Schools vs. Satan

Some of the first public schools in North America were founded explicitly to counteract “that old deluder, Satan.”

Plaque commemorating the first public school in Dedham, Massachusetts
Briancua, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the early colonial days of North America education was the responsibility of the clergy or privately employed tutors. Public schools, funded by taxation and freely available to all children, are actually a relatively new idea. And in what is now the United States of America, they were created explicitly to counteract the forces of darkness.

(A quick side note: in the UK the term “public school” actually refers to private schools that charge a fee for attendance. Usually quite a hefty fee. In this post I use “public school” to refer to what the English call a state school, and what almost everyone else calls a public school.)

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was one of the first British colonies in America. Founded in 1628, thousands of mostly Puritan settlers sailed over the Atlantic to establish homesteads and towns in the area around modern Boston and Salem. And, in fairly short order, their thoughts turned to the risks of ignorance.

A series of laws enacted in the 1640s codified those risks:

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these later times by perswading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the Originall
might be clowded by false glosses of Saint-seeming deceivers

Massachusetts General School Law of 1647

In other words, devilry flourishes in ignorance. The education of children was a religious and moral necessity (this, by the way, was a strong Puritan line of thought). Widespread literacy meant you could read your Bible and be innoculated against lies and deception.

The Massachusetts school laws proscribed a novel solution: set up schools in your towns, or be forced to pay a fine. The resulting institutions were some of the first public schools in North America.

There are a few candidates for the title of first public school, and some (such as the Boston Latin School) were founded before the Massachusetts school laws came into force. Dedham School claims to be the first public school in North America to be funded purely by taxpayers. In any case, this law planted the seeds of public education in the United States.

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