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Horace Mann's balanced vision for public education

By Steve Farrell
web posted October 10, 2005

The fundamentals of what was once considered vital to a public education, here in the United States, have spiraled dangerously downward over time – more than some of us care to admit, or even realize.

Horace MannFor instance, Horace Mann, dubbed the Founder of American Public Education, at a patriotic gathering in Boston, July 4, 1842, warned:

[I]n the name of the living God, it must be proclaimed that licentiousness shall be the liberty; and violence and chicanery the law; and superstition and craft shall be the religion; and the self-destructive indulgence of all sensual and unhallowed passions shall be the only happiness of that people who neglect the education of their children. (1)

Can you imagine? In short, Horace Mann was declaring, what educators dare not declare today, that our children must be educated, but more than that, educated in both mind and spirit, intelligence and morality, reason and faith – if not, liberty, law, and religion become their polar opposites, … as sure as God lives.

Is that where we are headed? Isn't that we are – in all too many respects – right now?

Mann didn't mince words. His analysis and predictions were based on the common sense notion that it is naïve – in the extreme – to believe that an unlearned and immoral people will exercise their political franchise in a way that sustains liberty. How could they?

With "increased darkness and degeneracy," Mann taught, comes serious trouble. (2)

Why? Minds and souls dulled by disuse or misuse are easily cajoled by "[d]emagogues who … adapt themselves to the dupes who hears, just as certainly as the hunter adapts his lure to the animal he would ensnare." (3)

The dupes who hear, he warns – and this nearly a century before a socialist welfare state arose in the United States – would be a "dependent" class that "vote from malice, or envy, or wantonness," who feel compelled to vote for Candidate A or Party B because of "fear or bribery," or else, "flattery, imposture, [and] falsehood," on the candidates or party's part – resulting in public attitudes and policies "treasonous" to our constitution. (4)

Meanwhile, "the vindication and eulogy of fellow-partisans however wicked, and the defamation of opponents however virtuous, will be the instruments by which a warfare, destructive in the end to victors and vanquished, will be waged." (5)

Not a pretty picture.

Thus elections, rather than being "days of thoughtfulness and of solemnity," will be "days of turbulence and bacchanalian riot, of insulting triumph or revengeful defeat." (6)

"[W]ithout additional knowledge and morality," he continues, "things must accelerate from bad to worse." Likewise, "Amid increasing darkness and degeneracy, every man's rights may be invaded thru legislation – thru the annulment of charters or the abrogation of remedies – and thru the corruption of jurors. (7)

The final result will be what Marxists call "a complete overthrow of the existing order." Said Mann:

By the votes of …wicked men, honorable men may be hurled from office and miscreants elevated to their places; useful offices abolished and sinecures (8) created; the public wealth, which had supported industry, squandered upon mercenaries; enterprise crippled, and thus capital which had been honestly and laboriously accumulated, turned into dross; in fine, the whole policy of the government may be reversed and the social conditions of millions changed. … In a word, if the votes … come from ignorance and crime, the fire and brimstone that were rained on Sodom and Gomorrah would be more tolerable. (9)

I know some will say, "It can't happen here!"– The unfortunate truth is, ‘Oh, yes it can;' and, ‘we are well on our way!'

But there's a solution. The great preventative to such a calamity, Mann believed, was "an order of teachers, wise, benevolent, filled with Christian enthusiasm," (10) in a school system that was universally available to all, rich and poor.

He wanted schools "of a more perfect character than any which have ever yet existed;" (11) schools where we would find,

the principles of morality … copiously intermingled with the principles of science. Cases of conscience … alternated with lessons in the rudiments. The multiplication table … not …more familiar, nor more frequently applied, than the rule to do to others as we would that they should do unto us. (12)

And the unspeakable clincher, schools where we would find,

The lives of great and good men … held up for admiration and example; and especially the life and character of Jesus Christ, as the sublimest pattern of benevolence, of purity, of self-sacrifice, ever exhibited to mortals. In every course of studies, all the practical and perceptive parts of the Gospel ... sacredly included; and all the dogmatic theology and sectarianism sacredly excluded. (13)

In sum, Horace Mann concluded, "I have endeavored to show that with universal suffrage there must be universal elevation of character, intellectual and moral, or there will be universal mismanagement and calamity." (14)

Not too long ago, we had public schools that struck this wise balance. The great moral truths of the Bible, common to all the faiths, taught side by side with English, science, math, history, economics and civics, while the creeds and dogmas unique to the various churches, left to seminaries and churches to teach as they pleased. This was Jefferson's formula for the University of Virginia. I endorse it. Believe it or not, the National Education Association once endorsed it. In the NEA's "American Citizens Handbook," published in 1941, the NEA glowingly described Horace Mann's speech as "the greatest of our Independence Day orations – an address that looks far into the future." (15)

Indeed it did and does – the future is here and now. If only we can get the current NEA leadership, along with every other teacher's union, public school district, and state sponsored college of education to put into print and into action the very words and vision of their founder, Horace Mann – what a school system we'd have! What a turnaround this country would experience!

It would arouse a sleeping giant, inspire a sea of change, and stir up a revival of fundamental principles. In truth, it would spawn a Second American Revolution, a revolution of faith and reason, whose time has come.

NewsMax pundit Steve Farrell is associate professor of political economy at George Wythe College, the editor of Liberty Letters (visit LibertyLeters.blogspot.com), and the author of the highly praised inspirational novel "Dark Rose" (available at Amazon.com). Contact Steve.


1. Morgan, Joy Elmer, editor. The American Citizens Handbook, The National Education Association, Washington, D.C., 1941, p. 261.
2. Ibid., p. 256.
3. Ibid., p. 260.
4. Ibid., p. 260, 256.
5. Ibid., p. 260.
6. Ibid., p. 256.
7. Ibid., p. 256.
8. A sinecure is a position that requires little or no work but usually yields profit or honor.
9. Ibid., p. 252.
10. Ibid., p. 254.
11. Ibid., p. 256-257.
12. Ibid., p. 257.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., p. 257
15. Ibid., p. 251.

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