Education Alternatives 102: Mann, Dewey & Lane

Education Innovators Horace Mann, John Dewey & Homer Lane
Following up on my recent “School Alternatives 101” post, I want to share some quotes from three great educational innovators who were “parents” (in this case, all “fathers”) of the three types of educational alternatives I talked about in my post. I want to focus on their visions’ of who drives the educational process, which I believe is a key way to distinguish these three approaches from each other. This may seem like “education-wonk” stuff to some of you, but I think it is really important, even from a parent’s point of view, when considering educational options for your and other kids.

The three innovators I am talking about are…

1. Horace Mann, the progenitor of the American public school system in the early 19th Century.

2. John Dewey, who set the philosophical basis of American secular/progressive/liberal education in the early 20th Century.

3. Homer Lane, a lesser know Briton and contemporary of Dewey, who was the mentor of A.S. Neill and the “free school” movement.

The inspiration for this post was an article by Ronald Swartz in the most recent Spring 2010 Education Revolution Magazine (which is edited by my friend and colleague Ron Miller). Swartz’s piece is titled “John Dewey and Homer Lane: The Odd Couple among Educational Theorists” and focuses on this issue of who drives the educational process. According to Swartz, “Dewey and Lane are the founding fathers of two distinct twentieth century educational reform movements.”

Dewey and Lane represent key “parents” to two of the educational alternatives, “holistic” and “free” schools that I talked about in my previous piece. To enhance and complete the comparison, I think it is useful to compare the ideas of these two to the words of Horace Mann, a Unitarian (like me), and an educational visionary who has had arguably more impact on the American education system over the past 180 years than anyone else. Besides his role launching universal mandatory education of youth in our country, his words speak clearly to the vision of “instructional” schools, the alternative that is clearly predominant in America.

Again, in reading their quotes, we are looking at the process of education, that is, who drives the direction of a kid’s education. Every kid is different, and if the kid that you are concerned about does not seem to be thriving in the conventional instructional school, you may want to try and find and consider a holistic or even a free school.

Note that the italics below are all mine to highlight certain words or phrases in their quotes.

Horace Mann and State-Driven Instructional Education

I get my Mann quotes from a site called “Brainy Quote”

On education as a tool of societal social engineering…

1. A house without books is like a room without windows. No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them.

2. Education alone can conduct us to that enjoyment which is, at once, best in quality and infinite in quantity.

3. Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge.

4. Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.

On the moralistic basis for education as social engineering and reform…

5. Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right things happen.

6. Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.

7. If evil is inevitable, how are the wicked accountable? Nay, why do we call men wicked at all? Evil is inevitable, but is also remediable.

8. Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former.

And on the teaching process…

9. A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.

10. Manners easily and rapidly mature into morals.

I can clearly see in Mann’s quotes his vision that education must be driven by the state, and in fact he was successful in getting his home state of Massachusetts to pass the first universal compulsory education, which inspired other states to follow. Schools alone can save our democracy by instructing all kids on exactly what they need to know to be righteous American citizens.

I think it is particularly interesting that the father of our public school system was not at all about reading, writing and arithmetic (which later became the staples of public education and are the featured skills today in most high-stakes testing). Mann was about instructing all of America’s children – Protestant, Catholic or Heathen – in good non-sectarian Protestant values – on which to build a unifying moral basis for American society (Protestant style, of course).

It was American Catholics, migrating to the U.S. in ever greater numbers throughout the 19th Century, who led the fight to eventually remove this religious indoctrination from the public schools. It was replaced by the “Three Rs” (which facilitated the education of the worker-bees of the Industrial Revolution) that still dominate state-standardized instructional education today.

John Dewey and the Teacher-Driven Holistic Vision

From Dewey’s book, Experience and Education…

1. Unless a given experience leads out into a field previously unfamiliar no problems arise, while problems are the stimulus to thinking… it is part of the educator’s responsibility to see equally to two things: First, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of the capacity of students; and secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas.

