Winslow Homer painted this scene of a country school in 1871, nearly two decades after Massachusetts became the first state to pass a compulsory education law in the United States.
According to custom, boys sat on one side of the room, girls on the other. The one exception is the boy and girl to the teacher’s left, no doubt brother and sister. Siblings could sit together so they could share the same books — probably McGuffey Readers.
Massachusetts had demanded that parents educate their children before that first compulsory education law passed in 1852. The Puritans who ran the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642 required parents to teach their children to read so they could read the Bible. They also had to educate them in writing and a trade.
Other New England colonies passed similar laws between then and 1671. Southern colonies didn’t adopt such requirements until 1705.
The Country School in Massachusetts
The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, written principally by John Adams, directed the government to support education. It was the first time such language ever appeared in a constitution. Adams wrote that wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, were necessary to preserve the rights and liberties of a people.
…[A]nd as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them.
Lawmakers must pay attention to Harvard, the public schools and grammar schools in the towns, Adams wrote. They should encourage private societies and public institutions to promote agriculture, the arts, the sciences, trade, manufacture and the country’s natural history.
Finally, Adams gave the schools a tall order. They should teach humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality and honesty and “punctuality in their dealings.”
The Massachusetts School Attendance Act of 1852 required children between eight and 14 to attend school for 12 weeks per year. Six weeks had to be consecutive – that is, if the school were open for six weeks. The penalty for truancy: $20.
By the end of the 19th century, the United States had about 200,000 one-room schoolhouses. They taught half the nation’s schoolchildren.
This story updated in 2022.