History of Education in America’s Colonial and Early Republic

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The history of education in America’s colonial and early republic was a nationwide transition to a common public school powered by multiple factors. One major factor was the need for a democracy to be self-autonomous and for the population to be educated to keep a stable government. Another ruling factor was that people want to pass on their beliefs and traditions. This drive to pass on the former way of life led to the integration of religion in schools causing the discourse between different ethnic groups and religious groups. One of the most important driving forces in the creation of a public school was the idea that from equality of man there is a need to educate to bring the individuals full potential. In all of these reasons for schools and the effect they implemented they show how the modern school was made and how we can react to problems that we face in America’s education system today.

In colonial America, there were 3 distinct types of educational institutions. For the common public, there were the common schools in which its foremost goal was to teach students to read and write. Grammar schools were for the elite and their goal was to create the leaders of the colony and confirm the elite’s status. Colleges, including Harvard, were a higher education that allowed common people to obtain a higher class and to confirm the elite’s status. Common schools were mainly used to instruct students using repetition and memorization. One of the main manuals or primers of the day was the New England Primer, which comprised repetitive Christian phrases and prayers. They likewise used an instrument called a hornbook, that was comprised of a piece of wood or horn-shaped into a paddle that was engraved with the alphabet, phonics, and a prayer. Common schools were first ordered mandatory by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the ‘Old Deluder Satan’ Massachusetts Act of 1647. It ordered all communities of more than 50 households to assign a teacher to conduct a school to impart the ability to read and write. This law of the land lost its effect in 1780 after the drafting of the constitution of Massachusetts, which included public education for the state. The main goal of common schools was to educate the population on the fundamentals of society, so they can properly obey their superiors with letters or documents and to educate the population in reading, so they can read the scripture of religion, which was namely Christianity. As quoted from the New England Primer, “A: In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all. B: Heaven to find; the Bible mind. C: Christ crucify’d, for sinners dy’d”. This excerpt was memorized by the student and displays how the only task for these schools was to teach the basics of Christianity, and a rudimentary ability to read and write. These schools were funded by local funds and required support from local taxpayers.

Grammar schools were designated for the elite. Their studies mainly comprised of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and other various languages that that would help confirm the status of the scholars. The study of classical writers, at the time, was believed to develop character in aspiring pupils. Some writers and pieces include Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ and Plato’s ‘Republic’. These grammar schools were funded by paid tuition by the student.

Another emerging institution in colonial America were colleges. The first of these establishments was Harvard College. Founded in 1636 in Massachusetts, Harvard College’s mission was to “…to advance learning, and perpetuate it to posterity” and to ensure an educated ministry for the colony. An uneducated ministry was feared because an illiterate leader and an ignorant minister were predicted to destroy any church. Over time the number of graduates in theology diminished and by the American Revolution, a small portion of alumina became ministers. The next college of the time was the College of William and Mary. Opening its doors in 1693, the college was set to “inspire lifelong learning, generate new knowledge, and expand understanding”. The College of William and Mary grounds were located in Virginia, and its alumina mainly comprised of Virginian aristocrats. Other colleges that followed include St. John’s College, Yale University, Washington College, University of Pennsylvania, Moravian College, University of Delaware, Princeton University, and Washington and Lee University.

In the creation of the new republic, a new societal drive was sparked. Now kindled in the freedom of Americas individuals’ equality and refinement were valued, and people sought to create a better life for themselves to fulfill the “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. In this people sought to create a refurbished country of educated intellectuals that would help govern the democratic republic that was newly created. Their reasoning was supported by the idea that rulers needed to be of the people in a democracy, and that in this republic there needed to be educated to teach the subjects to choose their rulers wisely. The whole government was set on the idea that the country was educated and the rulers had the merit of the people. To suffice this need for teaching the idea of a publicly funded education was created.

