Horace Mann on Human Brainpower

Horace Mann on Human Brainpower

Horace Mann on Human Brainpower

As the school year gets underway, it seemed a good time to pass along a bit of rhetoric from Horace Mann, the great 19th century advocate of the “Common School” idea that every child should receive a basic education at taxpayer expense.

Here’s an excerpt from one of his speeches, “Man: His Mental Power,” as published in Stryker’s Quarterly Register and Magazine (March 1849, p. 206). Mann said:

The cotton mills of Massachusetts will turn out more cloth in one day than could have been manufactured by all the inhabitants of the Eastern continent during the tenth century. … The velocity of winds, the weight of waters, and the rage of steam, are powers; each one of which is infinitely stronger than all the strength of all the nations and races of mankind, were it all gathered into a single arm. And all these energies are given us on one condition–the condition of intelligence–that is of education. Had God intended that the work of the world should be done by human bones and sinews, He would have given us an arm as solid and as strong as the shaft of a steam engine, and enabled us to stand, day and night, and turn the crank of a steamship, while sailing to Liverpool and Calcutta. Had God designed the human muscles to do the work of the world, then, instead of the ingredients of gun-powder or gun-cotton and the expansive force of heat, He would have given us hands which could take a granite quarry and break its solid acres into suitable symmetrical blocks, as easily as we now open an orange. Had he intended us to bear burdens, he would have given us Atlantean shoulders, by which we could carry the vast freights of rail-car and steamship as a porter carries his pack. He would have given us lungs by which we could blow fleets before us, and wings to sweep over ocean wastes.

But instead of iron arms, and Atlantean shoulders, and the lungs of Boreas, He has given us a mind, a soul, a capacity of knowledge, and thus a power of appropriating all these energies of nature to our own use. Instead of a telegraphic and microscopic eye, he has given us power to invent the telescope and microscope. Instead of ten thousand fingers, he has given us a genius invention of the power-loom and the printing-press. Without a cultivated intellect, man is the weakest of all the dynamical forces of nature: with a cultivated intellect he commands them all.

In some ways, of course, this comment is just an example of florid 19th-century rhetoric. I confess that I am less confident than Mann about the theological implications of why God gave us what capabilities. Mann also skims rather quickly over the fact that most of the “us” to whom he keeps referring do not actually invent the equivalent of the telescope or power-loom, but instead, in our production and consumption, we continually interact with others while making use of the inventions created by others.

But Mann also touches here on a deeper truth. In the modern world, few of us will  not make our living purely by the strength of our backs or the dexterity of our fingers, but by our abilities to learn, to implement what we learn, to mix our effort with the appropriate tools, to communicate with co-workers, and to coordinate our activities. In a broad sense, education represents the well-founded conviction that in life and work, people are so much more than their physical limits.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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