MASSACHUSETTS EDUCATION LAWS OF 1642 AND 1647
The first brick on the road to compulsory education in America was laid by the Massachusetts Act of 1642. It should be known, however, that education in itself was not first and foremost in the minds of our founding fathers. They came here in order to escape the religious oppression that they were facing in Britain and what they brought with them to America was a desire to create a society where they could exercise their religious freedom and build a nation where their religious aspirations would not be stifled. The concept of education came into existence more out of necessity than anything else. The masses had to be educated in order to be able to understand the written codes that the colonies were now living under, both religious and secular, and without some sort of education this idea would be impossible. The response to this was, once again, the Massachusetts Law of 1642.
The Law of 1642 required that parents and master see to it that their children knew the principles of religion and the capital laws of the commonwealth.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Law of 1642 was that it was a law that had nothing to do with "school" at all. It stated that parents and masters of those children who had been apprenticed to them were responsible for their basic education and literacy. All children, and servants as well, should be able to demonstrate competency in reading and writing as outlined by the governing officials. The idea behind this, once again, was that if all citizens could understand the written language on some basic level, all citizens would be able to understand and therefore, abide by the governing laws of the land. At this point in time there was no concept of a formal school as we know it today; it was understood that each person would be educated enough to meet the individual needs of their station in life and social harmony would be that much closer. Who better to educate their children than their parents? The law did state, however, that should the above mentioned parents and masters grow lax in their responsibility and their children not be able to meet basic criteria it would be the government's right to remove the child from the home and place him or her in a place where he or she could receive adequate instruction.
The Law of 1647, also known as the Old Deluder Satan Act, was born out of this above-mentioned parental negligence. It was at this point in our nation's educational history that formal schooling as we know it became more desirable.
The Law of 1647 required that towns of fifty families hire a schoolmaster who would teach children to read and write. Towns of a hundred families must have a grammar schoolmaster who could prepare children to attend Harvard College.
Education became more of a social responsibility as teachers were formally hired for the sole purpose of teaching the nation's young people. Perhaps even more surprising in the light of previous practice is that they were paid to do so, either by the government or individual parents and guardians. School was becoming more of a priority. Another institution that made its appearance on the educational stage was something called a "Dame" school. These schools were set up in the homes (most often the kitchens) of women in the community who had both the time and inclination to teach students in a tutoring capacity and in exchange for their services the women received some meager allowance. Also on the education scene were traveling schoolmasters who made their way to various towns for the purpose of teaching the children so as to contribute to the dream of social harmony via religion and literacy.
We see that it was during this period in Massachusetts that religious concerns (e.g., learning to read in order to read the Bible) laid the groundwork for modern education. Although it was a response to an ecclesiastical quest in the new world, it was adequately catalyzed and necessity eventually turned itself into education being conceptually pursued in and of itself in America. The early immigrants were paving the way toward a better educational system, one brick at a time.
Prepared by Amy L. Matzat