Education Reform in a Mann’s World


by Tanesha Dixon

Tanesha is a native New Yorker living and learning in Richmond, VA. She serves as an Assistant Director of Student Affairs for a private university where she saves undergrads from the fun college mistakes we all made. Tanesha is also an education activist, free thinker & fan of all things Octavia Butler. 
Horace Mann (May 4, 1796 – August 2, 1859) was an American educational reformer and Whig politician dedicated to promoting public education. He served in the Massachusetts State legislature (1827–1837). Educational historians credit Horace Mann as father of the Common School Movement.

Fighting for educational equality means we are willing and able to dissect and examine its structure on a continuum. Improving college readiness means understanding disparities in early childhood literacy. Criticism of post-college preparedness requires educators to be critical of the pipelines our students navigate at every academic, economic, and political crossroad. If activism serves to promote reform along these measures with hope to improve society, then in my concern for educational accessibility across race, class, gender, and many other identities, the concept of education as “a great equalizer of the conditions of men” is at best, a presumptuous ideal and at worst, extremely cliché.

I am familiar with this overused quote from Horace Mann, and ashamed as an educator to know very little about his place in American history and education. I do some quick research of the northern politician-abolitionist-education reformer, looking for untapped context around Mann’s overused edict. Education as a public good? Agree. Treat education as a respected profession and equip the field with trained, qualified teachers? No argument there. Schools as venues to build character and a training ground for workforce development? Between my understanding and criticism of the history of urban education according to Tyack and my place in higher education, often tasked with preparing young adults to think, communicate, and lead in business and industry, I can get behind that.

Let’s come back to this “conditions of men” part, Horace. Picture it: America, 1848. The “conditions” of our nation were not our among our men’s shining moments. Mann was not looking past the conditions of less fortunate white men–farmers, factory workers, the occasional adolescent derelict but otherwise, your good Christians to reform education. His education activism was to serve “men”—100% (white, cisgender) men, not those three-fifths not-quite-human men and certainly not the likes of my black womanhood. As he stated in his report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education, “some men are to toil and earn, others to seize and enjoy… but all should have an equal chance for earning.” Come on, Mann. #notallmen, I guess.

I also am trying to understand the conditions in which men across economic disparities would become equal at the hands of well-trained, likely well-off, teenage women. This is during a time—1848, 2017, whatever—where women were not trusted with much of anything. Voting? Defending our country’s freedoms? Vying to be the leader of the free world? Nope, no can do. Paying and training women to equalize the conditions of men and society? An idea that just might work. According to Horace’s reform, it’s a Mann’s world, but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl…because who else is going to teach these white children? I wonder who was equalizing the conditions among the women of color who were educating their villages, building their children’s character, preparing them for the farce of their perpetual servitude workforce in 1848? Spoiler: it wasn’t Mann.

I’m telling you what you already know, or have considered in your educator subconscious. Education is in shambles and we reformers—teachers, educators, counselors, activists, and politicians—make daily attempts to answer the million-dollar question. A steal, really, when your Secretary of Education DeVos proposes to reduce Department funding by $9 billion, but still wants you to rest assured knowing that she and the Administration will “ensure every student has an equal opportunity to receive a great education,” even the “educational needs of the nation's most vulnerable students, including poor and minority students and students with disabilities.”

Educators, who comes to mind when you think of education reform and activism? I think of people like Septima Clark, Ruby Bridges, and Ms. Rosa, the woman who would sneak the hot chocolate machine from her overnight job at BP for the school holiday party. I’m not saying Horace Mann was trash or anything but if he’s considered the father of American public education, shouldn’t I know his name and legacy? Why isn’t his work in my historical toolbox as an educator?