The Grammar School

“Sumus Primi (We are the First)” – Motto of Boston Latin School

First Boston Latin School Schoolhouse

First Boston Latin School Schoolhouse

WHILE everyone was expected to attain an elementary education in order to ensure an ability to read the word of God, as was in-line with Protestant tradition, most people stopped their education there. A select few, however, were able to continue their educational efforts by attending the secondary school, a grammar school. As was stated in the “Elementary” section of this site, the Massachusetts Act of 1642, otherwise know as the “Old Deluder Satan” Act, provided rules governing the establishment of schools throughout the Bay Colony. According to the act, once a town had 100 households a secondary or grammar school was to be established in so far as to instruct the towns youth to prepare them for an university education.

OF course there were greater restrictions on who could and could not attend the grammar schools. Girls, after having learned to read and write, were then taught domestic crafts and skills necessary for the home, as further learning was meant for males. Though being the right gender was not enough to guarantee admissions to a grammar school. Boys who were not able to grasp Latin, the language that, in addition to Greek, was most highly touted amongst learned men of the day. Also, boys whose families could not afford the tuition of their local grammar school (should tuitions have been necessary, as they varied by school) were similarly out of luck. As the Act of 1642 established the necessity of schools once a certain quota of families had been reached, the onus for the construction, maintenance, and funding of these schools and their students full upon the community.

IN “The Puritan Pronaos: Studies in the Intellectual Life of New England in the Seventeenth Century”, Samuel Eliot Morison questions why the relatively poor colonial community would agree to support such a financially burdensome system of education. His explanation was that there

17th Century Grammar School Class

17th Century Grammar School Class

was simply no substitution for a good education, whether a boy was university-bound or not, that a boy should be brought up knowing the humanities known variously as good literature, ancient classics, or belles-lettres.

AT first the grammar schools were not much patronised by parents and communities tired to hold off on having to establish them, despite the fact that the 1642 Act stipulated that all those towns with the appropriate number of families had to establish a school or face a humiliating fine to be paid to their closest neighbouring town with one. Eventually, as the population of Boston and New England in general grew, the grammar schools began to be built, staffed (with college graduates), and attended in greater numbers and with greater diligence.

Comparative Curricula of Late-16th Century English and Early-18th Century Bostonian Grammar Schools

Comparative Curricula of Late-16th Century English and Early-18th Century Bostonian Grammar Schools

IT was in Boston that the oldest and most famous grammar school was established, the Boston Grammar School, known today as Boston Latin. Its founding date was in the year 1635, five years after the establishment of the city of Boston itself, and one year before the traditional birth-date of Harvard University. In form and purpose it functioned along the lines of any other normal English grammar school of the period. Students would go to the school to be educated in the classics as seen in the image to the right. Latin was the overwhelming language of the literature that was read, with a healthy amount of Greek mixed in. As Morison pointed out, there is very little in the way of arithmetic, sciences, or modern languages, mainly a focus on classical languages, literature, history, and geography. It seems that the curriculum of today’s school has done an about face in this regards, what with its focus on S.T.E.M. programmes at the cost of liberal arts.

BOSTON Latin was often referred to as a “free school”. According to Pauline Holmes, M.A. in “A Tercentenary History of the Boston Public Latin School: 1635-1935”, it was free in several senses of the word. It was firstly free in the sense that there was no aristocratic monopoly on education, and that all boys, rich or poor, could attend the school. It was also free our sense of it being tuition free to those who were from Boston. It is quite a curious thing, indeed, then when the common view of the school today is one of privilege, the ancien riche, and the sons and daughters of the Boston elites.

Logo of the Boston Latin School

Logo of the Boston Latin School

IN structuring their schools after the Old World English model and bringing in masters educated at Oxford and Cambridge we see a link form between the intellectual classes on both sides of the pond. These connexions were only strengthened as the years progressed and the intellectual lives of New England attempted to become more in line with those of Old England. We see that the Puritans were far from the stuffy anti-academic prudes that they are often portrayed as being. Indeed, it was the Puritans desire to establish a system in this New World that would be on par and rival those back in the mother-country. They wanted to make Boston Latin and its company on par with Westminster, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and the like. Grammar schools like Boston Latin were feeders, even when times were tough and pickings slim, for the greatest institution of education (apologies M.I.T.) that Boston is associated with around the world and through the ages, Harvard.