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Published: June 28, 2011

Grammar school

A term in American education that now denotes an elementary or primary school, but originally meant a school that emphasized the study of Latin grammar in preparation for intensive study of the scriptures. The first grammar schools were offshoots of cathedral schools, the very first formal schools of England. Cathedral schools were originally organized by Saint Augustine, along with 40 monks whom Pope Gregory I sent as missionaries to the English in 596. Founder of Christ Church, Canterbury, and consecrated the first archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine established formal schools at the cathedrals and churches he and his disciples founded to introduce education and culture to England. The original curriculum consisted of grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music and Latin.
As universities emerged as centers of theological education after the 12th century, the church and cathedral schools concentrated their efforts on Latin grammar and the study of basic Latin texts to prepare youngsters in their late childhood and early adolescence for higher-level theological studies at university. Meanwhile, “PETTY SCHOOLS” developed to prepare younger children for service as choir and altar boys by teaching them “to say, to sing, and to read” and to provide them with elementary instruction in the arts and languages. It was the dual system of petty schools and grammar schools that English churchmen brought with them to the American colonies. Initially conceived as agencies for recruiting and training the parish clergy, these institutions were adapted to ensure the perpetuation of Christianity and still later to prepare young men (women were not admitted) for college and for “public service in church and commonwealth.”
Like its English counterpart, American grammar school education lasted seven years, with year-round instruction that permitted youngsters to withdraw temporarily for planting and harvesting. The school day ran from 6 A.M. to 11 A.M. and from 1 P.M. to 4 P.M. in winter and to 5 P.M. in summer. As in England, the curriculum emphasized Latin, but it added an introduction to Greek and, occasionally, Hebrew, to permit closer reading of Scripture in its original languages. The first grammar school was established in Boston on April 13, 1635, “for the teaching and nurturing of children with us.” Boston’s Latin Grammar still operates as a public school. Within a decade, at least nine other communities had founded grammar schools. In 1647 the Bay Colony passed the famed School Act, which was the second of the two Massachusetts laws of 1642 and 1647 ordering all communities with 100 or more families or householders to establish a grammar school (and towns of 50 or more families or householders to establish a petty school) to prevent “that old deluder Satan [from keeping] . . . men from the knowledge of the Scriptures.” The grammar school began to disappear as an institution in the 19th century, when the more advanced elements of its curriculum were expanded and absorbed into secondary school education, while the petty school curriculum and the elementary grammar school curriculum became the basis for primary school education.