Robert B. Downs short 1977 biography of Henry Barnard is a hagiography. Barnard is a saint of American state schooling, second only, if at all, to Horace Mann. As such, the dogmas of the compulsory state education church are simply assumed, and any dissent is simply heresy or unenlightened ignorance. No ink is wasted examining the possibility Barnard’s opponents might have had a point. How could they? Public schooling is assumed to be a total good with no downside whatsoever.
Downs himself was a librarian and author, with biographies of Mann and Pestalozzi and pile of other books to his name. His life in some ways parallels Barnard’s, as he travelled around the world consulting on various library projects, collecting honors and honorary degrees along the way. Barnard was the mid-19th century’s go-to education expert in America, and as such also got in a lot of travel and honors.
In the longer, more recent biography of Barnard by Edith Nye MacMillun lightly reviewed here, Barnard doesn’t quite come off as the hero portrayed by Downs. Here’s one reviewer’s take on MacMullen’s book:
Barnard represented an important social type: the nineteenth-century gentleman reformer. The type was international, as common in Victorian Britain or among the Continental bourgeoisie as among the American Whigs. Barnard’s merits and defects were those of the amateur: He mustered enthusiasm and eloquence, but flitted from job to job too readily instead of persevering with a given problem. Barnard was influenced by the ideas of the Swiss Pestalozzi, the Frenchman Guizot, and the British utilitarians, but most of all by the example of Prussian educational reformers. His biographer recognizes this transatlantic frame of reference but tells us little about the European ideas and practices that appealed to Barnard, or how applicable they were to American conditions.Daniel W Howe, Teacher’s College Record
MacMullen allows herself to wonder why Barnard’s name was removed from a building at Yale, his alma mater, while Mann still has dozens if not hundreds of schools and facilities named after him. Mann’s legend remains intact; Barnard has simply become one more overrated or at least unknown 19th century dude who got a building named after him but is otherwise forgettable and forgotten. I don’t know if anything has changed in this regard over the decades since MacMullen’s book.
Barnard is that ‘gentleman reformer’ coming out of a Puritan world, where there is one right way to do anything, and our self-appointed betters will tell us little people what that is. At least Barnard truly was well educated, although he failed to take the lesson from *how* he came to be well-educated: at Yale, he joined societies and volunteered for position that gave him access to libraries. He read extensively in Greek, Latin, and English – outside of school. Yet he proposes rules for other people that are completely at odds with how he, himself, got educated. He wants graded classroom, compulsory attendance, ‘normal’ teachers – the products of normal schools, meant to produce standardize teachers.
The elitism is bracing. Barnard of course assumes he is special, and that of course he can tell the little people how to do it. For their own good and all. Lest we imagine this is just the appropriate response of a recognized expert, and that we should simply do what he says as we would follow the instructions of an auto mechanic or engineer, Barnard, in the same manner as all other educationists, asserts as obvious that education is a moral issue with moral goals. He, like Fichte, Mann, and our modern ‘educators’ are not concerned (much) with the three R’s – they want to improve us morally. My auto mechanic wants to make my car run, not improve my character. And he really does make my car run better; modern education has no such practical track record.
Finally, one observation about Barnard’s career made by both biographers: whenever he obtained a position where he needed to satisfy the reasonable expectations other people – teacher, college president, head of the US Department of Education – he didn’t last long, nor make much of a lasting impression. Downs, to be sure, credits him with more achievement than MacMullen, but even he does so with apologies – if only Barnard’s health had been better! If only he’d gotten more cooperation. MacMullen points out that a young Barnard knew how to charm people and navigate political situations, a skill he seemed less and less inclined to use as he aged. Thus, after his brief stint as US Commissioner of Education, where such skills were essential, he ‘retired’ as a still fairly young man to editing journals. A journal editor is not answerable to anyone except insofar as he needs their money as subscribers and patrons. Barnard largely failed there as well – he never made enough money from selling his publications to cover what it cost him to produce them. He burned through his substantial inheritance subsidizing his publishing career, and had to beg friends and supporters to keep it going for the last few years. He never took any responsibility for his failure to make ends meet, nor changed his approach in response to what potential subscribers might want to read. He knew what they should want to read!
Puritans of whatever religious beliefs, millennialists awaiting the glorious perfection of man here and now, seem, then as now, to be frustrated and baffled when the world doesn’t conform to their plans for it.