The 13th Floor

Were America’s Public Schools Started By… SATAN?

Regardless of your thoughts on the public school system, it is an important, necessary function of a thriving democracy. Public schools ensure that all children, no matter their gender or class, get an education that will provide kids literacy, basic math skills, and a general understanding of the way the world works.

But did you know that you can thank Satan for America’s public school system?

Go ahead and get all the jokes out of your system (school is evil, your teacher is the devil himself, yadda yadda yadda); but history reveals that the Devil himself — or more precisely, fear of the Devil — was the basis for compulsory education laws in this country.

As we all learned in school, the first settlers in the Americas were Puritans, leaving England in search of the freedom to pursue their pious, strict religious beliefs… and of course, these religious zealots believed that Satan would be their eventual undoing. They lived in fear of the Devil invading their lives, and the first townships in Massachusetts formed many rigid laws focusing on their citizens’ responsibility to each other and to their faith.

In England, the education system in the 1600s was haphazard at best — children from families of means were privately educated, while children from poor families were left to fend for themselves. With no institutionalized learning system in place, this led to many children working. The Puritans were determined not to let this happen in America.

In 1642, the Puritan General Court enacted a law that stated every head of household was responsible for ensuring that all their dependents (both children and servants) were able to read. Parents who did not do this could actually have their children taken away. Five years later, the Puritan General Court decided that parents were not living up to their duties… and their biggest concern? Satan.

Puritans believed that children would only be safe from “that old deluder, Satan” if they could read and understand the Bible themselves. If someone else — even a parent or priest — tried to tell them Bible stories, something might be lost in the translation, or the reader could even be working on behalf of Satan himself. Therefore, if a child could read and absorb the Bible on their own, they were less likely to fall prey to Satanic influences.

The General Court enacted the Old Deluder Satan Act in 1647. Opening with the lines “It being the one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures…” this law put the onus for education onto the towns, as opposed to individual households. Townships with 50 or more households had to hire a schoolmaster and set up an elementary school; the law stated that the salary of such a schoolmaster would be paid either by the parents or “by the inhabitants in general” (the townspeople), and ensured that parents would not be “oppressed” by paying more than what any other town was charging to educate children. If a township grew to 100 households or more, then the town would be required to also set up a “grammar school” that would educate children enough so that they could attend a university.

There were even consequences for not abiding by this law: If any town should decline to provide an education for the children, they were to pay five pounds “to the next such school” (which I assume means to the school the next town over), until such a system was set up.

The Old Deluder Satan Act is consider to be America’s first compulsory education law, and it remained on the books for over a century, until Massachusetts became a state and the law was incorporated into the Massachusetts Education Act, which dictated similar rules… but without the Satan stuff.