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Horace Mann

spearhead of the Common School Movement

Horace Mann

Horace Mann was born into poverty in Franklin, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1796. Since his family was too poor to send him to school regularly, he received the vast majority of his education via books in the Franklin Public Library. Despite his lack of formal education, he was admitted to the sophomore class at Brown University in 1816. At Brown, his interests included politics, education, and social reform. At his graduation, he gave a speech on the advancement of the human race through which education, philanthropy, and republicanism could combine to benefit mankind. From Brown, he went on to study at Litchfield Law School, and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1825; he subsequently practiced law, first in Dedham and later in Boston.

As a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1827-1833) and Senate (1835-1837), Mann worked to improve the state's infrastructure through the construction of railroads and canals and other projects. He also became a champion of efforts to improve the state's education system.

Mann believed that political stability and social harmony depend on education, and that public schooling is central to good citizenship, democratic participation, and social functioning. He outlined his core beliefs as follows: (1) Citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom; (2) This education should be paid for, controlled, and maintained by the public; (3) This education should be provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds; (4) This education must be nonsectarian; (5) This education must be taught using tenets of a free society; and (6) This education must be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.

In 1837, the Massachusetts Legislature created a State Board of Education, and Mann was elected as its first Secretary. In this capacity, he spearheaded the Common School Movement, the core tenet of which is that every child receives a basic education funded by local taxes (as opposed to parents having to pay schools directly). The Movement proved so effective in Massachusetts that most public schools across the United States are now funded primarily through property taxes. Mann was also a champion of high schools, and fifty high schools were established during his tenure. Believing that a core of well-qualified teachers was vital to an effective educational system, Mann oversaw the establishment of the first public normal school (teachers' college) in the United States in 1839 in Lexington, Massachusetts. He also pushed for establishment of a six-month minimum school year, which was adopted by Massachusetts in 1839.

Mann resigned as Massachusetts Secretary of Education in 1848 to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as an antislavery Whig, and served in that body until 1853. He was subsequently hired as president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and served in that capacity until his death, which came on August 2, 1859.


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This page was last updated on September 28, 2017.