Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mann, those Transcedentalists

Horace Mann's Tenth Annual Report contains one of the most passionate and well-reasoned arguments in defense of the public schools ever written. The core of the report deals with one of the most difficult arguments in public education: the level of responsibility people have to fund the school, even if they are not currently benefitting from the services it provides. Mann's central assumption is that no one person can own the land because it is the naturally inherited gift of all men, an idea firmly rooted in the philosophy of the Transcendentalists. Mann's premises in the Tenth Annual Report are heavily indebted to the philosophies of the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, especially Emerson's ideas of the universal spirit that unites all men and the location of that universal spirit in nature.

In the Tenth Annual Report, Mann takes on the task of convincing people who have no connection to the common school system to pay the taxes that finance their daily operations. In Mann's day, those who wanted to, and were able to, educate their children sent them to private school. These upper-class and middle-class elites saw no need to finance a school system for the lesser members of society; after all, what could their simple minds hope to learn? Mann's argument had to circumvent this bias in order to win the support of these wealthy people. Mann decided that his best option would be to redefine the notion of ownership. Only with Emerson's philosophy as an inspiration could Mann take the common notion of what property was and relocate it to the "capacious storehouses of nature" (Mann, 1957, p. 64) to which all men have access. Mann, taking from Emerson's philosophy, uses the notion that "none of them owns the landscape" (Emerson, 2007, p. 18) to reinforce the idea that there are higher moral callings that require those very wealthy people to survive. There is no better place than in the natural landscape, "the woods, [where] we return to reason and faith," (Emerson, 2007, p. 18) to be the place where the rights and possessions of all men are safely stored; conversely, there is no better place for them to be shared.

Mann used this idea, that all people are connected through the natural, and spiritual, landscape, to justify the use of community property for universal education. Mann explicitly states that:

"I believe in the existence of a great, immutable principle of natural law, or natural ethics…which proves the absolute right of every human being that comes into the world to an education; and which, of course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all."
(Mann, 1957, p. 63)

This premise is directly translatable from Emerson's ideas on the divinity of nature. Mann even places the power to ensure the right of every child to an education into the hands of "the will of God" (Mann, 1957, p. 63). There is a direct link between the right of man to live and be educated and the universality of the property people can own while they are alive; both of these rights, the right to property and education, are provided by reallocation of capital from the "capacious storehouses of nature" (Mann, 1957, p. 64). Directly after he establishes his belief in the natural ethics of education, Mann states that "nature ordains a perpetual entail" (Mann, 1846, p. 65) between all the successive generations on earth. The riches of the natural world are available to "no one man, nor any one generation" (Mann, 1957, p. 65), but to all people who live in the world. Nature is a universal right, education is a universal right, and God finds a way to provide both equally to all. No member of the elite families of 1846 Massachusetts would want to betray their "PILGRIM FATHERS" (Mann, 1957, p. 60) by not performing their divinely-charged duties on earth.

Mann returns to the natural world to illustrate the nature of natural ownership. According to Mann, those who live upstream from their neighbors have no right to mistreat the spring because it belongs to those who live downstream. Ownership constantly moves, shifting down and down and down until the stream reaches the sea. To complete Mann's metaphor, the stream will again belong to the man at the source since the water will be caught up to the clouds as rain and then poured out to replenish it. Mann then sets up a conceit between the natural property people think they own and the knowledge provided in school. Mann demonstrates that the knowledge of generation A must be respected by the subsequent generation; consequently, generation B does not own the information any more than generation C, the beneficiary of generation B, can claim ownership over the improvements they will make for generation D. The knowledge is constantly recycled, constantly brought back to its source, to be replenished and rejuvenated.

The knowledge of the previous generations, being a part of the property that all men have a right to possess, is the basis of the existence of the common school. Mann rails against ignorance because it only serves to stifle the community's ability to innovate. Mann believes in what Emerson said in his American Scholar Address: "the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better" (Emerson, 2007, p. 82). Mann and Emerson realized this country's potential for innovation and focused on what it could and would give to the world. Emerson wished that "our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, [would draw] to a close" (Emerson, 2007, p. 83) and that this nation based on the protection of natural rights could provide a superior form of education for its people. Mann was able to open the door to the school system that is now the right of every American citizen because of the Transcendentalist beliefs in the natural, divine right to an education and the perfectability of man.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bravo.

Tara said...

Before Mann, John Adams said, "Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant."