Horace Mann is best known as the "Father of Public Schools" for his monumental work in educational reform in the U.S. Born in the final years of the 18th century, Mann overcame poverty and hardship to become the first American advocate who believed that—in a democratic society—education should be free, universal, nonsectarian, and reliant on well-trained professional teachers. Named Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, he overhauled the state's public education system and established a series of schools to train teachers. Despite being controversial at the time, most U.S. states eventually adopted a version of the system Mann established in Massachusetts, especially the program for schools to train professional teachers. In addition to his work as an educational reformer, Mann was a slavery abolitionist, lawyer, and politician who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1848–1853. Afterwards, Mann served as President of Antioch College until his death in 1859.

Chiefly self-taught, Mann was 20 when he gained admission at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Until then, he had no more than six weeks' schooling during any year. At Brown, he showed a strong interest in politics, education, and social reform, among other fields. By all accounts, he was a brilliant student. In 1819, after only three years, he graduated as valedictorian of his class. Upon graduation, he delivered a commencement address titled, "The Gradual Advancement of the Human Species in Dignity and Happiness," which posited that the human race would benefit greatly by focusing on education, philanthropy, and republicanism.

After graduation, Mann continued his work at his alma mater, serving as a tutor of Latin and Greek from 1820–1822; and also as librarian at Brown from 1821-1823. Much later, in 2003, in recognition of his tremendous influence on today's educational system in the U.S., Brown University created The Horace Mann Medal. Today, the award is given annually to a Brown Graduate School alumnus or alumna who has made significant contributions in his or her field, inside or outside of academia. Additionally, Brown honored Mann's legacy by naming a main building on campus the "Horace Mann Building," which comes on top of the already 50+ U.S. public schools named after the great reformer.