Mann’s Success Was His Failure

Mann’s efforts on behalf of the common schools bore spectacular success, if we consider the long-term goals (and even the immediate goals) he was attempting to promote. His countrymen heeded his exhortations after all. ‘I’hey built a system of common schools attended by all classes of society. They rejected the European model, which provided a liberal education for the children of privilege and vocational training for the masses. They abolished child labor and made school attendance compulsory, as Mann had urged. They enforced a strict separation between church and state, protecting the schools from sectarian influences. They recognized the need for professional training of teachers, and they set up a system of normal schools to bring about this result. They followed Mann’s advice to provide instruction not only in academic subjects but in the “laws of health,” vocal music, and other character-forming disciplines (VI:61, 66). They even followed his advice to staff the schools largely with women, sharing his belief that women were more likely than men to govern their pupils by the gentle art of persuasion. They honored Mann himself, even during his lifetime, as the founding father of their schools. If Mann was a prophet in some respects, he was hardly a prophet without honor in his own country. He succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most reformers, yet the result was the same as if he had failed.

It amazes me how much our modern education – even those classical schools which say they are not modern – model Mann’s common school program. Even our goals are the same; the salvation of the human and his society, as well as the moving away from vocational training toward a life-of-the-mind for everyone, regardless of whether the person actually is inclined or disposed to live that sort of life. No, everyone must be made to leave the workforce for an enlightened life, which few actually attain. We do, however, accomplish an incidental goal which is to keep people from learning skills, entering a career and making a living, and contributing to society.

Here is our puzzle, then: Why did the success of Mann’s program leave us with the social and political disasters he predicted, with uncanny accuracy, in the event of his failure? To put the question this way suggests that there was something inherently deficient in Mann’s educational vision, that his program contained some fatal flaw in its very conception. The flaw did not lie in Mann’s enthusiasm for “social control” or his halfhearted humanitarianism. The history of reform—with its high sense of mission, its devotion to progress and improvement, its enthusiasm for economic growth and equal opportunity, its humanitarianism, its love of peace and its hatred of war, its confidence in the welfare state, and, above all, its zeal for education is the history of liberalism, not conservatism, and if the reform movement gave us a society that bears little resemblance to what was promised, we have to ask not whether the reform movement was insufficiently liberal and humanitarian but whether liberal humanitarianism provides the best recipe for a democratic society.

This sort of equalitarian humanism is, indeed, not fit for society of any type. Humanist education levels society, breaks the chain of parent-child vocations, and places children on a sea of mass choices from which they are told to choose. Confused, they stare around until their mid-twenties when necessity forces their hand into whatever is nearest, at which point they begin learning a skill and working. Exceptions do not make the rule, which was the norm for ages past.


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