One of the leaders in this new ideology was a man by the name of William Channing. Channing was born in April 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island. An educated Unitarian with an M.A. from Harvard. He was a proclaimer of a self-made person in which education was a way to create one’s self and find the image of God in one’s self to find his full potential. He also advocated for a universal education because the treatment of public learning above another would be a crime against nature. Channing was one of the leading reformers in the Transcendentalism movement, which was a belief that to find the meaning of life and nature you must look not out, but into yourself.

Another reformer of the time was Horace Mann, who was born on May 4, 1796. Mann was the first Sectary of Education in Massachusetts and visited various schools in Massachusetts to record living conditions in each school. Mann once concluded that the state took better care of its livestock than its students: “You crowd from 40 to 60 children into that ill-constructed shell of a building, there to sit in the most uncomfortable seats that could be contrived, expecting that with the occasional application of the birch they will then come out educated for manhood or womanhood…?”. An advocate for self- improvement, he believed that learning should not only be a collection of grammar and spelling, but a way to develop one’s view of the world. He believed that learning should be a way to cultivate a min into a budding vessel of untapped potential. Another emerging belief was the view of imagination as a beauty that needed learning to cultivate and poetry was an emerging. Manning also supported the idea of giving advanced mathematics not to use in real life, but to enhance the ability to learn and understand.

Thomas Jefferson led the coalition to bring forth a public school system that habited a system in where any student could rise to high standards and become a leader. Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in the family of an aristocrat planter and was the third president of the United States. His system started with a common reading and writing school in which its most prestigious student would raise to higher education. With the leading students of the secondary school chosen, they would move to a college or university to create the ruling and leading people of society. These ideas were pushed in ‘A Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education’, written together with Orestes Brownson. This bill was countered by the fact a large portion of the bill’s funds was supported by the University of Virginia near Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. Jefferson’s opponent, Charles Mercer, wanted a state education; however, Jefferson wanted a local education to keep the people's power, and Brownson wanted local control to avoid religious diversity and political discourse between parents and the state. Along with other reformers including Horace Mann and William Channing. They saw education as a way of bringing a person’s true potential and creating a more perfect being.

These schools were dependent on student funds and depended on social opinion to stay in business. The differentiating economies in the North and South created a divide in teaching policies and institutions. The South was predominately southern planters and yeoman farmers, poor and self-sufficient farmer, while the North was a small farm country with a booming manufacturing industry. In the South, during the late 18th early 19th century, most of the population was either planter, yeoman farmer, or pioneer. Most of the parents that could afford education for their children, in which most were plantation families, hired a tutor to teach them. Tutors taught a variety of classics to the student and helped shape a student that could not only read and write, but also be a leader. Much of the subject that these tutors covered were classical pieces and various languages that help confirm the societal status of the individual. For a child of a lower class, there was either to take the farm of their family and continue their work or to take an apprenticeship under a tradesman or artisan.

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Schools in the North for low to middle-class families were a place to learn the basic fundamental of reading, writing, and sometimes math. These classes were mainly a way of educating the masses in reading and writing to be able to properly read the Bible and communicate by letters to the presiding government, which in turn can properly govern its citizens.

Between 1830 and the Civil War, the taxation in the South was significantly lower than in the north. This was caused mostly by the economy in which planters did not need public schools and the poor people had other problems to focus on. There was a movement from parent-paid tuition to taxing the country for the public’s education. This led to highly tax plantation owners and poor untaxed workers in the South resisting new taxes.

The life of a teacher as it is today was a constant battle between the need to control the room of students and the ability to teach the individuals the material and life lessons. Many teachers of that time resorted to crude punishments and controlling teaching. Many of the lessons were repetitive passages for memorizing, which led to many students becoming uninterested in the teachings. This led to punishment to keep students focused by the fear of the rod. Early teachers of the time did not see the teaching profession as a career, but as a way to make extra money. Men did it from graduation to their career, while many women did it to make a little money before marriage. Massachusetts opened a normal school for women to become teachers after a ten-thousand-dollar ($297,407.53 inflation-adjusted) donation from Edmond Dwight. There were 3 chosen spots for the schools and the first one opened in 1839. Over twenty-one years, thirty-four normal schools opened in sixteen states.

