'No Child Left Behind' is the modern version of the 'Old Deluder Satan Act'

As President Obama tussled with the ineffective "No Child Left Behind" law last week, I was reminded that as a people we have always had great vision for our children. We also have always struggled with the implementation of the perfect education...

S. E. Livingston
S.E. Livingston

As President Obama tussled with the ineffective "No Child Left Behind" law last week, I was reminded that as a people we have always had great vision for our children. We also have always struggled with the implementation of the perfect education plan.

Perusing an American history book, I was startled to find that our forefathers legislated their own "No Child Left Behind" law 360 years ago. Back in 1647 the Massachusetts Puritans coined their law "The Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647." (And you thought "The Red Plan" had negative connotations.)

Their educational belief was that Satan's main goal was to keep men from the knowledge of Scriptures. In an effort to ensure that "learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers" they passed a law which stated that every community form a school. If children were not learning, then the town would be fined five British pounds.

By calculations from the British National Archive website, five British pounds in 1647 would now be equal to about $580, or the price of a medium-sized tattoo.

In the Law of 1683, William Penn, a Quaker and founding father of Pennsylvania, required that anyone having charge of a child must make sure he could read and write by the age of 12, under penalty of a five-pound fine. Penn's law also required that all 12-year-old children learn some useful trade or skill. In his writings Penn surmised that technical skills, knowledge and art appreciation would keep children from becoming rude, stubborn and unruly adults.


(William Penn obviously wasn't a visionary who could foresee how much future generations would value rude, stubborn and unruly adults in the form of entertaining reality television shows.)

Imagine a government making an educational goal a requirement of a family, rather astonishing for something we view as governmental business. However, mulling the idea over in my mind, I began to wonder how this requirement would look in modern American society. What if every family were required to ensure that its 12-year-old could read and write, or a $600 bill would be coming in the mail? What if that law were enacted because the nation understood that well-educated children are a benefit to any government and people?

In the first place, that would mean that our middle schools, secondary schools and colleges could focus more intently on issues of academic depth and not have to attend to remedial instruction. Those issues would be contained at the grammar school level.

Secondly, and more vitally, parents would be held accountable for their children's education. Many who work in our schools would tell you that parents have too often abdicated their educational responsibility with their own children. Of course it is the job of the teachers and schools to give American children the most potent opportunities to learn but, ultimately, isn't education the parents' burden? The Law of 1683 didn't state that parents had to teach their children how to read. It just states that they had to make sure their children knew these things.

For years teachers have been blaming parents for children who are unable to achieve in school. Maybe as often parents have been blaming schools for the lack. Both the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania colonial laws are crystal-clear on where the responsibility for academic achievement lies. Plus, both communities laid in a clause that states that neighbors and "brethren keep a vigilant eye on the town children to make sure none fall asunder." I think that means if you notice that the neighbor kid is up all night playing marbles or ring toss it's okay to say something to his parents.

If a potential fine were hanging over our heads, would we as parents be more vigilant to spend evenings reading with and to our children and listening to them read? If I didn't have an extra $580 dollars, would I seek help more quickly when I saw my child's ability flagging? If Duluth knew it was going to be fined for inadequate education for kids with learning disabilities would we put more energy into finding solutions and getting those kids the extra help they need to meet the goal?

Did the colonists?

Although the laws seemed to be well thought out, although the intentions were sound, the historical reports are that children still didn't learn and their parents still dodged their fines. That old deluder, Satan, still had his way.


Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota (and lives in Duluth). E-mail her at .

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