There were many early supporters of equal education for all, but there was still considerable controversy about access to education. Questions arose about whether poor children were being restricted to instruction in basic skills while the middle classes received broad education meant to maintain and improve their quality of life. It was in this period of transition from theoretical public education to an implemented system that worked for all citizens, that Horace Mann emerged as one of the principal champions of education.
Horace Mann, who many education experts and historians consider to be the father of the common school concept. With his craggy features and passionate speeches, he embodied the spirit of educational idealism during the first half of the 1800s.
Mann was born into an impoverished Massachusetts family and was largely self-taught. He managed to secure a place at Brown University, where his oratorical prowess first became evident. He was to use this rhetorical ability to further his careers in law and politics. As secretary of the first board of education in the United States, he gave lectures and started the influential Common School Journal.
Picking up on many of the ideas of the founding fathers, Mann went on to envisage how a system of universal education would best serve the social, economic, and political needs of society. He centered his lofty hopes for the nation on the solo successes of children because he believed that a common experience in school could mold them into successful individuals.
Mann developed six educational principles that would come to define his involvement, and would influence the American education system for decades:
(1) Citizens cannot maintain both ignorance and freedom;
(2) This education should be paid for, controlled, and maintained by the public;
(3) This education should be provided in schools that embrace children from varying backgrounds;
(4) This education must be nonsectarian;
(5) This education must be taught using tenets of a free society; and
(6) This education must be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.
Ever expansive in his ideas, Mann also believed that common schooling would reduce hostilities among citizens. As children grew into adults sharing a common educational experience, Mann posited that different socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds would become less significant. Mann’s vision for schools included a common moral and political foundation, as well as the provision of opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve self-sufficiency and use education to lift themselves from poverty.
By 1837, Horace Mann was busy working to mobilize support for public schools and argued that they were the training ground for youth and for individuals to be able to participate effectively as citizens of a democratic nation. Mann clearly valued a balanced and broad curriculum and supported the development of one in public schools.
Indeed, Mann’s ideal school system brought children from all backgrounds to learn together in an ungraded school. Mann advocated for the education of heterogeneous groups of students to achieve unifying goals and believed specifically in the connection between freedom, self-government, and universal education. He believed in the value of a common learning environment and the development of self-discipline. These, he maintained, could be transferred into the types of skills and behaviors needed for a free society where citizens were not only educated, but had the ability to make intelligent decisions needed for moral judgment and government participation. For Mann, the purpose of education went beyond intellectual and utilitarian goals.
Accepting that children differ regarding ability, interests, and temperament, Mann laid the groundwork for lessons to be adapted to meet the individual needs of children. The one-room school, now a nostalgic icon of American history, embodied Mann’s idyllic vision of the common school. There was little consistency in the curriculums used by one-room schools, though, and teachers had difficulty grouping children for instructional purposes.
Students studied in groups based on what they knew and what they needed to know. Students of multiple ages received instruction at the same level. Given the number of children and the different ages of children in the classroom, children principally learned via memorization. Teachers had little time to target individual needs in the classroom. Even with these drawbacks, however, the non-graded one-room school was an invaluable institution for providing free and public education for children during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Many children excelled in learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, even when the time at school was disrupted by the need to work on the family farm. The ungraded structure of the one-room school allowed for the return to school after an extended absence. It also allowed children to take a break and then return to learning, based on the knowledge they had retained.
Though the standardized assessments that are part of the educational system today did not exist, children did have oral exams at the end of the school year. These were formal quizzes on what they had learned over the course of the year. The purpose of these exams was to provide teachers with information about where to start children at the beginning of the next school year.
Passing and failing were not descriptors used to classify children’s learning behaviors in the one-room school, as progress was allowed to occur at different rates. Only when students took the exams needed to enter high schools outside of their rural communities would they experience their first taste of scholastic success or failure.
Was the one-room school on to something?