Thesis Statement: A study of the father of the Common Schools, Horace Mann, reveals that his ideas about education conflicted and sought to replace the gospel. He believed in the messianic nature of state education, which had its roots in his pelagian beliefs about man’s inherent goodness. These views will be analyzed and contrasted with the Biblical view.
- Importance of the Issue
- Framing the Issue
- The Perfectibility of Man
- Mann’s view
- Scripture’s view
- Practical application to education
- The Messianic State
- Mann’s View
- Practical Application/Conclusion
Horace Mann was an educational reformer and advocate of compulsory state funded public education. He has been rightly regarded as the father of the Public School movement. An educational historian has said of Mann: “No one did more than he to establish in the minds of the American people conception that education should be universal, non-sectarian, and free.” (Cubberly, “Public Education in the United States”, 167). Plays and pageants have symbolized him as the great “Crusader” for educational equality, and he enjoys the reverence of many who are familiar with and students of education in general. This author has chosen him and his thought as the root and representation of ungodly thought in education today. His ideas have been the cause of many ills in the Public education system, some of which have been smuggled into Christian schools. It is important to the field of Christian education to understand the unchristian foundations of secular education so we don’t adopt them into our own schools. It is also helpful to know how the Bible answers these same questions.
Horace Mann’s driving belief was that the state could solve man’s problems through education. He arrived at this conclusion because he believed that man was basically good, and his chief problem was that he was ignorant, not sinful. Mann characterized Calvinism’s belief in the depravity of man as evil. Mann believed that the state should then seek to solve man’s problem of ignorance by educating him to be a moral and active member of his society. Thus, education wasn’t for the end of learning to know and glorify God in all things (as in Christian education) but was instead to be trained by the state to be a good citizen.
If one consults Scripture, he will find the complete converse of these assertions, and it is to these that we will turn in order to rebut Mann’s unbiblical positions. In short, Scripture asserts that man is completely depraved, unable to come to a knowledge of saving faith in Jesus, apart from the sovereign regenerating power of God. Mankind isn’t as bad as he could be, thanks to the common grace of God, but he is spiritually and morally dead. The only solution for man’s spiritual problem is for him to come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. No school can solve man’s most basic problems, and if we think it can, we will be bound for disaster. Secondly, Scripture places the responsibility to teach children about God and his world at the feet of their parents, and gives grave warnings for ignoring those commands. (Deuteronomy 6). The state should not and cannot fill this void.
A study of the father of the Common Schools, Horace Mann, reveals that his ideas about education conflicted and sought to replace the gospel. He believed in the messianic nature of state education, which had its roots in his pelagian beliefs about man’s inherent goodness. These views will be analyzed and contrasted with the Biblical view.
The Perfectibility of Man
It is somewhat hard believe Mann on this point because he was a very religious person and a consistent churchgoer. Rather than being antagonistic towards religion in education, he encouraged schools to teach the Bible and morality. However, we should know that a “religious” person does not a Godly person make, since Romans 1 asserts that ALL men are religious, but only some of those are Godly. Mann was a Unitarian, and as such loathed the Calvinistic doctrine of the depravity of man, instead believing that man was damaged but perfectible through natural means. Indeed, as R.J. Rushdoony points out in his book “The Messianic Character of American Education: "Since this [his] implicit interpretation of Christianity was anthropological, the natural realm was of more immediate interest as an arena of revelation than the supernatural. Accordingly, natural law looms large in Mann’s thinking.” (Rushdoony, Loc. 533) This preoccupation with “natural law” lead Mann to have a very shallow conception of religion, viewing it essentially as moralism. How, then, was he to square the obvious failure of man to live uprightly, with his doctrine of man in general? In short, man’s problem was not sin, but ignorance, and ignorance led to the social diseases of crime and poverty. Mann thought he could cure this problem through education, writing:
If all the children in the community, from the age of four years to that of sixteen, could be brought within the reformatory and elevating influences of good schools, the dark host of private vices and public crimes which now embitter domestic peace and stain the civilization of the age might, in ninety-nine cases in every hundred, be banished from the world.” (Massachusetts Board of Education, Annual Report, 1849: 95-96)
He not only believed that education was the solution, but that state education was the only solution. For Mann, it was either state-controlled education, or no education at all. He was essentially a Marxist, believing that the most basic institution was the state, and not the family. As such, the State should and could do anything the family could, but more effectively. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In contrast to Mann’s essentially Pelagian view of Man, What does Scripture say about man, and how may we apply it’s teaching to education?
There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible. The fallenness of man is affirmed after the first 2 of them, as we read in Genesis 3:6: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food…she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” This was the first time man transgressed the law of God, but it would not be the last time. Paul, writing in Romans 3, and quoting several Psalms, writes: “None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless…” (Romans 3:10-12, ESV). Additionally, Psalm 58 says that men are evil from birth: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” (Psalm 58:3, ESV). The social problems (like crime) stem from their sinful nature, as James writes: (italics mine): “What causes Quarrels and fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.” (James 4:1-2, ESV) People commit crimes because they are sinful. The only solution to crime is the good news of the gospel, which is the only “pill” that can cure the “disease” of man.
