28 August 2009

Culture Spot : School Days in America’s Past – Defeating “Ye Ould* Deluder Satan”

Public education was a new idea in the New World, and our Puritan forebears turned it to the good use of guarding souls as well as improving minds.

Members of the General Court of Massachusetts had two goals in mind when, in 1647, they passed a law that created the first publicly supported schools in America. Their dual aims were to foil the efforts of “ye ould* deluder Satan, to keepe* men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures,” and to ensure that “learning . . . not be buried in ye grave of our fathers.”

The law required every settlement of more than 50 families to appoint a teacher to provide instruction in the Puritan version of the three R’s: reading, writing, and religion. Towns with more than 100 families had to set up a “grammar schoole*,” where emphasis was put on the education of boys of “hopeful promise,” who studied Latin, Greek, and literature in preparation for college. Girls, on the other hand, were rarely allowed above the primary level for fear that they might lose their wits if exposed to too much reading and thinking.

If a town lacked a schoolhouse, classes could be held in the meetinghouse. Teachers were paid a meager stipend, supplied with produce, and if not resident of the town, were “boarded around” with townsfolk. Families were also expected to provide wood for the school’s stove – a task that was often neglected until a child came home and complained of shivering through the day in the wintriest corner of the drafty room.

The daily routine was tied to the sun’s cycle. During most of the year the day began at 7:00 A.M. and ended sometime between 5:00 and 9:00 P.M. with a two-hour break. In winter months the schedule ran from 8:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.

Primitive and simple though the system was, children who spent even two or three years in these schools did learn enough to become familiar with the laws of the land – and to keep the “ould* deluder” at bay.

*archaic spelling

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