The Complexities Found, as Well as Insights Gained, from the Identification of a Birthplace of Free Public Education: The Case of Rehoboth, Massachusetts

By Kolodny, Kelly Ann | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Complexities Found, as Well as Insights Gained, from the Identification of a Birthplace of Free Public Education: The Case of Rehoboth, Massachusetts


Kolodny, Kelly Ann, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


The debate over when and where free public education began in the United States continues to demand attention. Understandably, this is a complicated debate that entails reflection on what free public education means, consideration of how one could identify the birth of this activity, and difference of opinions regarding who should be credited for this large, powerful and conflicted undertaking. In the midst of this deliberation, rest communities which claim to hold the credit to be the birthplace of free public education, one of which is the small agricultural town of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Though such community claims often are dismissed as celebratory in nature, there are important reasons to warrant their consideration. For example, an examination of the historical circumstances of a community with claims to be the birthplace of free public education, such as Rehoboth, provides important insights into educational history, as it illuminates with background and color accounts of the past (in this case accounts which have roots in the colonial era), specifically through the introduction of local characters and circumstances. Likewise, while examining the complications that surround a community's perception to be the origin of free public education in the United States, insights into early efforts of education also are gained, as well as information about how certain wider practices and ideologies largely flourished. In this article, the claim of Rehoboth to be the birthplace of free public education is, therefore, examined. It begins with an analysis of the term free public education, proceeds with a brief review of the colonization and development of this community, thereafter an exploration of the reasons for the claim that Rehoboth is the birthplace of public education is undertaken, the context of the colonial era is discussed and then the challenges to Rehoboth' s claim are reviewed in detail.

"Free public education" is an intricate concept to define. The term "free," for example, has wide-ranging meanings. It suggests that schooling is unhindered and voluntary. Perceptions of schooling experiences such as those advocated by A.S. Neill, who believed in freedom for children, might be called to mind.1 He believed that children should be free to learn who they are and where their interests lie in a self-governing, democratic community. Alternatively, the term free might take a different meaning and indicate that a cost is not associated with participation in an endeavor such as schooling. One is able to take part without having to pay a fee. Such undertakings might be funded through alternative venues, such as taxation.

The term "public," also holds diverse connotations and significance. It could suggest something that is generally known, as in a public sense. It might be publicly known that there are appropriate standards of conduct that guide behavior in particular situations. Conversely, public might imply that an experience is open and unrestricted to. a community. In the United States, this would suggest that all individuals would be able to participate in an experience such as education, regardless of background.

"Education" also is an idea that is associated with broad meanings. Gerald L. Gutek writes that the word education "refers very broadly to the total social processes that bring a person into cultural life."2 Education might be associated with the day to day experiences that an individual learns in order to survive and thrive in society. It is the transmission of culture from generation to generation.3 For others, however, education takes a different meaning and is closely linked to a formal schooling experience. School is "led by teachers who are regarded as experts in the learning process."4

The term "free public education" understandably is difficult to define. Each concept in the term brings forth diverse ideas and meanings. Whereas free public education might be associated with broad enculturation processes of individuals, in the United States it often is connected with formal schooling experiences that are open to all students, compulsory until specific ages, and funded through taxation. …

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