"If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history." Carl Becker, 1931.
But what exactly is the nature of the history people know? I've recently noticed several instances of historical claims being made with little justification. J. L Bell has been observing Framingham with a close eye, the Boston Globe examined the oldest house claims of the Fairbanks House in Dedham and the Balch House in Beverly, while I have found yet another misleading claim about the origins of public education in this country, among other historical problems. Jay Fitzgerald nails it, albeit on a different subject: we're in the "Worst Historical Analogies Ever War".
In today's Boston Globe I read a letter from David Martin of Dedham, a member of the town finance committee there. Martin, in defending Dedham against what he sees as an unfair portrayal by the Globe, claims, "In 1643, Dedham voted to authorize the first taxpayer-funded free public school in the country and has embraced the importance of public education ever since". Without veering to far into angels on the head of a pin territory, it should be noted that Dorchester created the first publicly funded school in America in 1639. In May of that year, the town meeting (a form of government created by Dorchester) declared:
"It is ordered that the 20th of May 1639, that there shalbe a rent paid of 20ls yeerely foreur imposed upon Tomsons Iland to bee payd p euy p'son that hat p'prtie in the said Iland according to the p'portion that any such p'son shall fro tyme to tyem injoy and posesse there, and this towards the mayntenance of a schoole in Dorchestr this rent of 20ls yeerlyl to bee payd to such a schoolemaster as shall undertake to teach english latin and other tongues and also writing...."
It is pretty simple really: the oldest public school is Boston Latin School which was created by the town of Boston in 1635, although students had to pay to attend, the oldest free public school was created in Dorchester, and then there are the pretenders like Dedham and Rehoboth. When the Globe addressed the origins of public education last year, I wrote a letter to the Globe trying to clear up the mystery. I see it didn't stick.
As to the title of this post, I refer readers to Carl Becker's 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association. It is well worth reading.