Horace Mann & Compulsory Schooling

I have continued to ponder why school for kids continues to be compulsory (with the requisite coercion) while most everything else we do in America (except perhaps pay taxes) is by our own choice and direction. In trying to get a handle on the answer to a fundamental societal question like that, I tend to start with looking at our history and the flow of events that have led us to our present situation.

Being a kid who grew up in the 1960s, I can’t help but recall The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show and its Peabody’s Improbable History segment featuring the dog historian Mr. Peabody. I imagine erudite canine saying to his “boy” Sherman, “Let’s set the Wayback machine to Massachusetts in the year 1830 when Horace Mann led the effort to launch the U.S. public school system!” Lacking access to a “Wayback” machine to see for myself, I have to rely on the books I’ve read on the seminal events of this period in American history and particularly the words and deeds of Mann, the most famous champion of this effort.

Though the U.S. capital was farther south in Washington D.C., the epicenter of national development in the 1830s was New England. The industrialization that was already transforming Europe was spreading to the United States, and particularly to Massachusetts where many of the nation’s first factories were built. Massachusetts of the time was a mostly agrarian society of small towns and citizen farmers of Northern European ancestry with fairly consistent Protestant beliefs in the ethics or hard work and self-regulated morality. The new immigrants being encouraged to come to its burgeoning cities to work in the new factories were people mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe who were in many cases fleeing poverty, persecution and/or political oppression. Many had no experience living in a democratic country, and most were not Protestants, but Catholics or Jews.

Though the science-based racism of Social Darwinism and eugenics were still decades away, the mostly W.A.S.P (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) population of New England was already indulging in the pseudo-science of phrenology (based on skull measurements) that supposedly “proved” the intellectual and moral superiority of the pointy-headed Northern Europeans over the more round-headed Southern and Eastern Europeans. Also there was fear among Protestants that Catholic immigrants could never pledge allegiance to their adopted country because their only allegiance was to the Pope in Rome. Both of the above were easy rationals to couch an all too typical nativism and xenophobia.

Public school champion Horace Mann, like other members of the New England intellectual and social elite, was a W.A.S.P. and a believer (based on the evidence of phrenology) in the superiority of the Northern European “race”. In terms of political orientation, like others in that elite, he was a member of the more conservative Whig party (the moderate Republicans of their day) opposed to the more radical egalitarian ideas of Andrew Jackson and his new Democratic party. That new party put itself forward as the champion of the common man challenging the privilege of the elite.

Mann and fellow Whigs feared that these politically unsophisticated immigrants could undermine the American republic unless they could be imbued with proper training in civic virtue and American (read Protestant) values. They felt that the U.S. Constitution had been deficient in not specifying the means to maintain a properly educated citizenry. According to Bob Pepperman Taylor in his book Horace Mann’s Troubling Legacy, Mann was concerned that…

Our founders were guilty of a dangerous, politically destabilizing, and morally costly lack of attention to matters of civic education. By not attending to this education, “selfish and profligate men” are given access to the political stage, driving out the “intelligent and conscientious men” and pandering to “those whom ignorance and imbecility have prepared to become slaves, until, by a transition so gradual and stealthy, as to excite no alarm, the nominal republic may become an actual oligarchy… not however, the selected best, but the selected worst.” The founders were apparently unaware of the dangerous vices threatening to be unleashed by their own revolution, or at least the degree to which these vices would be impossible to contain. (pg 26-27)

Pepperman quotes code words here used by Mann and others for the supposedly inferior Catholic and Jewish immigrants and the Democratic party that was pandering to them for their votes. Conservative voices calling out for dialing back the revolutionary spirit that had forged their country, and for protecting the power of an established elite within an orderly hierarchy of “us and them”.

Pepperman quotes Mann’s own words from his published Lectures, invoking Puritan Protestant ideas of the need to control our natural human depravity…

The same Almighty power which implants in our nature the germs of these terrible propensities, has endowed us also, with reason and conscience and a sense of responsibility to Him; and, in his providence, he has opened a way by which these nobler faculties can be elevated into dominion and supremacy over the appetites and passions. But if this is ever done, it must be mainly done, during the docile and teachable years of childhood. I repeat it, my friends, if this is ever done, it must be mainly done, during the docile and teachable years of childhood. (pg 29-30)

I must say, as a 21st century parent who believes in the inherent worth and dignity of young people and the essential goodness of the human soul, I find Mann’s words a bit shocking. But in his words I clearly hear a justification for compulsory schooling that I believe still has many adherents today. An argument that human nature is such that we are naturally inclined towards sloth and degradation if not indoctrinated to invoke our “nobler faculties”. And that we are most “teachable” during our youth, before we become unmalleable and completely unredeemable. So therefor it makes absolute sense that we should require our youth to attend school and carefully mandate what they will be taught. Anything else is child abuse and societal suicide!

Here is Mann’s writing from his Ninth Annual Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education…

Were children born with perfect natures, we might expect that they would gradually purify themselves from the vices and corruptions, which are now almost enforced upon them, by the examples of the world. But the same nature by which the parents sunk into error and sin, preadapts the children to follow in the course of ancestral degeneracy.

Mann was a very savvy political animal, and I read code words here referring to the supposedly genetically inferior Southern and Eastern Europeans full of “error and sin” and “ancestral degeneracy”.

From Mann’s Third Annual Report an explicit argument for state-controlled universal compulsory education as an instrument of state policy…

Common Schools derive their value from the fact, that they are an instrument, more extensively applicable to the whole mass of the children, than any other instrument ever yet devised. They are an instrument, by which the good men in society can send redeeming influence to those children, who suffer under the calamity of vicious parentage and evil domestic associations.

Think about all the code words here. Who are the “good men in society”? Who suffers from “vicious parentage and evil domestic associations”?

And continuing…

They are the only civil institution, capable of extending its beneficent arms to embrace and to cultivate in all parts of its nature, every child that comes into the world. Nor can it be forgotten, that there is no other instrumentality, which has done or can do so much, to inspire that universal reverence for knowledge, which incites to its acquisition.

Here is the basic argument that particularly we unschoolers stand firmly against. That if human beings aren’t guided (and coerced if necessary) to learn the right things, they will choose to learn nothing, or at best, learn the wrong things.

Mann also made the equality argument for compulsory school, which I must admit carries more weight with me as a progressive person than the first argument based on debased human nature. Here is Pepperman’s take on that argument…

Without a dominant common school system, we are in danger of creating an intellectually privileged class that is out of touch with and out of reach for less affluent Americans. .. Mann fears that this intellectual class will consist of an economically advantaged group that becomes corrupted by its own social privilege and “stands as a barrier against improvement” for the rest of society. Above and beyond the obvious suffering caused by economic inequality and injustice, the fracturing of the democratic community prevents an appropriate fraternity from developing and thereby distorts the moral life of all its members. (pg 31-32)

Again, as I argued in my previous piece, it is 170 some years later here in the 21st century with our growing sophistication as human beings and with the Internet giving people unparalleled direct access to knowledge. I am convinced that our one-size-fits-all public education system with teacher as gatekeeper is certainly not the optimal venue for human development. And I am increasingly believing that this sort of compulsory and regimented schooling is no longer a path to equality and fairness as well.

One reply

  1. Garret… Yes there is a lot of mass media trying to influence us, and many of us are duly influenced. But the point here is that school attendance and taxes are the two things in our society that are forced upon us, beyond just behaving well enough to not break the laws. That said, I don’t think most Americans are sheep that are being constantly led around. Most of us do have a point of view that is uniquely ours, tho possibly (but not necessarily) influenced by our pervasive mass media and the marketing campaigns on that media.

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