- Today, the value of public education is almost taken for granted as a necessary fact of life. In 1839, however, education was not compulsory, and even in Massachusetts—by far the strongest state educationally—the school system was fairly lax and disjointed by today’s standards. To situate students in Mann’s rhetorical situation, begin by discussing how a society’s norms and expectations would differ in a society where education is not required.
- The founders of the United States were largely venerated in Mann’s time, as they are today. In his address, he makes a potentially controversial argument that separates the founders from the American system of government: he points out that they were “born and educated under other institutions” and therefore had a sense of respect that a generation raised in America did not possess (39). How would citizens of Massachusetts listening to Mann’s lecture respond to this argument? Would they be more or less inclined to support a system of public education based on this position?
- Massachusetts was heavily Whig, and much of the population—particularly those who would attend a speech by the Secretary of Education—likely shared many of Mann’s concerns about the perils of democracy. Nonetheless, Mann uses some downright fiery metaphors in his speech. For instance, he compares the risks of expanded democratic participation to arson (44). Rhetorical scholars have often written about the strengths and weaknesses of polemics and moralistic rhetoric for galvanizing a movement. Would Mann’s assertive appeals here turn off or strengthen his audience support?
- Mann’s speech raises significant questions about expertise. He was not an educator by training, and faced some challenges at first to garner support and recognition for his views on the subject. How does Mann take advantage of his unique background as a politician to enhance his credibility to speak about matters of education? Where in this speech can we recognize Mann trying to improve upon his own ethos to speak on educational topics? Today, many professionals from fields outside of education often comment on policies in that field—from politicians to actors, journalists, and business executives. To what extent does expertise from fields outside of education translate into authority within the field of education? What types of expertise would only teachers and educators possess?
- In Mann’s closing arguments, he uses a “method of residues” to sweep away other institutional solutions to the democratic problems he identifies and stress education as the best possible outcome. Discuss the short amount of time he spends on each of these institutions (law, the clergy, the press) and whether he is giving a fair assessment of their abilities. Then, develop a classroom debate over the following resolution: Resolved: A coordinated system of public education is the only institution that can ensure a stable republican government. Make sure that sides in the debate pay particular attention to the ambiguous terms within this resolution, particularly “coordinated,” “education,” and “republican.” Each of these terms have multiple possible meanings, both in Mann’s day and in our own, and will need to be carefully defined by the affirmative team.
- Many volumes of the Common School Journal are now published online. (For example, Google Books has posted volumes 1 and 2). While Mann’s speech did not discuss much of his pedagogy, the pages of the Journal developed many curricular suggestions for schoolteachers. To what extent does the pedagogy of classrooms in the 1830s and 1840s resemble the teaching style of classes today? What has changed and what is the same? How does this reflect changes in American beliefs about education since Mann’s time? Mann’s speech focuses heavily on the reasons why public education is important in a democracy, but does not say much about what that education should look like. In the Journal, the actual curriculum he proposes is developed in more detail. Consider the deep purposes that Mann ascribes to education in his speech. Would this curriculum live up to those lofty goals? For example, would these lessons succeed in building the type of republican virtue Mann calls for in his address? Why or why not?
- Though his powers and responsibilities are far expanded, the U.S. Secretary of Education enacts a role similar to Horace Mann’s by promoting the cause of public education largely through rhetoric and sponsorship. Analyze a recent speech by the Secretary of Education. To what extent do the themes in Mann’s speech regarding the necessity of education for the United States still make their way into those speeches? What reasons persist—and what has changed?
- Many contemporary public education reformers promote charter schools as a strong alternative to traditional public schools. In some places, such as New Orleans and Washington, D.C., charter schools have largely replaced public schools. Conduct research on charter schools, then compare and contrast them to the ideal of common schools discussed by Horace Mann. In what ways do charter schools differ from public schools.
- According to Mann’s speech, the public schools alone—more than any other institution—have the ability, and responsibility, to prepare students for their responsibilities of citizenship. Since Mann’s time as Secretary, we have been debating the best way to make sure schools meet this responsibility. Research some of the approaches that the federal and state governments have used over time to make sure schools have been held accountable, including the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top. What controversies have been provoked by these policies? In what ways—if any—do they follow from some of Mann’s assumptions about the role of education?
- Conduct research on the development of Jacksonian era democracy and the rise of the two-party system between the Whigs and Democrats. To what extent were Mann’s fears of democracy justified, and to what extent does he exaggerate the threat? Did his concerns about the rise of democracy in America generally come to fruition? Why do you (or don’t you) think so?
- Mann uses the word “republic” or “republican” ten times in his speech. By definition, a “republican” government is one where representatives are elected to stand on behalf of the people. But the word has historically carried many connotations regarding virtue and civic duty, dating back to ancient societies in Europe. There was not a perfectly agreed-upon definition of “republican” in Mann’s day, and the term likely had multiple meanings for his audiences. Research five or six different meanings that the term “republican” has had over time, and compare these usages with Mann’s. Which definitions seem to work best for his arguments—and which seem to contradict them?
- Mann’s speech develops an account of the human mind that requires the cultivation of “higher” faculties to control “lower,” animal instincts and appetites. Psychological research into human behavior and cognitive development has changed a tremendous deal since Mann’s era. Research the developmental theories of Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Abraham Maslow. How do their understandings of the mind differ from Mann’s, and how do their views on education reflect these different beliefs about psychology?
- The U.S. government obviously looks very different today than it did during Mann’s time. Voting rights have been dramatically expanded and both state and federal governments are far larger than they were in 1839, and our nation’s influence (for better or worse) is far greater in the world. If you had to reimagine an education system from the ground up to meet the needs of participation in today’s government, what would it look like? How would people be trained for proper participation in government?
- Brainstorm what problems in American society the schools are designed to repair and fix. (For example: the schools are often called upon to teach students proper sexual behavior to stop unwanted teenage pregnancies.) To what extent are the schools the best institutional solution to address these issues? Could other programs or policies be used to confront these problems more directly? Why or why not?
- Mann does not have particularly nice things to say about college alumni in his address; he argues that the highly educated have failed to spread their knowledge to the masses, instead focusing on lofty and abstract topics (54). Indeed, even today, the systems of K-12 and collegiate education are very separate from one another in the United States. What responsibilities do college students and alumni have to “give back” to people in lower grades by spreading knowledge and promoting education? What are the benefits—and weaknesses—of a system that largely separates K-12 from higher education?
- Mann spends much of his speech discussing the responsibilities and duties of proper citizenship. It has long been assumed in our country that democratic participation demands a certain degree of education. Some critics, such as Stanley Aronowitz, argue that this unfairly excludes a large number of citizens from participation in public life. Using Mann’s speech as a starting point, do you believe that education is a necessity for civic participation? What do we gain—and lose—by basing our ideals of citizenship on an individual’s education?
- People often debate the “culture wars” in the public schools. Debates often revolve around issues like school prayer, ethnic studies curricula, and whether problematic episodes in American history should be taught in the classroom (e.g., Native American removal policies). Is Mann’s dream of “apolitical” public education possible? Can the schools completely avoid dealing with controversial issues? If they can, is that a good thing, or should schools confront controversies directly?
Last updated May 6, 2016