First U.S. Public School Founded (1635),
Churches v. Education
It was on this date, February 13, 1635, that a headmaster (Philemon Pormont) was selected for the first U.S. public school, Boston Latin School. The school itself was founded on April 23 in Boston, Massachusetts, by Rev. John Cotton, a Puritan clergyman and devout theocrat born in Derbyshire. Cotton wanted to create a school modeled after the Free Grammar School in Boston, England. Boston Latin, where five of the 56 signers of the U.S. Constitution attended, is now located in Boston's Fenway neighborhood.
It is instructive to note that, although the first public school in the U.S. was founded by a clergyman, throughout the history of Christianity the churches have been either indifferent to, or hostile to, public education. Yes, Christian communities opened a few schools as Rome was decaying — but only after Christians had succeeded in destroying what even Augustine of Hippo had judged a fine system of free public education under pagan Rome. "With few exceptions they had disappeared by the sixth century," says historian William Boyd. As historian Joseph McCabe puts it,
The undisputed truth is that by 350 A.D., before Christianity was established by force, there were free primary and secondary schools everywhere, and by 450 A.D. they had all perished; that in 350 the majority of the workers [were] literate, and by 450 — and for centuries afterward — probably not one percent of them could read.
"After Jesus Christ," said Church Father Tertullian (c160-c230 CE), "all curiosity is superfluous." Most unbiased histories of education will point out, more or less candidly, the embarrassing facts about the Christian indifference toward education during most of the Christian era:
(1) From 450 to 1800, free public education was nearly unknown in Christian civilization; today it is the support of democracy and civilization;
(2) What education there was consisted largely of preparation for church duties, with little science and secular literature;
(3) The educational efforts of Charlemagne (742-814) were meager and did not outlive him; sporadic efforts since then had similar failures;
(4) The monks, far from preserving them, destroyed many ancient classics; most priests were too illiterate to read the Mass; Pope Gregory I forbade the clergy to open secular schools;
(5) Libraries were paltry: at Canterbury, one of the best in England, only 1,800 volumes could be found; the Library of Congress today has 119,000,000 items;
(6) Illiteracy in Europe was 95-99% until the 1800s; 90% in 1900; it is in single digits in the West today;
(7) Catholic countries stayed ignorant the longest, but even the Reformation did not bring general education: it was for Rationalists like Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Fröbel, Robert Owen, and Jeremy Bentham to promote universal education — 1900 years after the death of Jesus!
McCabe describes the struggle in England, from which the U.S. adapted its education system:
But the bishops fiercely resisted for thirty years the grant of any national subsidy [for education], and for forty further years obstructed the demand for a national system. ... At the beginning of the nineteenth century 90 per cent. of the people were still illiterate in England ... Fifty per cent. were still illiterate when Parliament was permitted to make an annual grant of £20,000 ... in 1833. The bishops walked in procession from the House [of Commons] to the Palace to protest against the establishment of a national system, and their hostility was not broken until 1870.
Education is a dangerous thing. As Ingersoll said, education is "the only lever capable of raising mankind." It follows that those bent on keeping the masses under their heel — ignorant, poor, miserable and obedient — would oppose free public education. Those bent on raising humanity, supporting democratic institutions, advancing equality of opportunity while retarding class envy, and making the working class competitive — and, by the way, increasing the sum of human happiness — would support universal education: a public good at public expense. Again, as Robert Ingersoll said, "To develop the brain is to civilize the world."
 "On the 13th of the second month, 1635...Att a Generall meeting upon publique notice...it was...generally agreed upon that our brother Philemon Pormort shall be intreated to become scholemaster for the teaching and neutering of children with us." — Town Records (from the official website).  The signers who attended Boston Latin were: John Hancock (Massachusetts), Samuel Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Robert Treat Paine (Massachusetts), and William Hooper (North Carolina).  William A. Boyd and C. Black, History of Western Education from Ancient Greece to the Twentieth Century, 1921.  Joseph McCabe, Lies and Fallacies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica: How Powerful and Shameless Clerical Forces Castrated a Famous Work of Reference, 1947.  McCabe, tongue in cheek, urges the reader to imagine "pious monks spending the hours between their prayers in copying what he calls the obscenities of Apuleius, the amorous verse of Horace, the adventures of the gods and goddesses in Ovid...."  Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopædia, 1948, repr. 1971, article "Education."  Robert G. Ingersoll, The World, New York, September 7, 1890; repeated in "The Truth," 1897: "Intelligence is the only light. It enables us to keep to the highway, to avoid the obstructions, and to take advantage of the forces of nature. It is the only lever capable of raising mankind. To develop the brain is to civilize the world."
Originally published February 2004 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.
Here’s your Week in Freethought History: This is more than just a calendar of events or mini-biographies – it’s a reminder that, no matter how isolated and alone we may feel at times, we as freethinkers are neither unique nor alone in the world. Last Sunday, October 7, but in 1865, U.S. businessman Ezra Cornell, […]