Barnard, Henry B. (1811-1900)

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Henry B. Barnard (1811-1900)


First u.s. commissioner of education

A Calling. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Henry Barnard graduated from Yale College in 1830, taught school for one year, and subsequently studied law. As the years passed, he was drawn away from law and became deeply interested in education . At twenty-four Barnard traveled across the Atlantic to study the various schools and educational approaches of Europe. After nearly three years abroad he returned and was elected a Whig delegate to the Connecticut General Assembly (18371840). Combining his knowledge of law with his passion for public education, Barnard immediately put forth legislation that aimed at creating a State Board of Commissioners for Common Schools. Modeled after the Massachusetts plan, the board, with a secretary of education at the helm, would oversee the creation and supervision of a state public school system. In 1839 he was able to secure passage of the law and was promptly elected as Connecticuts first secretary of education. He eventually withdrew from the assembly to establish the political neutrality of the secretarys office and never again identified himself with a political party. Despite the fact that the legislature would abolish both the board and the position by 1842, Barnard had begun a life of school reform that no legislature could thwart.

Restless Reformer. No less important than the better-known crusade that Horace Mann was simultaneously conducting in Massachusetts, Barnards efforts for school reform in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and other New England states also bore fruit. In 1839 he organized the first teachers institute in America and used this new instrument to awaken teachers to a higher standard of professionalism. During the same period he established the Connecticut Common School Journal to spread his educational ideas. He also organized school libraries and encouraged the creation of night schools. Politically savvy, Barnard used statistical data to arouse public opinion for reform and exposed the intolerable conditions of school buildings to urge legislation for better schoolhouse construction. After the abolition of his position as the secretary of Connecticuts board of education he traveled to Rhode Island to examine and report on the states school system. He stayed and from 1845 to 1849 acted as Rhode Islands state commissioner of public schools. While there he organized the Rhode Island Institute of Instruction, one of the oldest teachers associations in the country. In Rhode Island and elsewhere he organized town lecture courses and town libraries. In later years Barnard would serve brief terms as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and president of Saint Johns College in Maryland. In 1855 he became the founder and editor of the American Journal of Education, one of his most lasting contributions to the field of American education. By 1867 this energetic reformer became the first U.S. commissioner of education.

Influence. Henry Barnard remains one of the preeminent leaders in the early development of American public education. Like Mann and other reformers he viewed the social unrest and rapid changes of the antebellum years with unease. Consequently many of his educational efforts were aimed at controlling social change by inculcating a uniform moral message in the nations young people. Unlike others, however, Barnard was not confrontational and avoided controversy. Instead he continually sought to advance his beliefs through research, writing, and administrative work. He has been described as the scholar of the great public school awakening.


Ralph C. Jenkins and Gertrude C. Warner, Henry Barnard: An Introduction (Hartford: Connecticut State Teachers Association, 1937);

Richard E. Thursfield, Henry Barnards American Journal of Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945).

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Barnard, Henry B. (1811-1900)

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