Wednesday, March 1, 2023

What Would Horace Say?

It was at Horace Mann Elementary School that I began my lifelong learning career. Who was Horace Mann, I thought, and why are more than fifty schools and many awards and statues throughout the country named for him? 

When I looked him up, I learned that over two hundred and fifty years ago, Horace Mann was the founder of the public education system that still guides our country today. Because of his laser focus on education he was able to implement policies in his home state of Massachusetts that eventually spread throughout the United States. 

A capable orator and administrator, he believed first and foremost that an educated citizenry was the only way that a democratic republic would survive. Above all he was a moral man and he wished for his fellow citizens to be so as well. He did not believe all children learned the same way and he felt learning should never be a contest that created jealousy and envy.

With that in mind, he created an educational system that worked for both the rural and urban population. Then he passionately asserted his beliefs on how to accomplish his goals. 

One of the many tenets that he avowed was a belief in secular education rather than in advocating for any of the religious denominations that existed at the time. All the denominations at the time were Christian and extensions of the Calvinist doctrine that had initially been established when the Pilgrims arrived in America. He did believe that all sects should read the Bible, the first book he ever read, but that interpretation and discussion should govern the teaching tools, and he encouraged the populace to, like  himself, read as many books as possible that he considered to be "of value."

He opposed any form of corporal punishment in favor of creating a free and comfortable atmosphere that would encourage learning. After a while, he did admit that sometimes a form of punishment, never physical, might have to be asserted.

Rather than learning to read what he called "mechanically," or by forcing memorization, he introduced ways in which students could put into context what they were learning, a sort of what we in the contemporary world might refer to as the phonics and word recognition methods. He believed in teaching by "induction" rather than by rote.

A lover of nature, he felt that students could learn as much from studying the environment outside of the classroom as well as the subjects taught at a school desk. And he felt strongly that students should be well aware of their own physical traits and systems.

And finally he believed that every child in order to learn must be well fed, well parented and that the school needed to create a warm, comfortable and friendly atmosphere in which to learn. He particularly blamed parents if they did not contribute to his beliefs and remained unlearned themselves or disinterested.

So, what would our politicians and governmental leaders think of Horace Mann and the advocacy he promoted that in various ways remains in place today? Has America done a good job of creating good citizens in the way that Horace Mann imagined they should be created? Maybe we might ask if all the brouhaha over the role of schools in public education could be overcome if an adherence were made to the simple principles that governed Horace Mann's rise to recognition of the importance of public education. And just maybe, by looking back at the modesty of his goals, we might become better American citizens today.

Mimi Pockross is the award-winning author of three books and a soon to be published fourth book, her first novel. You can find her on

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