The most striking thing about Horace Mann's early life was his struggle to get an education. The son a poor farmer, he attended a small, inadequately outfitted one-room schoolhouse. An itinerant schoolmaster helped tutor him, but mostly he taught himself using the community library. Described as introspective and highly read, Mann used his determination and thirst for knowledge to earn a diploma from Brown University in 1819 and the title of class valedictorian. Following that, he went to law school in Connecticut and, in 1825, became a practicing attorney in Boston.
Mann was a humanitarian, advocating for public education. He did this from his position as secretary of the Massachusetts state legislature. Mann knew the basis of quality education is good teachers, so he advocated for trained professional teachers in all public schools. Mann's belief in improving society also pushed him to reform mental institutions and call for the end of slavery.
In 1837, Mann was elected first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education. What was so unusual about this man, who would eventually be known as "the father of the American common school," was he gave up a lucrative career in business to pursue a life helping others.
Once on the job, Mann realized the rundown school system needed more than ideas. In his 12 years as secretary of the board, he researched and wrote many articles on the importance of school reform. He knew the importance of communicating, so he started a biweekly publication called the Common School Journal. He believed an educated person helped further society and the economy, just as Franklin had said. This logic resulted in increased funding and better pay for teachers.
Later in his life, Mann was elected as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, worked to end slavery and to build hospitals for the insane.
Mann believed popular schooling could be transformed into a powerful instrument for social unity by providing all children with a common set of values and skills. To this end, he had three objectives. First, he needed data to prove his points. Second, he wanted all textbooks to be approved. Finally, Mann sought to have Normal Schools, or teacher colleges, controlled by the states. In this way, government could control what was taught in public school, how it was taught, what resources could be used to teach, and who was allowed to teach. These issues created a mission for public education and gave a significant role to government.