Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Horace Mann,
the Promoter of Public Education

There have been noble men who have aided the cause of American progress in many fields, and not the least among these are the men who have promoted the cause of education. Many such might be named, but chief among these stands the noble figure of Horace Mann, who in a large measure was the father of the improved public school system, as it exists to-day. There were schools for the everyday people before Horace Mann, such as they were, but the education to be had in them was of the most meagre sort. A very bright student might make some progress, but those of duller minds learned very little. The school books were few and were bad at that, while as for the teachers Horace Mann says of his own that "they were very good people, but very poor teachers."

As for Mann himself, who first set public education in America upon its feet, he had the greatest difficulty in getting any education at all. Born in Franklin, Massachusetts, May 4, 1796, he was the son of a poor farmer. Poverty surrounded him during childhood and boyhood, and his days were taken up with hard work. We are told that "it was the misfortune of his family that it belonged to the smallest district, had the poorest schoolhouse, and employed the cheapest teachers, in a town which was itself small and poor." What little chance for schooling there was did him no great good, for up to the age of fifteen he was only able to attend school eight or ten weeks in a year.

His health as a boy was injured by hard work. He had no time for recreation, and his father dying when he was thirteen, he had to work harder than ever for the support of his mother and the family. From childhood he was eager for books, but there were few of them to be had. When he was still little he got some books by braiding straw, and he managed to read some of the books in a very small library in the town of Franklin, but as he grew older he had to work such long hours that he could find time for study only by losing sleep.

Thus it went with the boy until he was twenty years of age, and it looked as if he might have to go through life with what little knowledge he could pick up by desultory reading. But his desire for learning was too great for that, and in 1816 he succeeded in entering Brown University, having learned a little about Latin and Greek and some of the principles of English and grammar from a wandering schoolmaster. Poverty still troubled him, symptoms of consumption had developed, he had to cook and support himself while at college, his studies were interfered with in various ways, but he studied with the energy of desperation, and graduated with high honors in 1819. Choosing the law as a profession, he began its study in 1821 and in 1823 was admitted to the Massachusetts bar.

Thus the poor farmer's son had made his way with the greatest difficulty upward through poverty to a profession in which ability would bring him support. This ability he had. He developed a power of strong and forcible eloquence, which gave him much influence over juries and brought him continued success. But there was more than this, his integrity and high-mindedness contributing greatly to his success. When he began to practise he firmly resolved never to take the unjust side of any cause, and his sincerity and honesty of purpose made themselves felt by all before whom be pleaded. It is said that of all the contested cases in which he took part he won four out of every five.

An able lawyer, an eloquent orator, a highly respected citizen, a man of noble character and elevated motives, Mr. Mann was soon called upon for public duties. He was elected to the legislature of Massachusetts in 1827, and there soon became noted as an ardent advocate of temperance and education. Six years later he was elected to the State Senate. Year by year his influence grew until he became one of the most notable figures in the legislative halls, many of the steps of progress made by Massachusetts during this time being instigated and carried through by him. One of these was the asylum at Worcester for the care of the insane poor wholly or partly by the State. It was one of the first of the kind in this country, such patients formerly being sent to the almshouse.

His great service, however, was in the cause of education, during the eleven years in which he held the position of Secretary of the State Board of Education. This body was organized in 1837, its purpose being to revise and reorganize the common school system of the State. To this duty Mann gave all his time and energies, resigning for it his law practice and his Senatorial duties. He worked at it almost day and night, devoting fifteen hours daily to its demands, holding teachers' conventions, delivering lectures, and keeping up an enormous correspondence. He had the whole country, not Massachusetts alone, in his mind. The school system sadly needed reform, and Horace Mann came as its reformer. He labored diligently to improve the schools, wrote abundantly on the subject, told how poorly conducted were the educational systems of this country, and aroused a new interest in education on every side. The school-system needed an evangel, and he was the one demanded. By his efforts the State gained better schoolhouses, better books, and better teachers, and trustees and parents were aroused to do more for the cause of education

they had ever thought of doing.

The school laws, under his influence, were revised and made better, and the whole system by which children were taught was changed.` In 1843 he made a visit to Europe to inspect the schools there and see if they presented any advantages that could be adopted at home. In furtherance of his purpose he published a periodical, The Common School Journal, in which his views on education were set forth, and also published a series of "Annual Reports" of such value that they have been called "a classic on the subject." His seventh report told of what he saw in Europe, and of how superior the schools of Prussia were to those of Massachusetts.

Having completed his work in his native State, and given the cause of public education throughout the country a boom such as it never had before, Mr. Mann gave up his secretary-ship in 1848, to enter Congress as the successor of John Quincy Adams, who had just died. There he took the role which Adams had long sustained, that of opposition to the extension of slavery. His first speech had to do with the duty of Congress to exclude slavery from the Territories. In one of his speeches he expressed his opinion in these decided and, in a measure, prophetic words:

"Interference with slavery will excite civil commotion in the South. Still, it is best to interfere. Now is the time to see if the Union is a rope of sand or a band of steel. Dark clouds overhang the future; and that is not all, they are full of lightning. I really think if we insist on passing the Wilmot Proviso [a measure to limit the extension of slavery] that the South would rebel. But I would pass it, rebellion or not. I consider no evil so great as that of the extension of slavery."

Mr. Mann did not forget his favorite subject while in Congress. He tried to induce the Government to establish a Bureau of Education in Washington. It was years later before this was done. In x853, after he had served two terms in the House, a double honor was offered him: he was nominated for Governor of Massachusetts, and was also asked to become the first president of Antioch College, at Yellow Springs, Ohio. He failed to be elected Governor, and accepted the college presidency. It was in the line of his life-work, and he threw himself into its duties with all his old ardor. The school was a new one, intended for the combined education of men and women—a novel conception at that time. It was in need of a hard-working president, careful management, and good support, and these he brought it. His earnestness was deep, his work engrossing, and after seven years of faithful attention to duty his health completely broke down. The college year had not long closed after his last term before death came to him, on August 2, 1859. =Mann's important work in life was the great reform in the school system of Massachusetts, and the influence this produced upon the system of public education throughout the country, and he is still \ looked upon as the great school reformer of America.