As the bell rings yet again for another school year, ‘tis time to consider the beginnings of education in America. These roots run deeply into the very foundations of the settling of this country, for the tradition of going to school began twenty-seven years after the Mayflower arrived with the Pilgrims.
It was 1647 when the colony of Massachusetts passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, requiring any town with 50 or more households to hire a teacher for reading and writing. If there were 100 households, that upped the requirement to operating a grammar school for older students. This law was passed because parents became lax in teaching the basics of reading and writing, and the concern was that the colonists be able to read their Bibles. Hence the name of the law, so “that old deluder, Satan,” could not “keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.”
While schools today fight to keep Christianity out of the curriculum, the education of young colonials was filled with prayers and the Bible. The usual tablet for teaching was called a hornbook, a wooden paddle with a parchment inscribed with upper and lower case letters as well as the Lord’s Prayer. The written document was affixed to the wood with a thin layer of processed cow’s horn—the colonial version of lamination.
Some youngsters began their schooling in a “Dame School” which was held in someone’s home where the children learned the basics of reading by the woman of the household. These dame schools were often the sole education for young girls.
If there was a schoolhouse in the community, it was one room and the schoolmaster that was hired was usually a young, unmarried man, who took the job before settling on a trade. Boys went to school in the winter for several weeks when there were no crops to tend. Girls (if they were lucky) went to school in the summer.
New England schools were numerous and paid for by local taxes. Farther west and south, these one-room places of learning became more scarce. The two colonies with the greatest numbers of formal schools were Virginia and Massachusetts—the first two colonies founded on American soil.
One of the more famous schoolmasters in colonial Connecticut started out teaching in the small community of East Haddam in the winter of 1773-74. The eighteen-year-old Yale grad was described as handsome, athletic and kind. Author Eric Sloan wrote that this teacher was so well liked that his students gave him a send-off party when he took a position in the larger town of New London.
“I’ll miss you,” the departing teacher said. “And I wish that part of me could stay back in East Haddam with you. I do regret there is only one of me.”
As this schoolmaster headed for his new teaching position, the rumbles of the Revolution were being felt. He joined the Continental Army while still a teacher in New London. But his other profession was as an American spy. When the British discovered secret military plans written in Latin and Greek and hidden in his shoe, Nathan Hale was arrested and then hung.
His famous last words embodied the spirit of the Patriot cause: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Nathan Hale, beloved schoolmaster, was hung on September 22, 1776.
His schoolhouse in East Haddam is now a museum overlooking the Connecticut River.
(Photos from Storrowton Village Museum, West Springfield, MA)