Little Known Facts in Education History   Leave a comment

Meme Horace Mann

Horace Mann is considered by many to be the great champion of education. Is that true or is it just something we’ve been taught to believe?

For generations, children learned in their homes, from their parents, and throughout their communities. Children were invaluable contributors to a homestead, becoming involved in household chores and rhythms from very early ages. They learned important, practical skills by observing and imitating their parents and neighbors and engaged in hands-on apprenticeships as teens. They still managed to learn the 3 R’s around the fireside.

The literacy rate in Massachusetts in 1850 (two years prior to the passage of the country’s first compulsory school attendance law) was 97%.

The National Center for Education Statistics tells us that the Massachusetts adult literacy rate in 2003 was only 90%.

In advocating for compulsory schooling statutes, Horace Mann and his 19th century education reform colleagues were deeply fearful of parental authority. You don’t have to believe me. You can go out and read what they wrote. Here’s a snippet.

“Those now pouring in upon us, in masses of thousands upon thousands, are wholly of another kind in morals and intellect.” That’s the Massachusetts state legislature regarding the new Boston Irish (Catholic) immigrants whose diversity challenged existing cultural and religious norms.

In Horace Mann’s Troubling Legacy, University of Vermont professor, Bob Pepperman Taylor, elaborates further on the 19th-century distrust of parents — particularly immigrant parents — and its role in catalyzing compulsory schooling. Pepperman Taylor explains that “the group receiving the greatest scolding from Mann is parents themselves. He questions the competence of a great many parents, but even worse is what he takes to be the perverse moral education provided to children by their corrupt parents.” (Pepperman Taylor, Bob. Horace Mann’s Troubling Legacy: The Education of Democratic Citizens. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010, p. 33.)

Mann and his colleagues intended that forced schooling correct those “corrupt parents.” He apparently didn’t think morally superior parents like himself needed such help, because Mann continued to homeschool his own three children with no intention of sending them to the common schools he mandated for others. As Mann’s biographer, Jonathan Messerli writes:

“From a hundred platforms, Mann had lectured that the need for better schools was predicated upon the assumption that parents could no longer be entrusted to perform their traditional roles in moral training and that a more systematic approach within the public school was necessary. Now as a father, he fell back on the educational responsibilities of the family, hoping to make the fireside achieve for his own son what he wanted the schools to accomplish for others.” (Messerli, Jonathan. Horace Mann: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, p. 429.)

As mass schooling expanded over the past 165 years, parental empowerment precipitously declined. Parents have largely been replaced by institutions and the consequences are telling. Children are now swept into the mass schooling system at ever-earlier ages with the expansion of government-funded preschool and early intervention programs. Most young people spend the majority of their days away from their families and in increasingly restrictive, test-driven educational environments. And society is beginning to recognize that these institutional environments damage many of the children it claims to be helping. Boston College psychology professor, Dr. Peter Gray, writes in Salon, of all places:

“School is a place where children are compelled to be and where their freedom is greatly restricted–far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book [Free To Learn]) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them.”

For teenagers, the impact of mass schooling can be even more severe. Largely cut off from the authentic adult world in which they should begin interacting, many adolescents rebel. Some kids engage in anger, substance abuse and suicide, while others become so overwhelmed with the homework that they go from being A students to wanting to drop out. As Dr. Robert Epstein writes in his book, The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen: “Driven by evolutionary imperatives established thousands of years ago, the main need a teenager has is to become productive and independent. After puberty, if we pretend our teens are still children, we will be unable to meet their most fundamental needs, and we will cause some teens great distress.”[5]

It is time to hand the reins of education back to parents and once again prioritize authentic learning over mass schooling. Parents know best. They should be able to choose freely from a wide variety of innovative, agile education options, rather than rely on a one-size-fits-all mass schooling model. By positioning parents to take back control of their children’s education–to reclaim their rightful place as experts on their own children–we can foster more education options and better outcomes for children and society.

But, of course, we can’t do that unless we stop holding up parents for education taxes that exclusively go to the public schools.

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