A History of Education: The American Educational System, Colonial Period (Massachusetts Education Laws)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 20th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

In the early 1600s, many Puritans became concerned that when their learned and trained leaders died, it would leave a vacuum in their society. As such, it was imperative to pass on information to the next generation. First, they established institutions of secondary and higher learning, including the Latin Grammar Schools. They also worried about losing an educated ministry, so they founded Harvard College. Admission to the college required passing an entrance exam that tested students’ ability to read and speak both Latin and Greek.

The first step on the path to compulsory education in America was established by the Massachusetts Act of 1642, though it’s important to understand that education itself wasn’t foremost in the Puritans’ minds. They came to America to escape the religious oppression they faced in Britain, and they wanted, first, to create a society where they could exercise their religious freedom, and second, to build a nation where their religious aspirations wouldn’t be stifled. Education, therefore, was more a necessity than anything else. The masses needed to be educated so they could understand both the religious and secular written codes the colonies lived under.

The Law of 1642 put those ideas in motion. It required that parents and masters of children in the apprentice system ensured those children knew the principles of religion and the capital laws of the commonwealth; it stated nothing about the establishment of any “school.”

The law did state that all children, as well as all servants, needed to demonstrate competency in reading and writing as outlined by the governing officials. If all citizens could understand written language on even a basic level, they would be able to understand and, therefore, abide by the governing laws of the land. Implicit in this idea was that each person would be educated enough to meet the individual needs of their station in life, and that would help promote social harmony.

The role of the teacher was left up to the parents. However, the law included a provision that if the parents and masters grew lax in their responsibility, and the children couldn’t meet basic criteria, the government had the right to remove the child from the home and place them somewhere they could receive adequate instruction.

The Law of 1647, also called the Old Deluder Satan Act, stemmed from the idea of potential parental negligence in educating their children and made provisions for a more desirable state of formal schooling.

The law required that towns containing 50 families hire a schoolmaster to teach children to read and write. Towns of 100 families had to have a grammar schoolmaster who would prepare children for entrance into Harvard College.

Education now became more of a social responsibility, as teachers were formally hired for the sole purpose of instructing the children. And, perhaps a bit surprisingly given education’s initial purpose, these teachers were paid for their work, either by the government or by individual parents and guardians. Formal schooling was becoming more of a priority to the society.

At the same time came the rise of something called a “Dame” school, small schools set up in the homes (usually in the kitchens) of women in the community who had both the time and the inclination to become personal tutors. In exchange for their services, the women received some meager allowance. Traveling schoolmasters also made an appearance. These teachers made their way from town to town for the sole purpose of teaching the children, helping to contribute to the dream of social harmony by way of religion and literacy.

These two Massachusetts laws effectively took religious concerns (e.g., learning to read for the purpose of reading the Bible) and forged them into the groundwork for modern education. Necessity eventually turned itself into an educational system conceptually pursued in and of itself in America. They were small steps, but tremendously important ones.

Next week: Colonial Period, New England Grammar Schools


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.



[1] Matzat, Amy L. (June 15, 2004). “Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642 and 1647.” History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/masslaws.html.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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