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United States - History & Background

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Historical Evolution:


Puritan New England: The American system of education has undergone dramatic transformations at various times since its origins in the 1600s, reflecting changes in the social life and culture of the nation. The educational system predates even the word "American," which was introduced in 1684 by Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in New England whose sermons reflected his concerns over formal ways to rear young people. For that matter, the term "education" itself was coined around 1531, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, referring to a process for the rearing of youth in society. It was not synonymous with institutional learning until the early 1600s, coinciding with the founding of colonies in the New World.

In a sense, the religious turmoil of Europe in the 1500s is the starting point for understanding the history of education in colonial America. Had European exploration of America occurred with far more vigor in the early sixteenth century, the teachings of the Catholic Church would have been the greatest influence on early education. Because Europe's colonization of America came a full century after the Protestant Reformation, however, the most obvious influence on education in the colonies was the presence of numerous religious sects. These sects, or religious denominations, included the Puritans, Huguenots, Anabaptists, and Quakers.

Schools were among the first institutions built by the colonists. They were outranked in importance only by homes and houses of worship, a reflection of their value among a citizenry preoccupied with otherworldly salvation. All religious leaders regarded education of their young people as essential as a means to ensure the replication of their individual sects. "Especially it becomes parents to have their children well taught in the mysteries of a profitable calling," preached Cotton Mather. "We should be studious to have them know something by which they too may live." Mather also praised teachers: "Worthy of honor are the teachers that convey wisdom unto our children; worthy of double honor the happy instruments that convey saving wisdom to them."

In part because of religious doctrine and in part because those were dangerous times, sects such as the Puritans, or "Pilgrims," who began Plymouth Colony in 1620, promoted educational teachings with little sugarcoating for the children. All educational teaching was a type of religious instruction, and the intent clearly was to preserve the Puritan culture and to keep all followers homogenous and disciplined. Early religious leaders strove to influence their followers' supposedly corruptible souls with sacred teachings directed at their minds. The Bible was believed to be the direct word of God, and instruction was given to children and adults alike in thundering sermons from the pulpit.

Likewise, all teachers felt that absolute adherence to fundamental teachings was the best way to pass on values held in common. Any children resisting the teachings of a schoolmaster or displaying a disobedient nature could quickly be yanked from their benches for the liberal application of the master's lash or some other form of corporal punishment thought to drive the devil from the child's body. If children did something particularly egregious that interfered with their salvation, or the schoolmaster was unusually stern, they could sit for a time, in yokes similar to those worn by oxen, as they reflected on their transgressions.

By 1634, Massachusetts Bay had evolved from a wilderness setting into growing political and religious communities of 10,000 settlers. In Massachusetts, children began their educations at around eight years old and continued for six years. Although the English practice was generally to educate only the children of the upper classes, the colony also educated children of less wealthy settlers, as well as the offspring of ministers and merchants. Villages in the colony that became New York varied in their enforcement of education by locale. Only New York City had Latin schools comparable to those in Massachusetts. Eventually, a pro-education group with Church of England roots, called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, started some 20 schools in New York.

In 1638, the abundant educational opportunities available in Massachusetts next became available in New Haven, Connecticut, which opened a school immediately after the town's founding. In addition to the children of villagers, schooling was available for one year to indentured servants. A schoolmaster from Boston was brought to New Haven to assume his teaching duties. A few years later, Hartford, Connecticut, had its first school and paid teacher, as did Newport, Rhode Island, by 1640.


Education in the English Colonies: The Massachusetts Bay colony continued to open schools in every town. One by one, villages established schools, supporting them with a building, land, offerings of money, and, occasionally, taxes. The colony began in 1647 to require by law secondary schools in the larger cities, as part of an effort to insure the basic literacy and religious inculcation of all citizens. Even so, education in seventeenth-century Massachusetts was hardly ideal. Some schools were placed under the care of tutors nearly as uneducated as their students. Books were limited to whatever volumes were generously lent by ministers or a town's wealthier citizens. But as the colony drew more educated settlers from England or graduated teachers from Harvard (founded in 1636), the quality of education in New England increasingly improved. Nonetheless, as the Puritans became more prosperous, their zeal for education dampened, and enrollments declined during the 1660s and 1670s.

This trend was reversed by an outburst of evangelistic passion often referred to as "The Great Awakening." Fire-and-brimstone preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, who wrote treatises and delivered orations such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," spurred a public dialog on educational and spiritual issues. More ministers were needed, and schools were founded to train them, reinvigorating a thirst for learning in the New England colonies.

This certainly was one of the more important educational innovations in early America, for the concept of free schools was largely unknown in civilized Europe in that age. The subjects taught were designed to assist students in practical matters of daily life: arithmetic for business; languages to communicate, debate, and preach; and reading to provide access to the Bible and to understand contracts, government documents, and laws. A few schools under more learned schoolmasters even offered language classes in Hebrew. To prepare students for the rigors of classroom life at Harvard, Latin schools were formed in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Illiterate villagers would come to depend on those with reading knowledge to keep them abreast of news, laws, and miscellaneous information.