As hard as a teacher’s life was, a student’s life was harder. The student of this time kept a constant fear of reprimand, which led to the idea that learning was a task, not enjoyment. Since communication in America at the time was minimal, much of the subjects were outdated. Some of the conditions that the students and teachers faced in the schoolhouses were crowded buildings and ill-constructed schoolhouses. These schools of the past had a strict code of conduct on their students. Many were physically abused for their misbehaving’s, which led to many memorizing the subject material out of fear instead of leaning out of curiosity.

The new frontier of the west called for teachers in the east to come and fill the role. This led to the formation of teaching schools in America. Another forming idea in America was the formation of a feminine teaching position, and that teaching was for a woman that fit the homemaker to suet the children. These findings created long-standing teaching traditions as in a graded class, a class set by age and subject, and a uniform nationwide set of rules and guidelines in teaching. Another common practice we take for granted is testing. Before testing there were exhibitions in which students would recite poems, literature, or speeches to an audience. These exhibitions measured a student’s growth in the schools of the time. With more and more standardization of schools there needed to be a way to measure the knowledge of the student. Testing became a new way to test the knowledge of the student with the advent of easily accessible paper. After the Civil War, testing spread like wildfire and became a common practice in America.

The differentiating of denominations in schools led to conflicts between schools over whether religion should be taught in school. Many northern Protestant schools were different from the Catholic immigrants. Catholics argued over the anti-Catholic sentiment in public schools and asked for a separate school for Catholics, which led to public backlash against the use of public funds. Another political conflict in schools was the teaching of slaves or free blacks because of the resistance of slave owners that feared educated slaves are prone to revolt and sloth.

There are several themes in the education of today that have bloomed from the chaotic time in early America. One growing idea was age grading, in which grades determined the subject and teacher. This also led to the idea of sectional teaching, in which teachers taught a specific study with a division of labor. This was supported by the idea of progressive learning, in which subjects build on one another. These ways of creating an efficient factory-like school were at the forefront of the reformer’s ideas of the time. Lastly, terms were lengthened and many schools increased their yearly terms by a fourth. On average, in Massachusetts from 1840 to 1875 there was an increase from 148.8 days a year to 176.5 days a year. One lasting conflict is the discourse between the teachings of home and the subject matter of school. There were many heated debates on whether to keep Bibles in school because of conflicting versions and denominations. These conflicts have led some schools to ban the reading of the Bible. Another common theme was the fact that growing as a learner and a person is different from a repetition of words and phrases.

On the eve of the Civil War, there was a slow progression to a public educational system that was either mandatory or encouraged. Common schools were found across the nation and had become a life ritual. At the advent of the Civil War, America’s population was subdued by the war from the need to support the war, the need to support the weakened community and family, or economic constraints. These constraints led to a ‘reset’ in the US economy. Another factor was the 13th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, freeing about 4 million black slaves, leading to “equal protection under the law” and black rudimentary education, which was illegal before the Reconstruction era. What emerges from the rubble is a newly refurbished republic, ready to create a strong public education that was unobtained by the fathers before them. This is embodied by the percentage of schools before and after. This set the stage for the major changes in infrastructure during the Reconstruction and led to the schools of today.

Through this look into the education of early America, we can see how the leaders of yesterday planed for the education of today. This brief history displays the motives for the advances in teaching. This history arises a new question, what does this education show what it means to be American and how did we become who we are from learning.

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History of Education in America’s Colonial and Early Republic. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/history-of-education-in-americas-colonial-and-early-republic/
“History of Education in America’s Colonial and Early Republic.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/history-of-education-in-americas-colonial-and-early-republic/
History of Education in America’s Colonial and Early Republic. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/history-of-education-in-americas-colonial-and-early-republic/> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
History of Education in America’s Colonial and Early Republic [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Apr 13]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/history-of-education-in-americas-colonial-and-early-republic/
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