The Primary School

“Ab Uno Disce Omnes (From One Example, Learn All)” – Virgil

Puritan Primary Education

Puritan Primary Education

THE Puritan leaders thought it prudent to begin their education efforts of the young at an early age. While not all could afford to be sent to the upper echelons of  the educational system (id est college), or grasp an adequate linguistic understanding of the Latin language in order to even be able to comprehend the lessons given in the college environment, a large portion of the population of New England was given a rudimentary education so that they had a basic understanding of the prevailing knowledge of the day.

THE system put into place for elementary education was modelled after the one back in the mother-country of England. An interesting point to be said about this system was that it was an education that took into account need-based tuition, and provided, on behalf of the commonwealth and thus the people, a free education to those children whose families could not afford to send their children to school.

PRIOR to the establishment of permanent elementary school buildings, there existed a number of methods by which people educated their children in preparation for College. One such method was the hiring of a private tutor who would come to the homes of those who cold afford their services and educate the children of the house. Another was the dame school, a place where children were sent in order to learn the rudimentary skills of reading and writing.

"A Dame's School 1845", exhibited 1845 by Thomas Webster 1800-1886, Oil paint on mahogany, 622 x 1219 mm, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/webster-a-dames-school-n00427.

“A Dame’s School 1845”, exhibited 1845 by Thomas Webster 1800-1886, Oil paint on mahogany, 622 x 1219 mm, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/webster-a-dames-school-n00427.

Usually these were set up in the residences of women who taught children from “horn books”, a small board made from ivory, wood, bone, or some other like substance, usually covered in a thin transparent layer of horn that listed the alphabet as well as a section of the Lord’s prayer. It was, together with the Bible, a Psalter, and a New England Primer, part of the basic resources used by school children at the dame school. However, not everyone could afford to hire on a tutor or send their children to a dame school, whose level of education varied. Many children in New England, therefore, were educated at home by their parents, as had been the tradition back in Old England. However, this education was quite often spotty, and did not adequately prepare children for the rigours of a secondary education let alone higher levels like college.

An example of an horn book

An example of an horn book

WITH the establishment of a more defined education system in Boston, elementary schools proper began to be founded by the governing body. The Mather School, named for Richard Mather, a prominent English puritan theologian who moved to New England in the early 17th century, and father of Increase Mather as well as grandfather to Cotton Mather, two other very famous New England puritan theologians, was the first public elementary school established in what would become the future United States in 1639.

THE governing body of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts instituted laws directed at the establishment of schools for the elementary education of the Bay Colony’s youth, in addition to the mandatory nature of their attendance. Thus, from an early stage the Puritans of New England saw fit to provide for education. Early on there were established laws and provisions for compulsory education in many of the New England colonies. Perhaps the most famous of these acts was the Massachusetts Act of 1642, also known as the “Old Deluder Satan” Act. So named because of its overtly religious wording in its introductory paragraph, the law stated that the primary reason for the creating of free education and a school system was mainly to combat Satan in his attempts to keep men away from God by keeping them ignorant of the Scriptures. Thus, under this thinking, the establishment of the elementary education system in Boston and New England as a whole was for the purpose of religious warfare of a sorts with the Devil. It set up provisions for the establishment of an elementary school once a town had reached 50 families, in order to impart to the children the abilities to read and write. This law act has  been quite often quoted in many of the works I have run across in my readings on 17th century New England education.

Old Mather Schoolhouse

Old Mather Schoolhouse

THIS claim of religion as the primary driver of educational efforts in Boston and the surrounding colonies was refuted by Samuel Eliot Morison in his 1936 book entitled “The Puritan Pronaos: Studies in the Intellectual Life of New England in the Seventeenth Century”. Morison claims that the often alluded to “Old Deluder Satan” law gives the incorrect impression that educational motives for this time were strictly religious in nature rather than a mixture of religious, social, and educational.