Freethought Almanac

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May 4: Horace Mann

Horace Mann (1796)

Horace Mann

It was on this date, May 4, 1796, in Franklin, Massachusetts, that the father of American education, Horace Mann, was born. He abandoned his rigid Calvinist upbringing for Unitarianism by age 23 and contrived to get his own education before becoming an educator himself. He created the first Board of Education in Massachusetts and recommended a comprehensive public school system, along secular lines, as a great cultural and national equalizer. “The 1830s, in fact, gave rise to an educational awakening,” writes Roger Lea Williams (The Origins of Federal Support for Higher Education, 1991). “Mann, acknowledged as the father of the common school movement, argued that these institutions should be publicly controlled, publicly supported, and open to all.” Many thought this approach anti-Christian, but Mann wisely kept divisive doctrines outside and sound ethics inside the classroom.

After serving in the U.S. Congress for a time, filling the seat of the recently deceased John Quincy Adams, where he distinguished himself as an ardent abolitionist, Mann was called to be the first president of Antioch College. He accepted in 1854 because of Antioch's non-sectarian, coeducational status, which was unique in the nation—the college accepted women and blacks on an equal footing with white males. But the founding Christian Church thought Mann a little too secular and withdrew its funding. This deficit Mann replaced by persuading the Unitarian Church to help.

Believing in an impersonal God but rejecting immortality, Mann challenged Antioch's graduating class of 1859 (the year Darwin's Origin of Species was published): "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Mann himself died a few weeks later, on 2 August 1859 at age 63 in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The Dictionary of American Biography described him as "a Puritan without a theology." As for his educational philosophy, Horace Mann may be summed up with these words from speech in the US House of Representatives (23 February 1849)—

I affirm, in words as true and literal as any that belong to geometry, that the man who withholds knowledge from a child not only works diabolical miracles for the destruction of good, but for the creation of evil also. He who shuts out truth, by the same act opens the door to all the error that supplies its place. Ignorance breeds monsters to fill up all the vacuities of the soul that are unoccupied by the verities of knowledge.

It would seem that those conservatives today who are looking to privatize, monetize and downsize public education should take note.

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer

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