The History of Education: The American Educational System, Common School Period (Horace Mann)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 28th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Sometimes called “The Father of American Education,” Horace Mann was born in 1796 in Franklin, Massachusetts. His formal schooling only lasted 8-10 weeks a year, but he educated himself with extensive reading at the Franklin Town Library. This, combined with a brief period of study with an itinerant school master, allowed him to join the sophomore class of Brown University in 1816. He studied law at Litchfield Law School and was admitted to the bar in 1823; won a seat in the state legislature in 1827; and became a state senator in 1833, all while maintaining a private law practice.

In addition to his law work, Mann had a keen interest in school policy. On April 20, 1837, he left his practice to accept the post of the newly created Secretary of Education. During his time in this role, he published 12 annual reports on aspects of his work and programs, as well as what he felt was the integral relationship between education, freedom, and Republican government. He wanted a “common” school, one that would be part of the birthright of every American child, rich and poor alike.

Mann believed a common school would be the “great equalizer,” eliminating poverty as an educated populace tapped new treasures of natural and material wealth. He also believed that, with education, crime would decline sharply, along with moral vices like violence and fraud. Social harmony would become the new norm.

Mann was influenced in his ideas by Heinrich Pestalozzi, who advocated that education should start with the children’s interests, not with the demands of the subject matter. In addition, Mann felt that only moral improvement could heal the rifts formed by the social and economic changes taking place in Massachusetts at the time. His opponents, however, many of them schoolmasters at the Boston Grammar Schools, pushed the doctrine of student “emulation” based on the correctness of the teacher and the imposition of the teachers’ correct views on the children in his care.

Mann also differed from the schoolmasters in the area of reading instruction, a debate that continues to this day. Mann supported a “whole word” approach, whereas the masters advocated for phonics instruction, where students learn each of the letters and their sounds and learn to connect them to form words, phrases, and sentences.

It’s important to note, moving forward, that Mann’s views were not those of the prevailing high-status male schoolmasters; rather, they represented an approach compatible with a growing trend, the increasing presence of women teachers in the classroom.

Still, as Secretary of Education, Mann accomplished many revolutionary things: the first public normal school in the United States was established at Lexington in 1839; 50 new high schools were created as he reinvigorated the 1827 law establishing high schools; and a six-month minimum school year was established in Massachusetts in 1839. Mann also spearheaded the campaign to set up teacher institutions throughout the state.

Mann resigned from his post in 1848, moving on to the US House of Representatives, then to the post of president of Antioch College, where he stayed until his death in 1859. In a final address to the graduating class, he said, “I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for Humanity.”[1]

Mann’s victory was that the public school became one of the characteristic features of American life and a “ladder of opportunity” for millions who, before, would have received little-to-no formal education.


Next week: Mary Lyon/Mount Holyoke


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.



[1] Mason-King, Pam. (June 15, 2004). “Horace Mann.” History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from

[2] Urban, Wayne J., Wagoner Jr., Jennings L., and Gaither, Milton. American Education: A History, 6th edition. Routledge: New York, 2019, pp. 92-93.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to