Last night I was reading AEI president Arthur Brooks’ excellent Wall Street Journal op-ed on the lottery, that seemingly ubiquitous government revenue scheme targeted at the poor, and it brought to mind Horace Mann, the “father of the common schools.” Did Mann pop into my brain because he was also the father of the “Diamond Dollars” scratcher, or “Pick 6 XTRA”? In a way, yes.
Mann actually hated the unproductive, greed-fueled lottery, which he wrote “cankers the morals of entire classes of the people.” As was the case for seemingly every social ill perceived by Mann, he had a cure for the canker: universal public schooling. Lotteries, he wrote, “await the dawning of that general enlightenment which common schools could so rapidly give, to be banished from the country forever.”
Fast forward to the present day, and what do we have? Roughly 90 percent of school-aged Americans attending public schools—and all children with access to them—while slickly advertised state lotteries pull in $70 billion annually, according to Brooks, with a disproportionate amount coming from low-income Americans who have little chance of breaking even, much less striking it rich.
Contra Mann’s promise, common schooling did not doom the lottery. Far, far from it. Today, perhaps the primary justification for the lottery is that it provides money for the public schools!
Frankly, Mann, who pronounced with assumed authority on everything from proper chewing to the number of “bodies” in the solar system, should have seen this coming. He certainly identified the supposed beneficiaries of lottery proceeds in his day: “the erection of public works,--to build a bridge, a canal, or a church [italics in original].” Mann was especially incensed by the latter, decrying, “When a church is built by a lottery, can there be any doubt which has the best side of the bargain, the Evil Spirit or the Good?”
Today, the “churches” conceived by Mann—the public schools—are themselves enriched by lotteries. Maybe that’s because they could never spread the universal enlightenment that Mann confidently promised. Maybe it is also because, like most of us, those employed by the public schools want as much money as they can reasonably get, and government schemes like the lottery enable them to bring in more.
Matt Ladner does a good job of explaining how his beliefs shape his education policy recommendations. It’s a quality that he shares with Horace Mann, who persuaded the people of Massachusetts to adopt a fully tax-funded state school system based on his own beliefs about how a just society should educate its children.
More than a century and a half later, we are still struggling to replace Mann’s unresponsive, divisive, ineffective, wasteful, and often cruel system with one that actually works. So, as we reflect on exactly what to replace Mann’s system with, we have to ask: how did he get it so very, very wrong, and how can we avoid the same fate?
I suggest that Mann’s great mistake was to base his policy recommendations on his belief system. To avoid sentencing future generations to a similarly dysfunctional education, we must base our conclusions on a broad and systematic analysis of the evidence. We should study school systems historically and internationally to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why. We should make predictions about how different policies will unfold and then try to test those predictions empirically. We should observe how different policies play out across states rather than rushing to homogenize them before their effects can be compared.
At least that seems to me our greatest hope of avoiding Mann’s tragic mistake. And if the policy conclusions we reach do not happen to be the easiest to implement, we can take comfort in the fact that Mann succeeded in promoting a system that had no basis in reason or evidence despite strong and longstanding opposition. If a radical bad idea could triumph, why not a radical good one?
Today is the mid-point of National School Choice Week, and we're once again rockin' to the oldies of prognostication. This time we're going all the way back to the Mann. That's Horace Mann, the "Father of the Common School" himself.
It is Mann who, among many things, is probably most responsible for introducing one of the deepest underlying sentiments supporting government schooling: that public schools will unify us and give us peace. As he waxed eloquent in his first annual report as Secretary of the newly-constituted Massachusetts State Board of Education:
Amongst any people, sufficiently advanced in intelligence, to perceive, that hereditary opinions on religious subjects are not always coincident with truth, it cannot be overlooked, that the tendency of the private school system is to assimilate our modes of education to those of England, where churchmen and dissenters, —each sect according to its own creed,—maintain separate schools, in which children are taught, from their tenderest years to wield the sword of polemics with fatal dexterity; and where the gospel, instead of being a temple of peace, is converted into an armory of deadly weapons, for social, interminable warfare. Of such disastrous consequences, there is but one remedy and one preventive. It is the elevation of the common schools.
How wrong Mann was.
Keep in mind that as of 1837, the year Mann gave his first address, some pretty impressive unifying things had happened in America despite education being grounded in families, private schools, and yes, churches. We'd established unified colonies; penned and ratified a Declaration of Independence that enunciated foundational American values; fought and won a war against the greatest military power on Earth; established a new nation; and created a national government based on a Constitution that -- though it's legs are under constant assault -- still stands.
But let's get to Mann's prediction: Did "elevation of the common schools" end "social, interminable warfare"?
Not on your life. Indeed, by attempting to force diverse people into a monolithic system of government schools, it most likely exacerbated social tensions and sparked otherwise avoidable wars. To name just a few school-stoked conflagrations (both real and rhetorical):
- The Philadelphia Bible Riots of 1844, sparked by a dispute over whose version of the Bible -- Roman Catholic, Protestant, or neither -- would be allowed in the public schools. By the conclusion of the rioting hundreds of people had been killed or injured and millions of dollars of property damage inflicted. Similar conflict -- though not as physically destructive -- occurred in many other American towns, with social strife largely only lessened when Catholics established their own school system.
- The Scopes "Monkey" Trial, a sensational case that grabbed the attention of the entire nation as a Tennessee court ruled whether or not it was acceptable to teach evolution in public schools. It is a topic that continues to rip communities apart today, and is so hot that, even where state standards mandate evolution be taught, most biology teachers avoid it. They simply don't want to deal with the acrimony that would ensue.
- In 1974, Kanawha County, West Virginia, was plunged into a state of near-civil war over books selected by the county school district that many residents perceived to be anti-Christian and anti-American. Before the strife subsided commerce had ground to a halt, at least one person had been shot, and schools had been dynamited.
These are just some of the most well known or violent of the battles in the "interminable warfare" sparked not by private schooling, but the public schools Mann promised would bring peace if they became ascendant. Indeed, as I itemized in an analysis of just the 2005-06 school year, values-based skirmishes are fought all around us, all the time, whether over prayer in the schools, reading assignments, bullying and student speech, ethnic studies, and on and on. But that is exactly what we should expect when people of widely diverse religions, ethnicity, and philosophies are all required to support a single system of government schools. They won't just give up the things that are often at the very heart of their lives -- they will fight to have them taught.
Perhaps the biggest irony in all this is that students who attend private schools, even after adjusting for important non-school factors, are actually more knowledgeable about civics, active in their communities, and tolerant of others than are public school students. As University of Arkansas professor Patrick Wolf discovered in reviewing the empirical literature:
The statistical record suggests that private schooling and school choice often enhance the realization of the civic values that are central to a well-functioning democracy. This seems to be the case particularly among ethnic minorities (such as Latinos) in places with great ethnic diversity (such as New York City and Texas), and when Catholic schools are the schools of choice. Choice programs targeted to such constituencies seem to hold the greatest promise of enhancing the civic values of the next generation of American citizens.
How could this be? Because, in contrast to the assumption of Mann and others, most people don't have to be forced to embrace tolerance and responsible freedom, they choose them. Public schooling, conversely, sends the message that government, not individuals freely working together, is responsible for whatever problems communities face. Even more importantly, by forcing diverse people together, government schools drop them into a zero-sum arena and render conflict all but inevitable.
Common schools haven't brought us peace in our day. Indeed, quite the opposite.