April 23: sumus primi

2012/04/23 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1653 the first public school in North America was founded.

The primacy of the Boston Latin School is echoed in its motto: Sumus Primi (“we are first”).  But it also underscores the nature of first things, in particular, the first things in education: namely, the Classics, which remain the foundation for the curriculum of the centuries-old institution.

The first classes were taught in the home of the master, until a purpose-built school house was built by the mid-1640s (above).  “Purpose built,” but, like most Colonial buildings for institutions (like buildings for governance, hospitals, and prisons), the basic architectural image was that of a house.  But this humble pile should not be seen as a dodgy shack, unfortunately selected to house the glorious traditions that its inmates studied by lamplight.  It too is expressive of the aim of what is still a  public school, one with the highest intellectual standards and, ideally, the widest social reach.

The little building stood until the early eighteenth century and was replaced by a new building to accommodate a growing student body in 1704.

Image: sepia from their website (from this source)


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§ 2 Responses to April 23: sumus primi

  • Susan Barsy says:

    Clio–This is actually a very interesting topic. The architecture of public schools, or any early American school, for that matter. The way schooling was done early on was quite chaotic, and there were many sorts of schools–some on people’s grounds, in the South there were things called “field schools,” and so on. Just recently I was driving on a country road in Wisconsin and drove past a small building near the road–it looked almost like a doll house–and I thought to myself, “I bet that’s an old school.” But how do you know, really? From its non-descriptness, perhaps–from its not fitting into other building categories?

    There is a great old book called “The Old Country School,” for those who are interested.

    The muse did not visit those early builders much, I think, yet some of their buildings have some poetry. . . .

  • Clio says:

    Susan, We must make one correction to your otherwise keen (as usual) observations: The Muse visits all builders, all the time, everywhere. Some meet her with warm embrace and a bouquet of tulips, some with a scowl and the door closed in her face. Both of those tend to be the “professionals.” And then there are the builders that you refer to, who leave the kitchen door open, and let us walk in unannounced and help ourselves to coffee and a muffin. Unlike the architects who have gone to college and like to sit at table and pour out a proper tea or shake up a smart cocktail, these guys keep up an amicable and unconscious chatter in the midst of their regular routine.
    And yes, what is it about those small structures that you can just tell: that’s no house. The Muse observes the same phenomenon in little dogs who think they are big dogs.

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