The Image of Mann


The Myth of the Common School, by Charles Leslie Glenn, Jr., Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 384 pages, $37.50/$13.95 paper

The most massive failure of the Reagan-Bush era has to be "education reform." After nine years and hundreds of billions of dollars, SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have barely budged. The public-school bureaucrats and neoconservative opportunists who control the "reform" agenda have excluded any proposals, such as privatization, that might threaten their own influence.

Sensitive to the temper of the times, the "reformers" have deftly harnessed the symbolism of nostalgia. In the 1960s they billed themselves as "innovative" and "progressive"; today they claim that monopoly government schools are as old as the republic and that vouchers and tuition tax credits are inherently un-American. But now we have a book by a credentialed member of the public-school establishment, the director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Equal Educational Opportunity, proving that this claim lacks any historical foundation.

Charles Glenn believes that American education took a wrong turn in the decades just before the Civil War. What had been a decentralized, pluralistic system—with free competition among schools controlled by a wide range of public and private, religious and non-religious organizations—became increasingly homogenized and statist. The state that led the way was Glenn's own Massachusetts, and the key figure in Massachusetts was the secretary of its Board of Education, Horace Mann. Like Terrel Bell and Albert Shanker in our own time, Mann succeeded in presenting a special-interest faction's agenda as identical to the public interest—and in portraying resistance to that agenda as unenlightened or "sectarian."

This, of course, is hardly the first revisionist account of Mann's triumph. Glenn's notes and bibliography acknowledge such underground classics as Samuel Blumenfeld's Is Public Education Necessary? (1981) and Rousas Rushdoony's The Messianic Character of American Education (1963). But Glenn does not merely duplicate these studies. For one thing, he is able to take advantage of more-recent scholarship that largely confirms the views of Rushdoony and Blumenfeld. He shows, for example, that Americans achieved mass literacy long before the government seized control of schooling. More important, his book is a full-fledged comparative history: He analyzes the school wars of 19th-century France and the Netherlands as carefully as our own. He finds fascinating parallels.

In all three countries, it was the most "advanced," secularist thinkers that pushed for centralized state monopolies of schooling and the most traditionalist religious groups that took the side of freedom. That pattern is hardly surprising. The state could justify its new claims as the dominant or exclusive educator only if it could shove aside the much older activities of churches. France, where both sides were more conscious of the principles at stake, saw far more explicit attacks on religion. In Holland and America the shoving match was more subtle.

Like his Dutch counterparts, Horace Mann presented his vision of state schooling as "nonsectarian." State-subsidized schools, staffed by state-certified teachers using state-approved textbooks, were to cement national unity by teaching only those moral and spiritual beliefs that all Protestant Christian denominations supposedly had in common. Thus Mann and his allies promoted Bible readings that emphasized certain ethical teachings of Jesus Christ, such as the Golden Rule, but omitted controversial doctrines such as original sin. The result was schooling that promoted beliefs identical to Mann's own brand of sentimental Unitarianism. But he insisted that his agenda was neutral—just as Norman Lear does today when he defends state-mandated curricula that indoctrinate children against orthodox Christianity.

Glenn thinks that Mann sincerely believed his own claim to neutrality, and he is probably right. Few of us see our own values as "sectarian" or "ideological"; we reserve such labels for other people's beliefs. But 150 years later, the arguments of Mann's opponents hold up much better than his own. His opponents saw that the effect of excluding "sectarian" ideas would be to teach children that those ideas are not important; that the logic of standardizing education in a diverse society would inexorably lead to omitting more and more "sectarian" ideas, leaving the mush of unreflective, uninspiring relativism; and that therefore statist schooling was on a collision course with parental rights and religious freedom.

Glenn's account, more understated than Blumenfeld's or Rushdoony's, gains power by letting the antistatists speak for themselves. In 1840, for example, a committee of the Massachusetts legislature recommended that Mann's fledgling bureaucracy be abolished. "Schools in a republican government," said its report, "need no police regulations, no system of state censorship.…Instead of consolidating the education interest of the Commonwealth in one grand central head and that head the government, let us rather hold on to the good old principles of our ancestors and diffuse and scatter this interest far and wide…not only into towns and districts but even into families and individuals."

The committee rejected the centralized French and Prussian model admired by Mann, which it said "appears to have been devised more for the purpose of modifying the sentiments and opinions of the rising generation according to a certain government standard, than as a mere means of diffusing elementary knowledge.…In a country like this, where such diversity of sentiments exists, especially upon theological subjects…the difficulty and danger of attempting to introduce these subjects into our schools according to one fixed and settled plan, to be devised by a central Board, must be obvious."

Contrast that view with Mann's utopian forecasts: "I believe Normal Schools to be a new instrumentality in the advancement of the race.…Neither the art of printing, nor the trial by jury, nor a free press, nor free suffrage, can long exist to any beneficial and salutary purpose, without schools for the training of teachers…nay, the universal diffusion and ultimate triumph of all-glorious Christianity itself must await the time when knowledge shall be diffused…through the instrumentality of good schools."

Eventually the public-school movement won the political war—not so much by winning the theoretical debate as by tapping anti-Catholic bigotry. The more Irish immigrants flooded into northeastern cities, the more Protestant leaders embraced government schooling as a weapon against foreign "superstitions." Like many Puritans before and since, they showed more zeal in suppressing other people's freedom than in safeguarding their own.

Today's neoconservatives act as if Mann's triumph were irreversible. Their "reforms" have made U.S. schooling more centralized than ever. But Glenn gives gives us reason for hope. Of the three countries he studies, the very first to adopt the statist model—three decades before the rise of Horace Mann—was the Netherlands. It was also the first to abandon it, thanks to a populist revolt of Catholics and conservative Calvinists in the mid-19th century.

Populist leader Abraham Kuyper declared in 1869, "I have no hesitation in setting against the dogma, 'tolerance through removal of doctrinal differences,' this other: 'respect for the convictions of others based on the solidity of one's own convictions.'" By 1902 even the Dutch Socialist Party had abandoned its hostility to nongovernment schools.

In America, by contrast, the guardians of monopoly schooling still demand mindless reverence for Horace Mann's heritage. Glenn insists on studying it.

Lawrence A. Uzzell is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.