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America’s First School

John Cotton (1585-1652), noted Puritan minister was responsible for establishing the first public school in America.

Cotton himself, was a learned man, having graduated from Cambridge, and been elected a Fellow of Trinity College. During this period, he was not particularly religious in his beliefs or his teachings. Although he would later become head lecturer, dean, and catechist at Emmanuel College, the cradle of Puritanism, he himself was rather a free thinker, lecturing more often on one’s self, than one’s relationship with God.

When he did convert, it was with a whole-hearted enthusiasm, if somewhat non-conformist leanings. Where once he lectured at school and at home on the fields of learning, he now preached the word and love of God to all and sundry, and with great frequency.

Called to serve in the parish of Boston, Lincolnshire, Cotton held the usual weekly services as well as additional ones three times a week, and daily lectures for students. All this in addition to his six daily hours of prayer and study. It was during his tenure in Boston, that he came to extol the virtue of church rule by the congregation. Eventually his unacceptable arguments and exhortations led to his conviction for “unreformed evil” by the Church of England, so that when a call came from the High Court of Commission, he resigned and fled to the new world, and what we now know as New England. The year was 1633.

Cotton continued his teachings in Boston, Mass. as a firm believer in the right of a congregational minister to direct his flock, and gained widespread fame and respect for his treatises on the subject. In 1635 he established the first public school, the Boston Latin School, modelled on the Free Grammar School in Boston, England, which taught Greek and Latin. It was built on the ancient Greek premise that the only good things, are the goods of the soul.

When Edmund Burke referred to America as being the model for “dissidence of the dissent” more than 100 years later, he might have been speaking referring to the Boston Latin School, founded by one of the earliest dissidents in the nation. To this day, it teaches and encourages, dissent with responsibility. Five of the 56 signers of the declaration of Independence were students of the Boston school: John Hancock, William Hooper, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Treat Paine.

The building of Boston Latin School pre-dated Harvard College by a year. It was supported by public funds, and began without a formal building, holding classes in the home of headmaster Philemon Pormort.

Harvard was founded in 1636 by general vote of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and was often referred to as “the school of the prophets” for its focus on theology. The college awarded its first professorship, in Divinity in 1721, making it the oldest endowment in America. In later years the college would become Harvard University,