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In Horace Mann’s Troubling Legacy, Bob Pepperman Taylor explores the causes and consequences of America’s decision to make civic education central to its defense of public schools. He contrasts civic education, which strives to create informed, virtuous, and engaged citizens, with intellectual education, which aims to create freethinking, creative, and independent individuals. How was it, Taylor asks, that Americans came to understand public schooling in collective rather than personal terms? He argues that Americans have mistakenly conceptualized a public school system that elevates the polity over the individual. In the process he levies a powerful critique against the national “temptation” to “think of education as a source for political salvation” (xi).
Taylor traces America’s tendency to politicize public education back to Horace Mann, a leading figure in the antebellum crusade for common schools. Rejecting historians’ inclination to see Mann as more activist than theorist, Taylor situates him among a generation of intellectuals who feared for the security and prosperity of the young nation. He describes Mann as an “articulate, nervous, and influential representative” of early republican political thinkers anxious about freedom, immigration, and [End Page 413] democracy (18). From such skepticism about the American experiment emerged an argument for public education that was more defensive than aspirational. Mann fashioned a rationale for common schools that understood them as bulwarks against fragmentation. These institutions, he asserted, could safeguard the republic by creating virtuous, informed, and engaged citizens. In so doing, Taylor contends, Mann inadvertently created a conception of public education that elevated the political at the expense of the intellectual. That vision, he suggests, threatens to undermine “the philosophical or intellectual purposes” of public education (xi).
As this brief summation suggests, Taylor makes several important contributions. First, despite Mann’s standing as the father of the common school movement, few studies have engaged seriously with his ideas about democracy. Taylor’s decision to see Mann as a theorist first and activist second serves as a useful corrective to those who downplay the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of the common school crusade. It also nicely complements existing scholarship about expansion of public education such as that by Carl Kaestle and Michael Katz, which is steeped in social history. Moreover, Taylor does a fine job of showing why ideas matter. His exploration of collegiate and secondary institutions, for example, makes a powerful argument for why higher education today might be better understood as a public rather than a private good. While Taylor never shows exactly how Mann’s ideology manifests itself in contemporary classrooms, he does highlight how many of America’s most deeply held assumptions about public schools have a real and tangible history. To borrow a phrase from David Tyack, he takes the long view. In so doing, he makes a powerful case for the importance of the past in present-day debates about education and democracy.
There are some downsides to seeing Mann as more theorist than activist. While Taylor does discuss the intense political opposition to public schools in the antebellum period, particularly in Mann’s home state of Massachusetts, he downplays just how difficult it was—and is—to convince Americans to finance the education of other people’s children. As an able politician, Mann understood that he had to appeal to self-interest to convince those without school-aged sons and daughters to tax themselves for public education. When Mann wrote publicly about common schools, he did so with an eye for how he could convince others to go along with his campaign. Moreover, as a scholar of political theory himself, Taylor grounds his analysis more in Mann’s writings than in schools themselves. In consequence, he does not show as fully as he might have how Mann’s emphasis on civic education actually alters what happens in secondary and collegiate classrooms. Finally, future scholars will likely want [End Page 414] to explore other costs of linking citizenship with public schooling, particularly for those who exist outside the body politic. In Taylor...