By Whitney Dotson
Less than a span of two centuries ago, an institution termed the “common school” was introduced with great expectations to Massachusetts soil. Notable schoolmaster and head of state school board Horace Mann deemed the historic landmark the hope of social “improvement,” and the means of producing moral, enlightened citizens of the country’s children (ASSS). By as early as 1860, legislations regarding the length of the school day and year had been confirmed as nationally binding, and Mr. Mann had earned the title “father” of the nation’s government-funded establishment (Gangel, 277). The briefest glimpse into academic and moral significations within America’s modern school system, however, would certainly disappoint the pedagogue’s aspirations. As a disconcerting forty-three percent of children under the age of twelve leave grade school illiterate and rates of suicide, premarital sex, and pregnancy out of wedlock increasingly incline among the country’s scholars, statistics would appear to disprove Mann’s revelations (Brown). In his zeal, he had erroneously discounted the reality of sin and assumed the perfectibility of man. A basic review of the historical context and foundational thoughts effectuating the educational philosophy of Horace Mann would disclose that education which is simultaneously redemptive and liberating is found only in a biblical understanding of knowledge and man in their relation to God.
In Colonial America and prior, the majority of children were instructed to an extent domestically through parental instruction or self-schooling—some being so well-prepared as to enter college at age thirteen. When more rigid establishments became prevalent, parents continued to recognize their roles in child-training and understood the warrant of their position in doing so, often over-seeing administrative duties as school board members themselves (Beliles, 104). The esteem placed upon Christian knowledge within these sectors was evidenced in the fact that horn books and slates reflected theological truths (Beliles, 103). The ecclesiastical field in the pursuit of academics was so revered and closely tied that clergy often advised curriculum choice or served as instructors, and the Bible typically represented the doorway to reading as well as to personal piety and understanding. Universities such as Harvard and Princeton, in addition, were later constructed in hope of propagating the ministry (Beliles, 104). Compulsory restrictions of any kind were hardly considered as teachers and school board alike relied heavily upon the advice and participation of parents (ASSS). Primary schools and universities, also, were tax-exempt and operated without the use of governmental subsidies. Contrary to popular assumption, literacy rates soared within this period, and students capable of independence and trade were produced (ASSS).
The concept of subsidized schooling first gained serious consideration in America with the expansion of religious differences and poverty posed by increased European immigration, and the onset of surrounding national advances (Thattai). Until this time, children were generally sent to private facilities or common schools, locally authorized and supported (Beliles, 103). Denominational groups including Anabaptist and Presbyterian credence were expressly designed so that familial guardians could expose the next generation according to the doctrinal training that they chose. Respected figures, however, had begun to imagine a non-sectarian system as beneficial to the virtuous upbringing of varying social classes (Gangel, 137). William Penn envisioned the establishment as the opportunity of protecting Quaker children from persecution in a largely Calvinistic America; Reformation leaders John Calvin and Martin Luther had years before sanctioned the public school as a potent channel for furthering the Great Commission in which every child could freely learn the Bible (Gangel, 226). Nearly always, the thought of universal education was primarily understood as a crusade against the negative elements of religious persecution or atheism. Such considerations ironically rendered the admiration for an approaching foreign advancement which would succesively contribute to changing the face of American schooling—and eventually serve, in part, as the outline for the philosophical devising of Horace Mann.
Defying common assertion, the conventional form of public education known today began as an attempt to remove what was perceived by radical thinkers to be religious indoctrination in domestic and religious establishments (Carson). At the height of the nineteenth century, the civilized world seemed intent upon change; a determination to right the wrongs of society through an emphasis upon knowledge and governmental regulation had entranced the European realm. Outside nations watched as Germany erected an academic system, contestably the first in its form (Thattai). Distinctly tied to government and presumably theologically neutral, school fused with state in enforcing civic allegiance among youths. Mandatory attendance laws were constructed upon the threat of separating disobedient parents from their children (Thattai). The Prussian creation convinced countless of the merits of humanitarian efforts in social reconstruction, and inspired many with the feeling that advancement could be achieved at the hands and wit of man. The theory that man’s suffering lay in the deterring action of religion impressed the minds of rising American philosophizes and reformers, and eventually succeeded in removing church from state matters. With time and reason, it was perceived, truth could be deduced through the progress of “evolutionary development” in which individuals found ultimate definition in their ability to conform to the design of society (Mann).
Philosophy is an inevitable aspect of any field of knowledge as it determines how and what one perceives to be truth. It is the method of attaining a certain goal, and the worldview of the mind’s eye. The philosophical tenets of Horace Mann were a compilation of the principles of moral perfection and Unitarianism, of natural theology and social progressivism (Badolato). Born in 1796 in Franklin, Massachusetts, Horace was a faithful attendant of a local congregational church from infanthood. Following a tragedic incident involving the accidental death of his brother, however, he abandoned the Calvinistic teachings of Nathaniel Emmons as a youth (Ritchie). Unwilling to face the biblical reality of a judicial God, Mann forsook any concept of a divinity less than his own perception of “kindness and ethical integrity (Ritchie).” Only a few short years following, he transitioned his membership to First Parish Church of Dedham where he accepted the religion of Unitarianism. In contrast to the teachings of Reverend Emmons, the individual was confirmed there a generally good being who could be easily redirected to perfection, and the deity of Christ and the presence of original sin were denied.
Though Mann certainly acknowledged the existence of evil in the world, his insistence upon its domination depicted it a force of mere negativity rather than a grave spiritual hindrance. While biblical reading was integrated into initial classrooms and curricula, doctrine was regulated, and Scripture was esteemed more for Its virtuous, rather than spiritual, character. Mann’s Transcendentalist perspective and enthrallment with the natural encouraged a sensual, experiential pursuit of knowledge which re-popularized the secular classics and fostered a temporal worldview based upon external control. The antidote to the woes besetting mankind, Mann believed, lay in the structure of formal education (Mann). In a perspective not unlike his century colleagues, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, criminology and anti-patriotism could be dissolved if only the arm of governmental supervision was extended. To Mann, salvation lay in the hope of education, and human error resided whenever ignorance prevailed and circumstance failed to offer enlightenment (Mann).
Abandoning the professions of his Protestant background, Horace concluded the value of the individual as dependent upon the intellectual ability. With enlightenment came prosperity and “power”—without which, humanity was indistinguishable from the animal realm (Mann). Mann understood the source of strife as the inequalities plaguing his fellow man. Whether by deliberate or natural circumstances, individuals climbed the social system while others remained unfortunate, even to the point of destitution. He sought to dissolve such barriers through the blending effect of a false “tolerance” regarding issues of contention. A form of academic democracy combining students of varying religious and cultural contexts would allegedly provide everyone the opportunity to prosperity. In reality, however, this philosophy only resulted in expanding moral weakness and a spirit of statism.
Without the certain doctrines of sin and grace, humanism abandons persons to the bondage of fellow men, leaving the weaker vulnerable to the subjection of the elevated. Such a theory assesses the value of humanity as something to be earned, and limits knowledge to a self-centered scope. In his refusal to recognize man biblically, Mann misplaced his trust in human authority. In his refutation of the Trinity, he denied the liberating views of individual government and Christian conversion. As Christ was perceived as neither God nor sovereign and man was neither spiritually void nor innately depraved, the value of the Cross was negated. Inevitable was the gradual impingement of freedom in the forms of governmental intrusion and moral autonomy. Intruth, Mann failed to recognize the grave consequence of ignoring the biblical format for authority, and the demand and purpose for cultural dominion. Typified in the Garden and re-instated in the Great Commission, God’s intention for mankind in general was to utilize all in available power to exalt Him; from cultivating the ground to becoming spiritual fishermen, humanity was designed to discover and emit His character as ambassadors and according to appointed roles. Civic and governmental duties, while to be revered and honored, were in reality only earthly reminders of His justice and intolerance towards sin. Familial roles such as parental instruction and discipline revealed His character of righteousness and love. Such earthly representatives were situated not to replace divine authority, but to represent His hand and character in His hatred for the transgression of law, and the innate value of life. Unless man is internally governed by the Holy Spirit, he cannot and will not cease from tyrannizing others or transgressing society.
Affirmed in numerous biblical passages is the principle of personhood or individuality (Jeremiah 1:5)—the belief that every man was knit specially and uniquely by the Creator, and for His will (Jeremiah 29:11). Scripture recounts the simultaneous presence of a sinful nature and divine resemblance imbedded in every soul (Romans 3:23; Genesis 1:27). Despite maintaining the image of God and a spirit distinct from the created world, man’s ability to reason and will have been hindered by natural and deliberate wickedness (Romans 3:23). According to the inspired author James, evil is neither aroused by any force or form of determinism, but comes solely from the desire of man’s heart (James 1:27). It is imperative, then, that the student receive knowledge competent in offering the wholeness of his being to original purpose and function. True knowledge is found first in the “fear” of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). It is centralized upon and measured in the recognition of God’s omniscience and revealed Word. Within Scripture, information is determined as profitable only according to its supporting object and motive. Proverbs denotes that knowledge can abase with foolish pride or establish one with earthly riches, yet is of little consequence outside the favor of the Lord. In an ever-eternal view, knowledge is depicted as supremely significant when ascribing to the intimacy of fathoming the Savior (John 20:31). Though including intellectual assent, this understanding surpasses the mind, and grasps the spirit, gradually sanctifying the whole person. It is only in this instruction and hope that a genuine hope for world-reaching reconstruction can be imagined, and in which the testimony for which Christ died can be manifested (John 3:16).
A biblical education presupposes a need for correction. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary specifically denotes education as a means of reforming the “temper” and general unruliness in personality and thought of the child. Implied is the act of training, molding, and improving from darkness to enlightenment, from unruly to tame. Such a theory initializes with the imperfect state of natural man, and seeks to edify him. In a Scriptural knowledge of the doctrine of total depravity (Romans 3:23), instructors gain insight as to what they may reap from their students. The realization that sin has fogged man’s wholeness—mind, spirit, and soul—and that only the Holy Spirit can shed light upon any misunderstanding, encourages the teacher who may have otherwise apprehended a performance of perfection from either herself or her pupils. Such an understanding decries any hope of improvement outside a biblical conversion, and concentrates upon the inner condition and needs of each classmate. Implied in such foresight is the total sovereignty of God—His domain and right over every facet of the universe, and the responsibility of each man to submit to His government. Inconceivable in this recognition is any form of human dominance or totalitarian authority which trespasses upon the natural rights of His children, or the order which He has revealed!
—Whitney Ann Dotson
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Thattai, Deeptha. “A History of Public Education in the United States.” [available online] at: http://www.servintfree.net/~aidmn-ejournal/publications/2001-11/PublicEducationInTheUnitedStates.html