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Establishing Puritan schools


Because old books are valuable learning tools, we purchased the antique book, The Story of Our Country. It’s an extraordinary American history reference book.

The book includes an interesting section, “Life on the First American Frontier: 1607-90.” That section states the Puritans had an interest in education and a belief that should a state wish to be great, it must educate its children.

As early as 1636, the General Court of Massachusetts set up a college to be supported by public taxes and governed by public officers. That institution was later named Harvard, in honor of the good minister, John Harvard, who had given the college his valuable library. Very early Virginia also established a college known as William and Mary.

A few years later, in 1647, the Massachusetts Legislature decreed that every town of 50 families must provide a school for its children, and that every town of 100 families must support what we would call a high school, “to fit youth for the university.”

This was the beginning of the great American plan “that the state shall provide free education for all its children, from the mother’s knee to the highest university degree.” To be sure, the New England villages were very poor, too poor to carry out the plan very successfully. But the Puritan idea of one complete system of public education did not die, and as the years passed, it eventually came to full bloom in America.

The Massa-chusetts laws about schools were quickly adopted throughout all the New England colonies. But outside New England the idea of educating everyone grew more slowly. Pennsylvania and Maryland passed laws calling for free public schools however, they didn’t enforce them.

New York and some other colonies had church schools. The lack of towns made it difficult for the South to provide education for poor children while the wealthy planters of the South had private tutors for their sons, and often sent them back to Europe to attend English universities.

It should be noted that this impressive New England school system was planned only for boys. If girls were sent to school at all, they went only to the “dame schools.” There, they were taught “manners” and trained to sew neatly and to knit. Each little girl had to make a “sampler,” on which she embroidered the alphabet in cross-stitch, and worked fanciful designs.

In some areas the girls were kept in school long enough to learn spelling and the catechism from the famous New England Primer, almost the only children’s school book of colonial days. The boys learned arithmetic from examples given by their teachers; and those that went on to grammar school studied Latin. Interestingly, lessons in geography and history were unheard of.

On the whole, colonial boys and girls were brought up much more strictly than the children of today. Their hours at school were as long as daylight permitted from seven to five in the summer and school was held six days of the week.

At meeting, as the Sunday service was called, they sat stiffly for hours in the bare, unheated meeting house. The girls sat primly on the women’s side with their mothers. The boys sat on benches in the gallery, where the tithing man could rap them sharply with his rod if they were inattentive.

At home, there was always much work and New England boys and girls, especially, had little freedom. At the table they stood, ate what was served, and never spoke unless spoken to.

Pretty interesting, isn’t it?

Ken and Nan Webster have collected inspiration for many years from many sources, and now inspire readers of “A Matter That Matters.” Contact them at or visit

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