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Published: June 27, 2011

“Friends of education”

A referential title usually given to a coalition of mid-19th-century educational reformers who were responsible for spearheading the public school movement throughout most of the United States. Led by HORACE MANN in Massachusetts, the friends of education included amateurs, semiprofessionals and professionals associated with schooling in every state. They included attorneys, clergymen, teachers, editors, political leaders and industrialists. Besides Mann, the most notable were JAMES G. CARTER in Massachusetts, HENRY BARNARD in Connecticut, J. Orville Taylor in New York, CHARLES FENTON MERCER in Virginia, CALVIN H. WILEY in North Carolina, CALVIN STOWE and CATHERINE BEECHER in Ohio, John Mason Peck in Illinois, JOHN D. PIERCE in Michigan and JOHN SWETT in California. They organized associations such as the American Institute of Instruction and the AMERICAN LYCEUM, and they published important periodicals such as the American Journal of Education, which allowed them to communicate with one another and share political techniques of successfully promoting public education by mobilizing public opinion and organizing political coalitions to enact enabling legislation.
Their task was not easy. As Horace Mann discovered in Massachusetts in the 1830s, most voting blocs opposed public education. Industrialists depended on children as the cheapest form of labor. Parents depended on children to help work their farms or to contribute to family income by working in factories and mines. The wealthy, who sent their children to exclusive private schools, saw no reason to pay taxes to educate other people’s children. The clergy, who operated most private schools, feared state-run schools would cost them control of education.
Mann and the friends of education eventually convinced enough of their opponents that literate, educated children would earn more, bring more money home to their families, produce higher quality products in factories, produce more wealth for the nation (including the wealthy) and, as productive citizens, more likely become regular church-goers. Together they spread public education across the United States. Appearing in every state, they helped establish public school systems in every northern and western state.
With the exception of North Carolina, southern states refused to establish “northernstyle” school systems that might eventuate manumission. After the Civil War, the FREEDMEN’S BUREAU, an agency of the Department of War, imposed public schooling in the South as part of the military occupation. Because of its “northernness,” southerners refused to give their wholehearted backing to public education for the remainder of the 19th and much of the 20th century. The result was a debilitating effect on academic quality in southern public schools that persisted until the end of the 20th century.