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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Colonial Schooling







For many parents, the moment that their child goes off on that first day of school can be heartbreaking. It’s a realization that their child is slowly stepping out into the world—and away from home. Eventually, perhaps, for good.

This life-changing event is described with poignancy in the autobiography of renowned author and politician, William Allen White. (As quoted by Eric Sloane in The Little Red Schoolhouse):
“Ma was in the doorway,” he wrote, “and I left her full of tears, for she knew, having taught school, that I would never come back her baby. She knew that I was gone out of her life as a child and would return that noon a middle-aged person, out in the world for good and all.”

That was in the 1870’s. But not much has changed today. No doubt, many parents today feel as William White’s mother felt so long ago.


Bu this American tradition of going to school began early. In 1647, the colony of Massachusetts passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, requiring any town with 50 or more households to hire a teacher for reading and writing. If there were 100 households, that upped the requirement to operating a grammar school for older students. This law was passed because parents became lax in teaching the basics of reading and writing, and the concern was that the colonists be able to read their Bibles. Hence the name of the law, so “that old deluder, Satan,” could not “keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.”

While schools today fight to keep Christianity out of the curriculum, the education of young colonials was filled with prayers and the Bible. The usual tablet for teaching was called a hornbook, a wooden paddle with a parchment inscribed with upper and lower case letters as well as the Lord’s Prayer. The written document was affixed to the wood with a thin layer of processed cow’s horn—the colonial version of lamination.


Some youngsters began their schooling in a “Dame School” which was held in someone’s home where the children learned the basics of reading by the woman of the household. These dame schools were often the sole education for young girls.

If there was a schoolhouse in the community, it was one room and the schoolmaster that was hired was usually a young, unmarried man, who took the job before settling on a trade. Boys went to school in the winter for several weeks when there were no crops to tend. Girls (if they were lucky) went to school in the summer.

New England schools were numerous and paid for by local taxes. Farther west and south, these one-room places of learning became more scarce. The two colonies with the greatest numbers of formal schools were Virginia and Massachusetts—the first two colonies founded on American soil.

One of the more famous schoolmasters in colonial Connecticut started out teaching in the small community of East Haddam in the winter of 1773-74. The eighteen-year-old Yale grad was described as handsome, athletic and kind. Author Eric Sloan wrote that this teacher was so well liked that his students gave him a send-off party when he took a position in the larger town of New London.

“I’ll miss you,” the departing teacher said. “And I wish that part of me could stay back in East Haddam with you. I do regret there is only one of me.”

As this schoolmaster headed for his new teaching position, the rumbles of the Revolution were being felt. He joined the Continental Army while still a teacher in New London. But his other profession was as an American spy. When the British discovered secret military plans written in Latin and Greek and hidden in his shoe, Nathan Hale was arrested and then hung.

His famous last words embodied the spirit of the Patriot cause: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale, beloved schoolmaster, was hung on September 22, 1776.


His schoolhouse in East Haddam is now a museum overlooking the Connecticut River.

12 comments:

  1. Elaine,

    Terrific post! I learned lots of things I can use later on. I love the way you surprised me with the teacher's name, Nathan Hale.

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    1. That story of Nathan Hale just grabs your heart, doesn't it? So glad you liked the post!

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  2. This is a subject near and dear to my heart - great details and loved the Nathan Hale story. I forced myself to NOT glance ahead to see who you were referring to so I could enjoy the reveal. Nice back story on the Old Deluder Satan Act. A keeper - that!

    Thanks for posting!
    Joy!
    Kathy

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    1. You have great restraint, Kathy, to NOT look ahead! LOL I found that Old Deluder Satan Act to be an amazing discovery. And today, how blunt and bold that wording would be considered. And definitely not PC! ;-) I like it! Thanks for commenting!

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  3. So glad you like it, ladies! I loved learning all the facts for this post, and the story of Nathan Hale touched my heart. So young and so courageous. Thanks for coming by!

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  4. Great post! I love that you pointed out how our schools were all based on the Bible and Christianity. So were our universities. My... how far we've fallen.

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    1. How things have changed...and not for the better. It helps to really do your research, especially with those who insist we are not a country based on Christianity. Thanks for commenting, Pegg.

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  5. I enjoyed this post very much! Thank you Elaine. If only we'd put learning the Bible back in schools now, what a better country we would be!

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    1. I could not agree more. Thanks for coming by, MaryLu!

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  6. Great article, Elaine! Thanks so much for the post! Love those pics you found, too.

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    1. Thanks, Carrie. The red schoolhouse is actually a picture of the Nathan Hale Museum in CT. I'm so sorry that I didn't get them arranged correctly! The one on the bottom of the post is the oldest known wooden schoolhouse in the country, located in St. Augustine, FL! I had the privilege of visiting the schoolhouse with the wooden stove in MA. It was lovely! That was my only photo credit. ;-)

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  7. Now of course I have to find out of there was a grammar school in the NY village my WIP is set in. Not that it will matter a great deal to the story, I just need to know! Lots of new to me information in this post. Very useful. And touching. I didn't know anything about Hale except the circumstances that led to his death.

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