J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

So Afraid They Could Not Study

Looking back on Boston's South Latin School under Master John Lovell, the Rev. Jonathan Homer declared, “Lovell was a tyrant, and his system one of terror. . . . The boys were so afraid they could not study.” Homer's testimony was recorded by school reformer William B. Fowle in the 1800s.

Another student, Nathaniel Smibert, became a portrait painter, and an acquaintance recalled:

I remember that one of his first paintings was the picture of his old master, John Lovel, drawn while the terrific impressions of the pedagogue were yet vibrating upon his nerves. I found it so perfect a likeness, that I did not wonder when my young friend told me that a sudden undesigned glance at the head often made him shudder.
Similarly, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper, one of Boston's most respected ministers in the 1770s, told a colleague “that he had had dreams of school [nearly] till he died.”

Isaac Davis, who first entered the South Latin School in 1772 and probably left after a couple of years, summed up Master Lovell this way:
passionate in his temper and tyrannical in his government; and his pupils perhaps improved less under his instructions than they w[oul]d. under some men of much inferior learning & abilities.

To be sure, other former Latin School boys did not criticize the Lovells' system of corporal punishment. Harrison Gray Otis, whose recollection of the teachers' beating styles I quoted yesterday, seemed also jovial about the experience—but then he probably avoided the worst. He was from a wealthy, influential family and was a consistently top student. (Otis did write to an alumni group about a disagreement with the Lovells' successor, Master Samuel Hunt, but kept quiet on the details: "He and I kept a most even account, error excepted in one case only on his part, and we parted on excellent terms. Any further explanation shall be promptly afforded, whenever you favor me with a call.")

Boys saw an economic element in the teachers' beatings. Homer recalled that the writing teacher his parents paid for lessons “was gentle, but his being a private teacher accounts for it.” A private tutor could not afford to anger individual customers. Even more blatantly, Samuel Breck recalled that Master Hunt
was a severe master, and flogged heartily. I went on, however, very well with him, mollifying his stern temper by occasional presents of money, which my indulgent father sent to him by me.
So the boys weren't convinced that the schoolmasters' punishments were part of a just system.

Did parents object to how the teachers treated their sons? In 1770 Boston’s selectmen recorded that “Mr. Thomas Parker entered a Complaint against Mr. Samuel Holbrook master of the South Writing School, for giving his Son as he says an unreasonable Correction.” No similar complaint was ever filed against the Lovells, who commanded more deference and more pay than other teachers because of their collegiate learning. (Parents did eventually complain that Master Hunt was unable to maintain discipline.)

Latin scholars recalled one father telling Master Lovell, "Sir, you have flogged that boy enough." However, that was a special case. The father in question was James Lovell, the schoolmaster's son and assistant, and the boy was James's own son—perhaps the one born illegitimately in 1758. (Gossip about that to come later.) So it's easy to imagine the old master being especially harsh on this boy, or the assistant being especially lenient. More likely the former since the scholar tried to find a more comfortable education:
The boy went off determined to leave school, and go to Master Proctor’s [i.e., the Writing School on Queen Street]; but he met one of Master Proctor’s boys, who asked him whither he was going, and when informed, warned him not to go, for he would fare worse.

Perhaps the most useful and broad-based measure of educational success is how well boys got through the South Latin School. And in this case the record is very clear. More than two-thirds of the boys who entered the Lovells' school in the decades before the Revolution left before finishing. Some then appear on the (very sparse) records of the town's Writing Schools. Others, such as Henry Knox and Henry Pelham, went to work. Only a handful each year—the survivors of a grim and limited course of study—went on to college. The Lovells' "system of terror" might have been acceptable in their society, but it did not serve most of their pupils well.

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