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  • The Common School
  • Anne Scott MacLeod (bio)
Children's Literature Association Annual Francelia Butler Lecture, presented in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, June 14, 2002

Forasmuch as the good education of children is of Singular behoof and benefit to any commonwealth, and where many parents and masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kind: it is therefore ordered that the selectmen of every town...shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren and neighbors to see...that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to...teach by themselves or others their children and apprentices...perfectly to read the English tongue.

(Morgan 87-88)

This statute goes on to warn those who didn't see to it that their children learned to read, that the selectmen could take the children or apprentices away from them and put them with others who would see to their education.

The style is highly recognizable. This is Puritan Massachusetts in 1648, providing for the present and future good of a new community in the wilderness. What the statute tells us is that this was a literate community, and one that meant to remain so. Historians have found no record of children removed from their parents because they were not taught to read—or of apprentices from their masters, either. That may mean that the law was not enforced, or it may well mean that the settlers themselves considered learning to read essential for their children—which would be unsurprising in a fervently Protestant society where Bible reading was preparation for salvation.

Though Puritan New England was exceptionally stern as well as exceptionally provident about literacy, American colonial society in general can be considered literate. This doesn't mean, of course, that everyone in the population could read and write. But the majority of the early English settlers were Protestant, middle class people, who not only read the Bible as part of their religious commitment, but who were also accustomed to a practical world based on writing. The business and official life of the colonies operated through the written word: laws, contracts, wills, marriage and birth records, court actions, communication between the rulers and the ruled, were all written. Literacy, however, while it always means reading at some level, doesn't always include writing. In early colonial times, women often learned to read at home; but because girls were not sent to school, they did not necessarily learn to write.

Life in the colonies fostered literacy, especially in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic. Commercial development and a broad male franchise reinforced the importance of reading and writing. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, scholars estimate that overall literacy in America was about 61% for white men, 32%—and rising—for white women. Literacy rates were highest among white males and in the Northeast, lower in the South and among blacks, poor whites, and women.1 When the Revolution was over and the framework of a new government had been established, Americans found themselves with another compelling reason to promote literacy. They had created a new nation; now they wanted to bring about order and progress and, above all, to preserve their new republic. With Jefferson, they believed that a democratic society, dependent as it was upon the virtue and intelligence of its citizens, required an educated citizenry.

And so we come to schools. I don't propose to discuss education generally, nor to cover all of American schooling. Instead, I have looked at the years from about 1800 to the 1860s, when common schools were established in the new United States and when they entered on a long process of evolution and transformation as they adapted to a changing society. I have focused on rural schools because America was almost entirely rural before the Civil War and because the rural, one-room district school eventually grew into the public school system we associate with American society. This is an unsystematic discussion: no charts, no graphs, few numbers, and fewer theories. Rather than look for momentous conclusions, I have tried to see what schools were like for children and for their teachers. The materials I have...


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pp. 183-190
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