Common Sense Schools: The Origins of American Public Education

Horace Mann Statue
Daddy issues.

It’s odd to see the statue still standing there outside the Massachusetts State House, blithely repeating the myth that Horace Mann was the “Father of the American Public School System.” It’s even stranger to see that myth reprinted by journalists and scholars who should know better.

Historians such as Carl Kaestle, William J. Reese, Kabria Baumgartner, Hilary Moss and others have long since laid that myth to rest. Put simply, there was no “Father” to American public schools. For one thing, public schools had always existed in one form or another. You can’t “Father” something that already exists. Plus, the reforms of Horace Mann and his allies didn’t change things as much as Horace Mann said they did. Yes, there was a big, important common-school reform movement in the 1840s and 1850s, but in the end, reform in practice did not resemble reform in pamphlets.

Because the true story is so complex, the pamphlet version—the self-serving heroic story told by Horace Mann himself—still gets far more attention than it deserves.

Even among historians, there isn’t a single book out there that offers a big-picture look at the ways common schools really came into being. Instead, an outmoded, decades-old framework of reform and resistance still dominates the way historians talk about the emergence of public schools in the 1800s.

George Combe phrenological chart
The “science” Mann wanted.

The common-school reform movement of the mid-1800s did not simply leap into existence full-grown from the mind of elite reformers like Horace Mann. Rather, the reform had a complex evolutionary history; it worked only insofar as it tapped into evolving ideas about public education, newly common-sense ideas about the ways schools should work. A fuller history will have to recognize the vital role played by non-elite, non-white reformers, not only as resisters and blockers, but as reformers and shapers. It will have to take into account the failures as well as the successes of common-school reform, asking anew the fundamental question: How did common schools happen?

It won’t be easy. In order to manage the enormous nature of the research, I plan to focus on a few specific reforms of the era, some of which succeeded and some of which did not. For example, Horace Mann himself wanted common schools to be racially segregated, but in Massachusetts at least they were soon integrated, not thanks to Mann. Mann wanted schools to be guided by phrenological science and child-centered pedagogy, but neither of those ideas took hold. Mann hoped schools would be guided by centralized curriculum. He promised that they would bring together children from richer and poorer families, but neither of those things happened, not really. On the other hand, Mann’s vision of more and better education for teachers became a reality. By examining the ways these specific reform ideas evolved in real schools, we will gain a better understanding of the roots of public education.

And it still matters. For too long, Americans have tended to look for simple solutions to complex school problems. They have listened far too eagerly to silver-bullet, high-tech prescriptions for complicated issues. The legacy of Horace Mann, in part, is the American tendency to heed reformers who insist they can make radical improvements without radically increased investments.

I’ll be heading back into the archives soon, so wish me luck. It will be easy to rehash Mann’s famous and well-publicized vision, but the trick will be finding the ways real schools actually changed, and the real reasons why.


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