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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Saturday, October 21, 2017

“Colonial Boston’s Public Schools” at Old North, 1 Nov.

On Wednesday, 1 November, I’ll speak at the Old North Church on “Classes and Forms: The Landscape of Colonial Boston’s Public Schools.”

This talk is part of the Old North Foundation’s Speaker Series focusing on the ordinary people of Boston. The event description explains:
Colonial Boston took pride in its free public schools, which educated young Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and thousands of other boys before the Revolution. But a close look at those five grammar and writing schools reveals that they provided only limited opportunities for middling-sort boys, not to mention no place for girls or non-white boys. Colonial Boston’s schools thus reflected and reinforced the town’s social and economic divisions. The creation of a new nation spurred major reforms in 1789, eventually leading toward today’s public education.
This talk is based on research I’ve presented at different scholarly conferences, most of which will appear in an upcoming volume from the Dublin Seminar on New England Folklife.

I started to look into Boston’s public schools to understand how the town’s pre-Revolutionary children spent their days. That effort soon forced me to give up a lot of assumptions I’d had about those schools, such as what they taught—they didn’t cover reading and writing, history, geography, science, or other standard modern topics.

Likewise, I had to discard idea about who went to those schools—only about half of the eligible white boys. And about how long those scholars lasted—two-thirds of more of the seven-year-olds entering the South Latin School taught by John Lovell (shown above) dropped out before finishing.

Thus, while Boston can pride itself on having the oldest public school system in the U.S. of A., legally open from the start to (white male) students from all classes, that pre-Revolutionary system didn’t provide equal opportunity as we might think. In 1789 the town had its first major debate on school reform since adding writing schools to the grammar or Latin school—reform explicitly driven by new republican ideas.

This talk is scheduled to start at 6:00 P.M. Register for the program here; the price is a “pay what you will” donation to the Old North Foundation.

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