When the Rev. John Cotton arrived in the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1633, he brought with him the idea of the English type of free grammar school, the school he had attended as a child in Derby, England. The “free school” in England was a publicly supported institution open to all boys on the basis of academic merit. The English “grammar school” was a secondary institution offering a seven-year course of study devoted to the Greek and Latin classics and designed to prepare the pupil for admission to a university.
In 1635, two years after Cotton’s arrival in the fledgling town of Boston, the town made provisions for the establishment and maintenance of a free grammar school on the English model. The school’s first classes were held in the home of its first master, Philemon Pormort. The Boston Latin School, as it came to be known, is generally considered to be the oldest public school in continuous existence in the United States.
The Puritan founders of the Boston Latin School, including John Cotton, believed that a knowledge of classical languages was essential for a proper understanding of Scripture. Consequently, the curriculum of the school was originally devoted entirely to acquiring a mastery of Latin, beginning with a thorough study of Latin grammar and syntax. In the eighteenth century, the most widely used elementary Latin grammar textbook in the American colonies was Ezekiel Cheever’s A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue (commonly known as Cheever’s Accidence). Cheever served as Master of the Boston Latin School from 1670 until his death in 1708. Students who had mastered the Accidence went on to read classical authors such as Ovid and Cicero.
Although four years of Latin are still required of graduates, the school gradually modernized its curriculum during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, offering elective courses to supplement the core courses in English, math, science, history, Latin, and modern foreign languages. Boston Latin School is now an “examination school” of the Boston Public Schools, with admission based on a student’s academic record and score on the Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE).
In the twentieth century, the school’s admissions policy, which recognized academic merit rather than class or race, provided the children of immigrants in Boston with an important stepping-stone to advancement in American society. The school became coeducational in 1972, and reached another milestone in 1998 when Cornelia Kelly became the first female headmaster in the school’s 363-year history.
Notable alumni of the Boston Latin School include Cotton Mather, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, George Santayana, Bernard Berenson, Joseph P. Kennedy, and Leonard Bernstein.
- Cremin, L. A. (1970). American education: The colonial experience, 1607–1783. New York: Harper and Row.
- Feldman, R. T. (2001). Don’t whistle in school: The history of America’s public schools. Breckenridge, CO: TwentyFirst Century Books.
- Gould, E. P. (1904). Ezekiel Cheever, schoolmaster. Boston: Palmer.
- Wernick, R. 1985. At Boston Latin, time out for a 350th birthday. Smithsonian, 16(1), 122–135.
- Boston Latin School: http://www.bls.org
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