From Dewey’s essay, “The Child and the Curriculum”…

2. The value of the formulated wealth of knowledge that makes up the course of study is that it may enable the educator to determine the environment of the child, and thus, by indirection, to direct. Its primary value, its primary indication, is for the teacher, not the child. It says to the teacher; Such and such are capacities, the fulfillments, in truth and beauty and behavior, open to these children. Now see to it that day by day the conditions are such that their own activities move inevitably in this direction, toward such culmination of themselves.

Swartz notes in his article that, “For Dewey, the teacher was a behind-the-scenes authority who should help students learn those ideas and values which society considered to be important.” Dewey added this element of the teacher as the highly talented artist that would direct their students own sense of inquiry to obtain the knowledge that society wanted to have, which is beyond Mann’s more external vision of compulsion.

Homer Lane and the Student-Led Free School Vision

In his book, Talks to Parents and Teachers (page 109), Lane says…

The relationship between teacher and child should be pure democracy – the child should not be on the defensive, but should be free to ask all questions… self-government must be given, both in the team play of games and still more in team play made possible for work… We must give responsibility for, say, history and get the class to discuss the syllabus and the allotment of time to the part of it, and to assume responsibility for getting through it.

Swartz calls Lane’s approach “the policy of personal responsibility”, and definitely speaks to an educational curriculum and process driven by the student and not by the state, that breaks radically from both Mann and Dewey. As a contemporary of Dewey, though across the ocean, he was the alternative road less taken to the conventional instructional model put in motion by Mann. Lane was the educational mentor of A.S. Neill, who later started Summerhill, the most famous free school in the world, which has inspired many others, including Sudbury Valley.

As a parent, I think you should know about these three very different types of schools, though many or most families do not have the resources to send their kids to alternative schools, which generally are tuition-based rather than public (tax-based). Depending on your own expectations and your kid’s proclivities for self-direction, learning style and integration of education in real life, you may want to consider these options or add your voice to the beginning effort to broaden the range of public charter school choices.

My partner Sally and I had the resources to homeschool our kids during their high school years in a free school type approach generally called “unschooling”. (See my post titled “Unschooling Rather than High Schooling” about how our son Eric took to this approach.)

8 replies on “Education Alternatives 102: Mann, Dewey & Lane”

  1. Hi Cooper,

    I just found your website now after looking for information about Homer Lane and am really impressed by the content of your blog.

    I discovered Homer Lane recently after reading Summerhill and getting really excited about a new way of education that I’d never heard of before.

    My question to you is, did you manage to find the Homer Lane Talks with Parents and Teachers book online? Do you know if there is any copyright? I am planning to republish the book because I think it is beautifully written and a very important part of educational history. If you can help me at all with finding out about Homer Lane then I’d really appreciate it.

    I also wonder if there were ever any photos from the Little Commonwealth…this would be great to see.

    Hope to hear from you soon!



  2. Jim… thanks for that thought! It was actually reading Gatto’s Underground History of American Education that got me going on all this exploration of education history. Gatto is my guru!

  3. I love how you laid this out! Very clear. Very helpful.

    We’re progressives thinking of going Summerhill. So Deweyites going Lane!

    Thank you!

    Jennifer Lehr

  4. Jennifer… Very cool… would have loved the opportunity to go to Summerhill myself… or later as a parent send my kids there.

    Curious if you are perhaps a writer yourself and would like to write a piece or two about being Deweyites gone Lane and then how it actually goes sending your kid(?) to Summerhill.

    You might also enjoy my pieces on Summerhill and on democratic-free schools.

  5. It is good to see your interest in Homer Lane. I am writing from the former Little Commonwealth itself, now a Franciscan friary. This year, 2013, is the centenary of the founding of the Little Commonwealth so to mark it the Child Care History Network are co-hosting with us a day conference on 9th Nov. Further details of several exciting speakers, booking form etc on Please let people know about this – esp if they are in the UK.
    Br Hugh SSF, Hilfield Friary, Dorchester, Dorset, UK

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