Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Horace Mann, The Necessity of Education in a Republican Government, Multiple Occasions, Fall 1839

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Michael J. Steudeman, University of Maryland

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value to History Teachers

Compulsory education has been mandatory in most of the United States for over a century. Students are flung into education from an early age and often do not take time to reflect on why society has deemed it so important. Horace Mann’s lecture on the relationship of education to government provides an opportunity for this reflection. Additionally, the speech:

  • Contextualizes early American debates about the challenges of democratic participation.
  • Demonstrates the concerns for character, virtue, and citizenship in early debates about government.
  • Provides a case study in reform that demonstrates how, over time, the size and capacities of government have expanded.
  • Reveals aspects of early 19th-century culture, including views regarding psychology and temperance.
  • Opens classroom discussions about the role of education in civic participation.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
    • Mann often wrote in lengthy, run-on sentences that students might find difficult at first. Spoken aloud, however, these were a powerful aesthetic strategy during his time: of repeating the same meaning through multiple metaphors and examples to reinforce an argument.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
    • Mann’s speech is about developing the relationship of three different concepts: the individual, the republic, and education. Students will need to carefully track these three concepts throughout the speech.
    • Additionally, because each paragraph is complex but heavily focused on a single main argument, students can practice summarizing ideas throughout.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text.
    • While developing concepts of the republic, education, and ignorance, Mann also manipulates the ambiguity of both terms to strengthen his case. Students will need to pay close attentions to their multiple meanings, attending to how audiences would have understood them.
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
    • This address captures many of the apprehensions and conflicts that, by 1839, revealed tensions in how Americans understood the “foundational” texts of their government, such as the Constitution and Federalist Papers.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • Begin with a conversation surrounding public education in American society. In what ways is education associated with citizenship? Why does our government require all citizens to attend the public schools?
  • Review themes from the Federalist papers with students, and particularly Federalist #10, to help them understand the Founders’ fears of democracy—particularly, the fears of faction and demagoguery. Mann echoes these fears as a justification for the necessity of public education.
  • At the same time, students should also review historical arguments in favor of small and local government. Mann’s opponents were against centralized control of institutions, and especially education.
  • The rise of Andrew Jackson ushered in democratic involvement that particularly concerned Whigs like Mann. While the story of Jackson’s “big block of cheese” may be largely myth, it nonetheless helps to capture the fervor for democracy that grew in the 1820s and 1830s.
  • To help students understand the difficulties Mann faced during his lecture tour, have them study an excerpt from Mann’s diaries from pages 116-122 of The Life of Horace Mann (available as a PDF on Google Books).
  • PBS provides a basic timeline of the common school movement.

Important Vocabulary/Figures

  • Ignorance versus false knowledge [paragraph 49]: Mann argues that “ignorance” is not a real threat to the republic. This distinction underscores the necessity that government not just promote education, but control how the public is educated.
  • Republican: Students should know what distinguishes a democracy and a republic. More importantly, they should know that “republic” is a complicated term and carries connotations about the virtues of proper citizenship.
  • Temperance: Mann was a major proponent of limiting access to alcohol, gambling, and other vices.


Day 1: Ambiguous Education

  • [Read paragraphs 1-9]
  • Students will analyze the multiple and ambiguous meanings Mann ascribes to “education.”

Day 2: Describing Faculties

  • [Read paragraphs 10-38]
  • Students will summarize the major “propensities” or “faculties” how the “higher” and “lower” relate.

Day 3: Government History

  • [Read paragraphs 39-45]
  • Students will assess Mann’s account of the relationship between governments and individuals.

Day 4: Risks of Democracy

  • [Read paragraphs 46-51]
  • Students will summarize Mann’s position on how American democracy shapes the “faculties” differently from other forms of government.
  • Students will debate the challenges and benefits of democratic governance.

Day 5: Education Alone

  • [Read paragraphs 52-58]
  • Students will evaluate Mann’s usage of the “method of residues” to eliminate all solutions other than education.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • The syntax of Mann’s speech is complicated, and will take some getting used to—even for fairly advanced students. Three strategies will help students:
    • When lost, always look for definitive punctuation marks like periods and exclamation points. Mann usually starts a new thought with each sentence.
    • Mann does follow the basic rules of writing: no matter how complicated, most paragraphs begin with a topic sentence and develop a single argument.
    • At the end of every paragraph, students take a moment to summarize the major takeaway on a piece of notebook paper—that way, they can easily track Mann’s chain of reasoning throughout the speech.
  • Paragraphs 3-8: Questions regarding the ambiguity of “education”:
    • How does Mann’s definition of “education” change during this section? (It begins clearly enough in para. 3—but as he goes, the definition becomes more ambiguous and broader. Later in the speech, he begins to refer to education as capable of producing both good and )
    • What effects does Mann ascribe to education? (He employs some intense cause-effect reasoning in this section, which contributes to the ambiguity of the word: education influences everything, it seems like—and for eternity!)
  • Day 2 (Paragraphs 10-38): That this is a lengthy and repetitive section—it can be either extended over two days, or truncated to save time. Students should mainly take away the relationship of the “higher” and “lower” propensities and how education helps the higher ones (reason) regulate the lower ones (appetites).
  • Paragraph 39: Students should pay particularly close attention to the discussion of the “generations” in this section—Mann makes the point that the Founders were educated under a different form of government. Ask students to consider::
    • How does this observation help prove Mann’s point that different forms of government require different education?
    • How might it shape his audience’s understanding of the Founder’s views on education without attacking the Founders themselves?
  • Day 4: Many of the issues Mann addresses in this section continue to this day—from partisan factions to a press that inflames passions. This prompts an opportunity for an in-class debate on two resolutions:
    • Resolved: The risks of democracy worth the benefits.
    • Resolved: Education should be a requirement for democratic participation. (Students should consider the potentially negative consequences of this: for example, “literacy tests” to prevent blacks from voting during Jim Crow).
  • Day 5: This day’s objective requires students to analyze Mann’s use of the “method of residues,” which Herbert Simons defines as “A form of presentation that presents options and choices, where the final option (‘the residue’) appears to be the best and most logical one.” Discuss whether the institutions Mann derides as insufficient are given a fair assessment in his argument—and why he spends little time on education.

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment

  • Contrasting Mann and Duncan: In many ways, the modern day U.S. Secretary of Education follows in the footsteps of Horace Mann—but the rhetoric has changed a great deal. Have students contrast Mann’s speech against Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s announcement of “Race to the Top,” a major reform program. Ask:
    • How has the meaning of “education” changed from Mann to Duncan? (RI.11-12.4)
    • How has the relationship of government, the individual, and education shifted in the past 150 years? (RL.11-12.2)
  • Education in 19th-Century Massachusetts: Mann’s speech makes two arguments: that unchecked democracy threatens the republic and that only education can solve the problem. From the perspective of a prospective Mann audience member—a 19th century schoolmaster, for example, or a Boston political leader—assess the strength of Mann’s appeal for systematized, statewide, compulsory public education. (RI.11-12.9)