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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Thursday, November 11, 2010

“Who Have No Benefit of the Publick Schools”

On 30 June 1789, in the midst of the debate over Boston’s public-school system that I discussed yesterday, the Herald of Freedom newspaper printed this letter, signed “C.”:

Messrs. Printers,

A writer in your paper of the 12th inst. [i.e., of this month] appears to be very angry that an attempt hath been made to discontinue the North Grammar School; and asks “who the men are the advocate the measure?” I answer they are men of property—men who pay large taxes in the town; and who have no benefit of the publick schools.

I will now ask in my turn, why gentlemen should be so highly taxed to pay for the education of some people’s children; when if their fathers and mothers dressed less extravagantly, they would be able to pay for their children’s learning at private schools?

We, in this town, may look for great advantages from our new Congressional Government: but until frugality and industry are more practised among all ranks, the complaint of bad times will continue.

The children of the poor ought to be early inured to labor—in England and Holland, many people’s children earn their living at seven years of age, by being employed in some manufactory; but in this town little master is rigged up and sent to a grammar school, to learn latin for two or three years, or more—then to learn to write a fine hand, that he may at fourteen, be qualified for a merchant’s store, or a shop. Miss is sent to a dancing school, to be taught a polite behaviour, to the neglect of the necessary accomplishments for a good wife.

These things are peculiar to the seaport towns, in this state; and one great cause of such general complaint of distressing times, in my opinion, is the great number of publick schools. It is the judgment of many, that if an experiment was made, by dropping all except one grammar and one writing school, just to answer the law—that in this town we should soon experience the salutary effects of such a measure; and it is to be hoped that the Gentlemen who now have the management of this matter, will make a trial, for one year only; and if it should not soon answer, they can easily put them upon the footing they now are.
As I described yesterday, Bostonians did not adopt this proposal. The town voted to close the North Latin School, but it also chose to expand the schools for teaching reading and writing in English, and open them up to more children.

(The photo above by Leo Reynolds shows a plaque in the North End commemorating John Tileston, among other locals, Tileston taught in the Boston public schools from 1752 to 1819, spanning the education reform of 1789. The image comes from Flickr via a Creative Commons license.)


Public University Prof said...

At the risk of being political....Sadly, this letter could have been written by any number of newly elected state legislators in Pennsylvania. Same ol' same ol'

RFuller said...

That letter to the editor reads much like one I'd see today...some things never change. You get out of education what you put into it. In this case, not just hard work, but also money.

OTOH, many of our nation's founders were...home-schooled or tutored.

J. L. Bell said...

The line saying the children of the poor should be inured to hard work was nearly the only part that seemed completely out of place today.

Then again, a couple of months ago I heard someone calling in to a radio station and listing a child-labor law as an example of unwarranted federal intrusion. (In fact, the case she was talking about involved a Connecticut state law.)