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Chapter 8: Education.

Religion, and love of liberty, brought our pilgrim ancestors to Medford; and as these principles sprang in them from intelligence and virtue, so they revealed to them the need of intelligence and virtue in their offspring. To educate, therefore, was to legislate for the future. The establishment of schools, during the first years of their residence, was an impossibility; and, consequently, domestic instruction was the only alternative. The Bible and Primer were the reading-books. In those towns or plantations where a clergyman could be supported, he usually occupied much of his time in teaching the young; and it was common for boys to be received into the minister's family to be prepared for college. Those pastors who had been silenced in England, and who came here to minister to the scattered flocks in the wilderness, were men of strong thought and sound scholarship; and they kept up the standard of education. From the necessities of their condition, however, it is apparent that the children of our ancestors must have been scantily taught, and their grandchildren still greater sufferers; for learning follows wealth.

The first movement for the establishment of schools took place under the administration of Governor Prence; and, at his suggestion, the following order was passed in the Colony Court, 1663 :--

It is proposed by the Court unto the several townships in this jurisdiction, as a thing they ought to take into their serious consideration, that some course may be taken, that in every town there may be a schoolmaster set up, to train up children in reading and writing.

In 1670, the Court did freely give and grant all such profits as might or should accrue annually to the Colony for fishing with a net or seines at Cape Cod for mackerel, bass, or herrings, to be improved for and towards a free school, in some town in this jurisdiction, for the training up of youth in literature, for the good and benefit of posterity,--provided a beginning be made within one year after said grant.


The occupants of the Medford plantation, being few and poor, secured instruction to their children by domestic teaching, and by using the schools of the neighboring towns. Towards the support of those schools, they were required by law to contribute; and that they were benefited by them, is apparent from the fact, that all the persons who appear, through a series of years, as officers in the town, were well educated. The leading idea of emigration to this country, and the spirit of the age, would not allow them to neglect education. They provided for it in a way that did not require public record at the time.

In 1701, the penalty imposed by the Legislature upon towns for neglecting to provide grammar schools was twenty pounds. It was required that “the schoolmaster should be appointed by the ministers of the town and the ministers of the two next adjacent towns, or any two of them, by certificates under their hands.”

These early resolves concerning schools and education indubitably prove two things: first, that our Puritan Fathers believed that the establishment of schools was a duty they owed to justice and humanity, to freedom and religion; and, second, that they had resolved that these schools should be free. Here, then, was a new idea introduced to the world,--free schools! And, from free schools and congregational churches, what could result but republicanism? They held our republic as the.acorn holds the oak. It is important to state that free schools originated in Massachusetts.

In 1671, Sir William Berkeley, first Governor of Virginia, writes to the king thus:--

I thank God there are no free schools nor printing-presses here, and I trust there will not be this hundred years; for learning breeds up heresies and sects and all abominations. God save us from both!

Now look at Massachusetts. The Rev. John Robinson, before the Pilgrims left Leyden, charged them to build churches, establish schools, and read the Bible without sectarian prejudice. He said, “I am convinced that God has more light yet to break forth out of his holy word. Receive such light gladly.” Our fathers acted on this wise, Christian, and republican advice, and engaged Philemon Purmount “to teach the children; for which he was to be paid thirty acres of ground by the public authorities.” How [280] accordant this with that noble resolve of New England, to establish a college, “to the end that good learning may not be buried in the graves of our fathers” ! It is cheering to read in the early records of Medford, when a special town-meeting was called for this only purpose,--viz., “to see if the town will have a school kept for three months,” --to find every voter in favor of it, and, at the end of this vote, appending these immortal words,--“and this School shall be free.”

Here we have, in short compass, the different beginnings and opposite policies of two settlements: the one anathematizing free schools and printing-presses; the other doing all it can for free inquiry, universal culture, and progressive truth. The natural result of one system is to overrun a state with slavery, darken it with ignorance, pinch it with poverty, and curse it with irreligion; the natural result of the other is to fill a state with freemen, to enlighten it with knowledge, to expand it with wealth, and to bless with Christianity.

