School Bells Ring in September
as Masons Champion Public Education for America’s Children.
We believe that a free public education is the right of every American child and helps to keep our Nation strong.
However, education of children regardless of their social class, the color of their skin, or their chosen faith, was not available in any European country when the Pilgrims landed in New England in 1620.
From the early days in the Plymouth Colony until the Revolutionary War, educating children was not commonplace. While some children received a basic education in their homes, the emphasis was, for the most part, focused on teaching basic writing skills and reading passages from the Bible.
Typically, parents could only devote an hour or two each day to improving their children’s education as there was little leisure time for early settlers in America. Additionally, many parents felt that only their boys needed to be educated. Girls, however, might be taught to read but most of their time was focused on learning home-skills like sewing, cooking, and how to care for siblings and animals.
Massachusetts was unique among the colonies in establishing the Boston Latin School (which admitted only boys) in 1635.
Within a few decades, the Massachusetts legislative body called for communities of at least 50 families to hire a teacher. Larger towns were directed to open a grammar school where reading, writing, and mathematics would be taught.
Wealthier families in the colonies of 18th century America often employed a tutor to teach children in the family home. If money and availability of travel allowed, young boys could be sent to school, or boarding school, for a more comprehensive education. Curriculum might include Latin, European classical literature, religion, and science. If a child was bright and his parents were wealthy enough, a teenager might apply to complete his education at college and, upon graduation, be considered one of the fortunate citizens deemed “worthy” of a higher education.
Approaching 1750, increasing numbers of immigrants speaking different languages and bringing their unique cultures sailed to the shores of America. For the most part, education of children continued to be done mostly in-home but small schools were founded along religious lines or by ethnicity in some cities. However, for most young children, their fate was sealed by the circumstances of birth. Education, success, and opportunity was only available to children lucky enough to be born into prosperous families.
However, this was the Age of Enlightenment where the virtues of knowledge, reason, and freedom were being extolled by philosophers, artists, and writers in Europe and in Colonial America. Schools of higher learning were springing up including the College of William & Mary, Kings College (later Columbia), Harvard, Yale, and the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). Learned men from New England to the Southern States realized that education was the key to improving and strengthening what was soon to become a new and independent nation.
The writings of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were Freemasons, helps us understand how highly these leaders regarded education. Freemason and America’s first President George Washington believed that education was essential to the success of America when writing. “A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing... than ... communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
Freemason Benjamin Franklin often expressed his thoughts on the need to educate America’s children. “I think also, that general virtue is more probably to be expected and obtained from the education of youth, than from exhortations of adult persons; bad habits and vices of the mind being, like diseases of the body, more easily prevented than cured. I think moreover, that talents for the education of youth are the gift of God; and that he on whom they are bestowed, whenever a way is opened for use of them, is as strongly called as if he heard a voice from Heaven.”
However, while the Founders had noble thoughts on expanding education to children, the reality of establishing a Declaration of Independence, and a new Constitution delayed the implementation of a nation-wide system of public schools.
In 1837, Horace Mann, then Secretary of Education for Massachusetts and an active Freemason, established a modern public education system. Mann’s “Common-School” program grouped children by age and helped them meet specific educational goals as they passed through levels of instruction. Mann won high praise for his educational efforts which proved increasingly successful. In 1849, Massachusetts mandated school attendance for all young children.
By the late 1800s, every American state had opened elementary schools funded by the taxpayers and some states were also opening public secondary schools. During this era, many students, especially in rural areas, attended “one-room” schoolhouses where children of mixed ages were taught by a teacher inside a single room.
As the Western Movement expanded America from the states east of the Mississippi to across the wide plains of the western frontier, it was often Freemasons, valuing education and assistance in their communities, who built the schoolhouses in the territories of the West.
It was not until the early 1900s that children were required to attend school. Due to financial pressures on countless families, some parents shortsightedly believed that getting an education for their children was unnecessary and they preferred to have a child earning a wage in a shop or factory or working on the family farm. So, despite the longterm advantages of receiving higher education, parents often withdrew their children from school when their boys and girls were approaching their teens as the mandate for compulsory education ended at the eighth grade.
During the Great Depression, states were struggling to provide financial support for schools as tax revenues fell sharply with unemployment on the rise as businesses closed. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was a Mason as well as the President, expanded his “New Deal” to assisting disadvantaged students as well as allotting funds to build new schools. Roosevelt’s plan was not without controversy as it did not provide widespread help to all public schools and included installing some non-certified instructors in classrooms.
Other American Presidents who were also Freemasons have focused on improving public education. President Gerald Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act ensuring that youngsters with disabilities had the right to receive a free public education.
Whether it is in the White House, the governing bodies in state houses and city halls, or in local Masonic Lodges across the country – Freemasons have shown their support and commitment to improving public education. Masons, as good men working together to become better men, continue to raise funds to provide scholarships for students, honor educators, and to assist public schools.