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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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Revolution in Boston’s Schools

Last week, in addition to speaking about Pope Night at the Boston Public Library and the Bostonian Society, I presented a paper on the public school system in Revolutionary Boston at the History of Education Society conference in Cambridge.

The Boston schools are the oldest in the U.S. of A., sometimes said to be the seed for the whole nation’s education system. One history of the country’s oldest school, Boston Latin, even called it a “breeder of democracy” that helped bring on the American Revolution.

In fact, before the Revolutionary War, Boston’s public education system was quite unequal and constricted. Schooling was available only to white boys, who entered either Writing Schools or Latin Schools, usually at the age of seven. I calculated that only about half of the white boys eligible for that service were actually using it.

In 1770 the teachers at the two Latin Schools were paid two and a half times more per pupil than the teachers at the three Writing Schools. Two-thirds of all boys entering the South Latin School dropped out before finishing the course. The education there was entirely impractical unless one finished and went on to college; since families had to pay for private lessons in useful skills, the upper class got the most benefit from the free education.

That system survived basically unchanged for decades. But the war started to shake things up, first by draining a lot of families from the town, and then by hitting the economy with shortages, restricted trade, and currency inflation.

By the late 1780s, Bostonians saw a need to reform their education system. There was financial pressure from tax-paying property owners. There was ideological pressure to fulfill new republican ideals, which demanded an educated public ready to participate in governing themselves. And it looks like some folks worried that Boston’s school system was falling behind those of rural towns and perhaps other large seaports.

A committee to consider the schools even discussed these questions:

  • Were the white boys not in the town schools being adequately educated?
  • Should the town offer any public education for girls?
The committee had no answers. But this was the first time those questions were raised.

In 1789 the town meeting voted for some sweeping reforms. All white children would start attending Writing and Reading (English) Schools at around seven years old, spending half the day in each building. Girls would attend in separate classes from April to October because they couldn’t be expected to go out in the winter months (and perhaps because they could learn their lessons in only half the time).

Rather than teach just handwriting and business arithmetic, the Writing and Reading School masters were charged to teach English grammar and composition and geography as well. After three years, some of their boys would go on to the town’s single Latin School while the rest of the children would continue with their Writing and Reading lessons.

My paper concluded that the Boston school system had only a limited effect on the coming of the Revolution, but that post-Revolutionary republicanism had a great effect on the Boston schools. That was when the ideal of free education for all was really put into practice.

TOMORROW: One Bostonian argues against the 1789 reforms.

(The picture above is a well meant but largely conjectural image of Boston’s first Latin School, which stood about where the statue of Benjamin Franklin now stands on School Street. By the Revolutionary period, that building was gone, and a replacement stood on a plot across the street, which is now part of the Omni Parker House hotel.)


Charles Bahne said...

This 19th-century illustration shows the Latin School next to the stone building of King's Chapel, which still stands today. But by the time that stone chapel was built in 1754, the Latin School had already moved across the street. In fact, the school was moved in order to make room for an enlargement of the original King's Chapel before 1720. So the image is not just "largely conjectural", it's a figment of the artist's imagination.

Deb Holland said...

Free education for all, perhaps, but no college preparation for girls until 1876, when the Girls' Latin School was founded, although there were many womens' colleges and the occasional coed college (Oberlin) by this time.

J. L. Bell said...

Boston also took a long time to provide education for African-Americans on an equal basis in (I believe) the 1840s, then jumped back and re-segregated schools after the Civil War. The town and city were occasionally ahead of the rest of the country in equal education, occasionally at par or behind some leading spots.

RFuller said...

Its also interesting to note that the Bostonians began to question the relevance and usefulness of a classical education for the majority of people. It reminds me of the 1960s, when Latin and Greek fell off the radar of most public schools, only to make a return (well, Latin, anyway) when the test scores began dropping in the 1970s and 1980s...