort to create a state school to train educators. The first such institution (known as a normal school) had been established in Vermont in 1823, and Mann used this as a model for the one he would create in Massachusetts. This school still operates today, and is known as Bridgewater State University. In the ensuing years, Mann advocated in favor of higher pay for teachers, a broader set of course offerings, better equipment for the schools, and a longer period of compulsory education. Today we take these principles for granted, but at the time Mann’s ideas seemed revolutionary. Not content to simply reform the educational process in his home state, Mann also travelled throughout the northern states in an attempt to convince them to adopt a system of tax-supported public schools. By the time of Mann’s death in 1859, many of these states had indeed followed his lead in this regard.

4) Was he more of a writer, a pedagogue, an educator, or theorist during the majority of his lifetime? 

There are a number of ways that Horace Mann influenced the field of education. We have seen how he helped bring innovations through his role as the secretary of the state education board, and while he held that office he also established a publication known as The Common School Journal. This provided him with a platform to disseminate his ideas on educational reform to a wider audience. Finally, Mann himself became an educator in 1852 when he was offered the presidency of the newly established Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. As part of his duties, Mann taught a number of classes, and by all accounts was a well-regarded instructor. His tenure is also notable for the fact that he hired the first female faculty member in the United States to receive a salary commensurate with her male colleagues. Mann thus exerted an influence on education throughout his adult life and in a number of ways. 

5) How has history treated him? Or has history recognized other individuals as more worthy? 

There have been a number of individuals who have left a mark on the American educational system, but few had the impact that Horace Mann did. Indeed, he advocated educational reforms ranging from competitive pay for teachers to a broad range of curricular offerings, which are still a part of the educational realm today. He may not have been the first to suggest the creation of a normal school, but his efforts to establish one in Massachusetts served as a template for other states to follow. Perhaps the clearest indication of his reputation in the field is the number of schools across the nation that have named buildings for him.  

6) His impact- even today? Your thoughts on that topic? 

American history offers many examples of individuals who had a temporary influence on our way of life, but there are few people whose impact has stood the test of time. Horace Mann unquestionably belongs in the second category. Every state that has a tax-supported education system employs an approach that Mann advocated, and all the educators who graduated from what we now refer to as teacher’s colleges have benefited from his vision for a standardized and rigorous approach to preparing individuals entering the profession. Therefore, as long as there are brick and mortar schools that American children attend, the legacy of Horace Mann will live on.

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