Grammar schools have their roots in the medieval monastic and cathedral Latin grammar schools of western and central Europe. In preparation for the priesthood, pupils in such schools acquired a facility with the Latin syllables, words, and rules of grammar necessary to lead religious worship. Over time, particularly in Elizabethan England, these schools developed into institutions that educated future leaders of church and state. The curriculum was narrowly classical and humanistic, emphasizing the reading, writing, and speaking of Latin and providing an elementary knowledge of Greek and occasionally Hebrew. This course of study prepared pupils for higher education and stood in contrast to that of petty schools, which provided rudimentary instruction in reading and writing in the vernacular.
Grammar schools were formally introduced in the North American colonies with the founding of the Boston Latin School in 1635. This school accepted pupils, generally beginning at seven or eight years of age, who had previously received instruction in English. Pedagogy consisted of disciplined memorization and recitation and the curriculum was again comprised of Latin and the classics, becoming more precisely defined over the next several decades by the entrance requirements to Harvard College. Graduates usually completed their studies in seven years.
As in England, colonial grammar schools were heavily reliant upon tuition, resulting in a student population drawn primarily from the upper classes. In 1647, however, the General Court of Massachusetts, motivated by the Protestant conviction that all individuals should be able to read the Scriptures, passed the Old Deluder Satan Act, legally requiring towns of one hundred families or more to establish grammar schools. Over the next ten years, all eight towns of this size complied with the Act.
During the second half of the seventeenth century, the number of colonial grammar schools increased in response to similar laws throughout New England. As they did so, however, the character of these schools also changed, typically at the insistence of the communities that supported them. Grammar schools were compelled to expand curricula to remain competitive with newly developing academies, which were more utilitarian and offered a vocational program for children of the growing middle class. By 1750, many grammar schools offered courses in arithmetic, geography, history, and even bookkeeping.
During the 1800s, in spite of this broadening curriculum the increasing availability of common or public schooling further limited the appeal of the grammar school. Its name, however, synonymous with elite, college preparatory education, was adopted by public schools as they began a system of age grading, separating younger students from older ones. Primary schools were established for children approximately five to nine years of age, corresponding with grades one through four. Intermediate or grammar schools were developed for students ten to fourteen years of age, corresponding with grades five through eight. By 1900, these two programs were united into a single, eight-year elementary school, also referred to as grammar school, which became the most prevalent type of school in the United States.
See also: Aristocratic Education in Europe; High School; Gymnasium Schooling; Latin School; Lycée.
Butts, R. Freeman. 1947. A Cultural History of Education: Reassessing Our Educational Traditions. Ed. H. Benjamin. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Cremin, Lawrence. 1970. American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607–1783. New York: Harper and Row.
Cremin, Lawrence. 1980. American Education: The National Experience, 1783–1876. New York: Harper and Row.
Noble, Stuart G. 1961. A History of American Education, 2nd ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
gram·mar school • n. 1. another term for elementary school. 2. (in the UK) a state secondary school to which pupils are admitted on the basis of ability. Since 1965 most have been absorbed into the comprehensive school system. ∎ a school founded in or before the 16th century for teaching Latin, later becoming a secondary school teaching academic subjects.