We should never cease to thank God that our ancestors, though surrounded by savage foes and doomed to poverty and self-denial, laid deep the foundations of that system of common schools which is now the nursery of intelligence, the basis of virtue, the pledge of freedom, and the hope of the world.

The course of instruction was narrow and partial. Each hungry child got a crust; but no one had a full meal. The New England Primer was the first book, the Spelling-book the second, and the Psalter the last. Arithmetic and writing found special attention; grammar and geography were thought less needful. The school was opened and closed with reading the Scriptures and the offerings of prayer. The hours were from nine to twelve o'clock, and from one to four. Thursday and Saturday afternoons were vacations.

For the next fifty years, the inhabitants of Medford supported their schools at as cheap a rate as they could, because their means were not abundant. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. The Rev. Mr. Porter acted as private teacher, and doubtless rendered great help to the cause of education.

1700: Neal says, “Hardly a child of nine or ten years old, throughout the whole country, but can read and write, and say his catechism.” [281]

Nov. 30, 1719, a special meeting was held, “to see if a school shall be established for four months. Voted in the affirmative. Also voted that the town will allow Mr. Davison three pounds money for keeping the school the time above said, and also to diet him for the town.” Heretofore, schools had been kept in private houses; but, Feb. 22, 1720, it was voted to build a schoolhouse.

Dec. 12, 1720: Two schools proposed and organized for the first time; one for the west end, and the other for the east. Mr. Caleb Brooks was engaged to keep the west school for three months, at two pounds per month; Mr. Henry Davison the east, at the same price.

In these ways, primary instruction was provided for. Although, in their votes, they used the word “established,” it could not be strictly true; for there was no school established, as we understand the term. Money raised for schools was not at first put among the town charges, but raised as a separate tax. Schools were any thing but perennial; they could hardly be dignified with the title of semi-annual, and sometimes almost deserved the sobriquet of ephemeral. At first they were kept in a central “angle,” or “squadron,” which meant district; the next improvement was to keep a third of the time in one extremity, a third in the opposite, and a third in the centre. Sometimes the money raised for the support of the school was divided according to the number of polls, and sometimes according to the number of children. The church and the school were, with our fathers, the alpha and omega of town policy.

“Oct. 5, 1730: Voted to build a new schoolhouse.” Same day: “Voted to set up a reading and writing school for six months.”

March 11, 1771: “Voted to build the schoolhouse upon the land behind the meeting-house, on the north-west corner of the land.”

1776: Voted that the master instruct girls two hours after the boys are dismissed.

By a traditional blindness, we charitably presume it must have been, our early fathers did not see that females required and deserved instruction equally with males; we therefore find the first provisions for primary schools confined to boys. As light broke in, they allowed girls to attend the public school two hours per day; and it was not until April 5, 1790, that the question was formally considered. On that day, a [282] committee was chosen to inquire “if it be expedient for girls to attend the master's school.” The committee wisely recommended the affirmative; whereupon, at the next town-meeting, it was voted “that girls have liberty to attend the master-school during three summer months.”

“ June 20, 1794: Voted that females attend the master-school separately, from the 1st of May to the 1st of October, four hours each day; and that the boys attend four hours each day,--Thursday and Saturday afternoons being vacations.” No one was admitted under seven years of age, nor unless he could read and spell. Woman, as the first instructor of man, needs a double portion of culture; and, when we starve the mother, we curse the cradle.

The course of study was, for the most part, meagre and impoverishing. The healthy curiosity of the mind was fed on the dryest husks of grammar, arithmetic, spelling, and reading. Whatever could be turned to pecuniary gain was the great object in the selection of studies. Webster's Spelling-book, American Preceptor, Young Lady's Accidence, Pike's Arithmetic, and Morse's Geography, were the mines out of which pupils were commanded to dig the golden ores of all useful knowledge. The books were made with very slight apprehension of a child's mode of thought. They seemed to take for granted that the pupil knew the very things they proposed to teach him. They abounded with rules, without giving any instruction concerning the principles out of which the rules rose. It was somewhat like lecturing on optics to the blind, or on music to the deaf.