Now, what does this mean for education? For one thing, it means that education must have its proper place. It cannot save men, and shouldn’t be utilized for that purpose. Secondly, we must recognize that in order to educate people who are sinful, we are going to have to constantly fight against that sinful nature, and if we don’t believe sinful nature exists, we are doomed to fail and miss our mark. Mann didn’t believe in the sinfulness of man, and thus his educational philosophy was doomed to fail from the start, in the same way that a man who didn’t believe in gravity would have a hard time flying, because gravity would hinder his progress, whether he believed in it or not. Instead, we must consider education as something we can only accomplish after and through the gospel.
The Messianic State
According to Horace Mann, the goal of education is to prepare man for civic duty, making the state the idolatrous telos of man. And, because the goal cannot trump the means, and the goal is service to the state, then the means (education) will be controlled by the state. Mann believed education was a community affair, but only in the sense of using the resources of everyone to fund education. Ironically education for Mann was collective only as it manifested itself in the single organism of the state.
Religious instruction is only useful if it can contribute to good manners in civic life. In general, Mann viewed education as the great savior of mankind, because the great problem of mankind was not sin, but rather ignorance.
What does Scripture say about the goals and means in education? Firstly, Scripture says that the goal of education is to raise up children to glorify Christ and take every thought captive to his way of thinking. Deuteronomy six commands us to teach our children to remember the great works of the Lord, so that we might glorify Him and remember whose we are. Ephesians 6 says this: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Rather than the goal being to serve the state, the goal was to serve Christ, the only true Lord of all men. The distinction is crystal clear when the goals are laid out this way. All academic subjects should assist in allowing children to see the goodness, truth, and beauty of God and his works.
As for the means of education, Scripture is equally clear that the parents of children have the authority and duty to educate their children, not the state. To understand this, it will be helpful to discuss this issue philosophically. Scripture delineates three main institutions with God-given duties in this world: Marriage, the family, and the state. Marriage is to be with one man and one women, who are to leave their respective families and cleave to one another. The family to born when these two people marry, and is extended and blessed as they have or adopt children. They are given the responsibility to care for and educate these children (Deuteronomy 6, 11, Joshua 4, Ephesians 6). The state is a legitimate institution established by God for the purpose of punishing evildoers, or those who commit crimes. (Romans 13) The church handles those who commit sins that aren’t crimes. (1 Corinthians 5). But, nowhere is the state given the duty to either educate children, or punish those who don’t educate children. That duty is given to the family, and the authority to punish those who neglect to educate their children is given to the church. This is a striking departure from Public education today, which has its roots in the early reformers such as Horace Mann.
Some practical ramifications of these differences would be that we, as Christians, need to relieve that our students are sinful people, who need the gospel more than anything. We should expect them to lie, cheat, steal, and generally grumble. We should realize that education is not going to go “with the grain” of their nature, contrary to Mann’s thinking. We should remit discipline in our schools, which Mann was vehemently opposed to, because we are dealing sinful children. Secondly, we should resist any and all encroachments upon the idea that education should be “pragmatic”. Education’s primary goal is NOT to allow its students to make as much money as possible, or to worship the state, which are the two biggest goals of public education today. We must affirm that the end of all things, including education, is to glorify Christ. This doesn’t mean that we don’t seek to prepare our students for the real world, but to do so in a God-honoring way. A good litmus test in a Christian school is to ask about their Theology curriculum. Do they have one? Are their Bible classes merely Sunday-school moralistic preaching, or are they just as rigorous as the AP History class? These subtle differences can reveal a school's priorities. The third practical application of our study is that we need to involve parents in their children’s education as much as possible. Parents are responsible to educate their children, and fathers are at the head of their families. At most schools, there are very few men, either in teaching positions or as fathers. This should not be the case at a Christian school! Fathers and mothers need to not only know what is going on at the school, but actively be teaching their children with the school. Picking a good school is only the beginning of a parent’s job in education.
To close, we have analyzed some of Horace Mann’s thinking, though only in summary fashion. We have then compared it to God’s Word, and then practically applied our thinking. Hopefully, we have come away with a Biblical understanding of the nature of man and the goals and means of education. In addition, we hope to have instructed the reader with a picture of how the sinful world thinks about education, not only so we can avoid it, but also so we can keep from copying it in our own schools.
ESV Study Bible. (2011). 1st ed. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles.
Cubberly, E. (1920). The History of Public Education. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Massachusetts Board of Education (1849). Annual Report.
Rushdoony, R. (1995). The Messianic character of American education. Vallecito, Calif: Ross House Books.