Grave of the Week: Horace Mann

This post is part of the Graves of the Week series. To see every entry, click here.

Back to School: words I both love and dread. I give a lot of time and effort to my job, and I love it (most of the time), but… summer heals all wounds: it’s easy to talk about how much I like teaching after a couple months off from doing it.

Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to love teaching outright. We live today in a country at a time where teachers are too often seen as leeches on the system: lazy public servants who neglect kids, depress test scores, and generally cause a decline in the national fiber while feasting on our cushy union-protected jobs. I’m not going to spend a lot of time refuting all that’ it’s been done time and time again, and I wouldn’t convince anyone who disagreed with me anyway. But I would like to add a bit of perspective about public education as we begin to pack up books and bags and lunches for the first day.

Grave of Horace Mann, North Burial Ground, Providence, RI

In the 1830s, public education was very far from a given in the United States. While some areas – Massachusetts most notably – had some level of compulsory schooling, the United States was still an overwhelmingly rural, agricultural country. Only a small sliver of the population lived in port cities like Boston, Philadelphia and New York. In the south, wealthy children had tutors while everyone else learned their hand at agriculture early. The growing west – the area today known as the Rust Belt – was much more green than rusty: it was the breadbasket of a hungry and growing country. Kids didn’t have time to go to school; they were barely kids. They were labor.

But as urban environments grew, so too did the need for some form of educational system. Horace Mann, a Boston educator, filled that void by establishing a series of standard teacher training academies and a system of public schools that would educate children both in the basic subjects of the time and in civics and citizenship. These schools formed the basis of a national system of public education that grew and spread in scope and size throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Public schools – free to all, necessary to produce the thinkers and writers and engineers and politicians of a new age – were brought up in them; eventually they helped fuel the tremendous economic boom of the post-World War II era and the expansion of thought and progress that followed in the 1960s. It is no surprise that the modern Civil Rights movement’s first truly great victory centered on public schools, and that so many national controversies have them at their heart: schools are universally important in the shaping of generations of Americans.

Today’s public schools are under attack – from conservatives who see public education as an attack on individual rights and national identity to neo-liberals who see schools as dinosaurs that aren’t responding to the brave new world of design and service that seem to define our fragile modern economy. It’s worth remembering that the country advances when its schools advance, and when all of its students have access to free, universal education. It’s worth remembering that the first steps in attaining those things are well-trained, professional teachers who are given the tools and the latitude to do what they love.

Good luck this year, everyone!

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