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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 3:25 pm | Fair 69º

 
 
 
 

Bill Cirone: Horace Mann Was Our Nation’s Greatest Public School Advocate

Horace Mann is one of our nation’s greatest early heroes, and I believe more people should know about him. He was a tireless advocate for public schools and is considered the father of American public education.

He once said, “Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark, all is deluge.”

He was born in Massachusetts when our country was young, in 1796. Almost all he learned he picked up on his own at a town library that had been founded by Benjamin Franklin.

He studied hard enough to attend Brown University and graduated as valedictorian.

He served in the Massachusetts state House of Representatives for six years and the state’s Senate for four more. When Massachusetts created the first state board of education, he served as its secretary. He took to his post with enthusiasm and visited every school in the state. He became a strong advocate for the benefits of a common school education.

Reflecting on the outlook of his time, he argued persuasively that universal public education was the best route to turning unruly children into disciplined, judicious citizens. This helped him win approval from the politicians of his time, especially in his Whig Party, for creating and building public schools.

In time, he founded the Common School Movement, ensuring that all children would receive a free education funded by the taxpayers of the community they lived in. He believed strongly that by bringing children of all classes to learn side by side, they could have a common learning experience and give a chance to the less fortunate to advance on the social scale.

He believed education would “equalize the conditions of men.” He also believed it would help students who did not have adequate discipline at home. To him, building character was as important as teaching the three Rs. He hoped schools would instill values of obeying authority, being prompt and organizing time  — all important traits for future employment.

In his publications he laid out six main principles for the common school:

» The public should no longer remain ignorant.

» Education should be paid for, controlled and sustained by an interested public.

» Education is best provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds.

» Education must be non-sectarian.

» Education must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society.

» Education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.

It’s clear that our entire notion of public schooling traces back to Mann.

When John Quincy Adams died, Mann was elected to his U.S. Congress seat. Many people who know of Mann are not aware that his brother-in-law was author Nathaniel Hawthorne. The world, and this nation, was a much smaller place in many ways at that time.

After leaving politics Mann was named president of Antioch College in Ohio, where he stayed till his death in 1859. His commencement message to that final class of students was “to be ashamed to die until you have won some victory of humanity.” That phrase is still repeated to every graduating class at the college.

Wise words from a wise man. We all owe him a large debt of gratitude for a system of public education that endures to this day in testament to his foresight, his wisdom and his ardent support of using that foundation to sustain our democracy.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. The opinions expressed are his own.

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