May 5, 1795: On this day, the town voted to build a brick schoolhouse behind the meeting-house. They agreed “to give William Woodbridge two hundred and twenty pounds, with the old schoolhouse, to build it.” This house consisted of one large room, sufficient for sixty or seventy children, and was arranged after the newest models, and furnished with green blinds. On the north side sat the girls, and on the south the boys, constantly tempting each other to laugh and play.

March 1, 1802: “Voted that the ‘Royal’ donation be appropriated to pay the schooling of poor children, as last year.”

May 6, 1805: Voted to procure a lot for a schoolhouse near Gravelly Bridge. Voted “to choose a committee to look out a piece of land at the west end of the town, procure materials (for a schoolhouse), and report their doings at March meeting.” [283]

March 7, 1807: Voted to enlarge the schoolhouse, and dig a well. After this was done, the girls and boys were taught in separate rooms. Until this time there had been but one public free school in the town; and this was all that was then deemed necessary. It was taught by an accomplished master through the year. After this time, two schools were not too many, and the town cheerfully sustained them. No provision had been made for what are now called “primary schools;” and therefore every parent was obliged to pay for the schooling of his children until they had reached the age of seven, when they could lawfully enter the grammar school. So late as 1813, children under seven years of age were, by vote, prohibited from entering the grammar schools.

The “dame schools,” or, as they were often called, the “marm schools,” were numerous. Some vestal dames, whom it would not be profanation to call “sacred,” and who never seemed young to their pupils, continued, through many years, to teach the young their first steps on the high and perilous ladder of learning. With what fidelity they administered the accustomed kisses, alphabet, and birch, some of us can never forget. Twelve cents per week, paid on each Monday morning, secured to each pupil an abundance of motherly care, useful knowledge, and salutary discipline. Our town rejoiced in a “Marm Betty.” After all, these schools were more important to society than the march of armies or the sailing of fleets; for they laid well the first foundation-stones of that immortal edifice,--human character.

Since 1799, a law had existed in the town, pledging it to pay for the instruction of poor children at the dame schools.

Whittling seems native to New England boys. March 7, 1808, the town voted to repair the seats and benches in the schoolhouse.

In 1817, female teachers for the female department were preferred. They taught through six months only. In 1818, when Medford had two hundred and two families, the expenses of the schools were as follows :--

Master for one year, at $20 per month$240
Board for the same, at $3 per week156
Master four months, at $20 per month80
Board for the same, at $3 per week52
Three female teachers twenty-five weeks each, at $4300
Rent for schoolhouses for female schools45


April 7, 1823: Voted to build a new schoolhouse “on the front line of the burying-place.”

Nov. 1, 1824: Voted to divide the town into two districts, to be called Eastern and Western; and the $1,200, voted this year for the support of the schools, was to be divided equally between the districts. In 1825, the number of children in Medford, under fourteen years of age, was 525; and the thickening of population in new places made it necessary to multiply schoolhouses, and scatter them over the whole territory.

1829: Voted to build a schoolhouse, of wood, in the west part of the town. This was placed on the Woburn Road, on land bought of Jonathan Brooks, Esq. In 1831, it was removed and placed near the alms-house, on land belonging to the town.

1833: Voted to build a schoolhouse in the eastern district, the cost not to exceed four hundred dollars.

The primary schools were taught by females, but not continued through the winter.

March 3, “1834: Voted that the school-committee be directed so to arrange the town-schools that the girls shall enjoy equal privileges therein with the boys throughout the year.” This tardy justice to the female sex was not peculiar to Medford; and we are now amazed that Anglo-Saxon men, living in a free commonwealth and professing the Christian religion, should have needed two hundred years to convince them that girls have an equal right with boys to all physical, intellectual, and moral development.

The new interest awakened in the cause of elementary instruction, by the friends of common schools, produced its effects readily in Medford; and, in 1835, the town chose a committee “to inquire how proper education might be more extensively and effectually promoted in the town.” In this year a new schoolhouse was ordered,--the land and building to cost eight hundred dollars.

March 2, 1835: The town appointed a committee to “inquire into the best methods of conducting public schools.”

This vote shows that the efforts of the school-reformers of previous years had not been lost on

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