Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Horace Mann and Public Education

by Jeff Polet

America is facing demographic decline. Whether it rises to the level of a crisis is open to debate (although you can put me squarely in the “uh oh” camp, and not only because I’m in my 60’s and devoid of grandchildren, which, in historical terms, is an anomaly of a high order). One way to measure this is the number of children populating our schools, which has declined in the past couple of years. Additionally, the percent of school-aged children who attend traditional public schools has also declined.

Still, the backbone of the American primary education system remains the public schools. The fact that more people are opting out of the system, or wrangling for control of the system, indicates that our schools emerged out of a conflict that shall forever remain a central feature of American schools: the conflict between parents and the state for the right to educate children. I’ve been rethinking this lately as I’ve been writing an essay on the subject for the journal Religion and Liberty.

The conflict is as old as the Platonic dialogues. Plato argued that “in the private life of the family many trivial things are apt to be done which escape general notice,” producing “in the citizens a multiplicity of contradictory tendencies” that are “bad for a state.” Aristotle argued in his Politics that “education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, not private—as is at present, when everyone looks after his own children separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best.”

One of the fascinating things about history in general and American history in particular is learning how persons we know little if anything about profoundly shaped the world we live in. The most important American for the development of our common school system was Horace Mann, who helped found and later run the public schools in Massachusetts. Mann viewed local governments and parents as “bunglers” whose mistakes would have long-term consequences. A parent only has a child for 18 years, but society has the child for its whole adult life. Better, Mann believed, that society intervene early in the process rather than pay a steep price later. After all, “rulers have forgotten that, though a giant’s arm cannot bend a tree of a century’s growth, yet the finger of an infant could have given direction to its germ.”

The key to Mann’s social reforms (he was an abolitionist and also a leader of the temperance movement) was the idea that citizens had to be virtuous, that moral instruction had to take place at a young age, and that moral reform was impossible unless it had some sort of religious grounding. The religion he offered was a stripped-down version of Protestant Christianity, opposed as he was to Protestant sects and especially to the Catholic church. Mann was staunchly anti-Catholic and the common schools were in no small part intended as an alternative to Catholic schools, an alternative that would have the full support of the government and would be compulsory and universal.  Mann believed that the “consummation of blessedness” toward which public education aimed “can never be attained without religion.” “Devoid of religious principles and religious affections, the race can never fall so low but that it may sink still lower; animated and sanctified by them, it can never rise so high but that it may ascend still higher.”

Mann considered it impossible that education should proceed without religious instruction and piety, and he also believed that he had avoided the problem of a religious establishment by casting religion in the broadest possible terms. It wasn’t until the advent of other religions and non-religion that Mann’s solution began to fall apart. Mann’s reasoning was similar to that given by George Washington in his Farewell Address: religion is the only sure foundation for moral action.

This was a fairly typical belief among Americans … until recently. An April survey released by the Pew Foundation revealed that a majority of Americans – even a majority of conservative Republicans – believe it is “not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.” A slight majority of those who say religion is important to them believe religious belief is not necessary to be a moral person. Not surprisingly, the disconnect between religion and morality is highest among college-educated students, colleges largely having become mechanisms to get children to reject the beliefs of their parents. (See Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity, where she advocates the idea that higher education should be an act of parricide.)

The group most likely to reject the idea that religion is not necessary in order to be moral is black protestants. This is interesting in no small part because the group most likely to see religion and morality as unconnected are white liberals, and these two groups—white liberals and black protestants—are in many ways the central players in the current coalition of the Democratic party. Whether it portends a fracture in that coalition will be one of the more interesting poltical stories of the coming decade.

One of the areas where that will play out, and is already playing out, is in debates over the role of public schools, charter schools (which are, of course, public schools), and private schools. That’s where the ruptures between the interests of religiously unaffiliated wealthy white elites and poor and middle-class religious blacks will be most noticeable. And all this is baked into the cake of the school system Mann imagined almost two centuries ago. For the structure of the conflict remains, particularly as concerns the substance of what is being taught in the schools and whether that substance presupposes a set of beliefs that are contrary to the beliefs of parents or other institutions. It’s not a new conflict, and it isn’t one that will go away any time soon.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the arguments for and against the idea that religion is a necessary prop for morality?
  2. Why do you think American’s views have changed so drastically on this question? What were the main factors causing the change?
  3. Can the public schools avoid religion altogether, or does something else get substituted in the place of religion? Do our current public schools predicate moral action on the basis of some alternative religion or set of beliefs?

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