Settlers in the other colonies founded schools that reflected both their established religions and ties to the lands from which they had emigrated, and, in most places, a single nationality or religion predominated. In a few places, however, such as New York City, many different peoples came to be assimilated after the Dutch lost control of what had been New Amsterdam.

While under control of the Dutch West India Company, the colony of New Netherlands started several schools, maintaining control as if they were business operations. Much of New York was farmland then, and access to schools was often a hardship, particularly in severe winters. Schoolmasters often were affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church and had general caretaker tasks assigned to them. New Amsterdam, the town that became New York, had its first school started in 1638 by the Dutch Reformed Church. Following the British takeover, an attempt was made, however, to give control of the former parochial school to the Anglican Church, but the diversity of New York made this impossible. It would have been difficult for any one of the 18 represented religious denominations to push its educational philosophy successfully to a city that had swelled from a population of 4,300 people in 1690 to 21,863 in 1771.

In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and surrounding towns made similar gains in population. Except for some well-run Quaker schools, however, education in colonial Pennsylvania had been neglected as merchants concentrated on building personal fortunes. Finally, in 1749, leading Philadelphia statesman Benjamin Franklin fought for the opening of an academy similar to the Latin grammar schools in Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts; he succeeded in 1751. Franklin further perceived that higher educational opportunities in other colonies were flourishing, particularly at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), Harvard College in Massachusetts, and Yale in Connecticut.

Franklin openly—and somewhat unfairly—blamed the colony's failure to keep up with German influences in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. Notably, however, in some other parts of Pennsylvania where the German influence was particularly strong, education for younger children was heavily emphasized. (At this time, there was little thought given to a system of secondary education between the one-room schoolhouses and the colleges.) German communities were not at all pleased when criticized for supposed deficiencies in the education of Pennsylvania's children. From the German point of view, English speakers such as Benjamin Franklin were interlopers bent on destroying their culture and way of life.

The Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania became a particularly desirable location for Germans because of the access to the cities of Reading and Philadelphia. In the area that became the city of Allentown, German settlers showed allegiance to the Zion Reformed Church, and the German Reformed influence dominated the single-room schoolhouses, although the Lutheran and Moravian Churches also created some schools. These schools kept their ties to German culture until nearly the mid-nineteenth century. Eventually, rifts developed between the conservative German-speaking congregation and pastors and their younger opponents advocating the adoption of English in church services and in school teachings.

In time, the German community saw the need for higher education, but the Allentown Seminary it built did not survive. Much of the blame for its failure was the insistence of the Seminary's backers on preserving the school's German culture at a time when many newcomers were English speaking.

The school also failed to see education as of much importance for women. A major exception to this backwardness of colonial leaders in providing education for females was the Moravian seminary for girls, which opened in 1745. Quaker schools in Pennsylvania also strove mightily to provide an education for females; later they helped both male and female children of former Negro slaves.

Virginia settlers, largely members of the Anglican faith and therefore in favor in England, possessed little of the evangelical fervor of the Puritans who had survived years of oppression and opposition from the Crown. Although the Virginia colony founded William and Mary College in 1693 (degrees were not awarded until 1700), it and other Southern colonies did not operate anywhere near as many free grammar or public schools as did Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Drawing inspiration from the operation of English schools, schools in the Southern colonies formed on plantations. In what would become Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, such learning centers tended to be run by tutors or ministers for the education of wealthy children of plantation owners. Many of the owners then sent their children to secondary schools and colleges in England, particularly young men who were groomed to return to the colonies as Anglican ministers. At home, the privileged had access to libraries on the manor that occasionally held thousands of books.

Some children, unable to attend formal schools, nonetheless received an education with heavy emphasis on the Greek and Roman classics from male tutors, Anglican ministers, and learned women who oversaw dame schools. Status-conscious agrarians who became wealthy planters or "country gentlemen" paid the passage for tutor-scholars from England. Some students, aside from the schools, received their education in the form of apprenticeships to skilled tradesmen; this commonly was the case with orphans, for care and education of the poor was a mandate for Church of England (Anglican) congregations. Eventually, laws were enacted that enjoined masters to make certain these apprentices could read, write, and perform elementary arithmetic; enforcement of those laws was sporadic, however. Those who owned hardscrabble farms or made a subsistence living through hunting lacked the same value for the classics that the wealthy land owners possessed, but they too often saw to it that their children received some training in the socalled "three R's." Through the 1670s, Governor William Berkeley of Virginia opposed the establishment of free schools.

As immigrants from Germany, Scotland, and Ireland fled to America in search of economic opportunity in the early 1700s, however, free schools like those in the North were eventually founded. Other schools served the needs of the poor or orphans. Church of England clergy were active in the management of these free schools. Outside Virginia, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was very active in founding schools. The Society also demonstrated a passion for the education and well-being of Negro slaves and Indians. Less prosperous and later-settled colonies, most notably Georgia, were unable to start or support anything more than the most rudimentary education system. Those children who managed to receive an education equal to that in the other colonies were usually taught by a clergyman or educated wife of a settler.


Revolution & Westward Expansion: Right before the outbreak of hostilities between the American colonies and England, the population of America was about 2.5 million people. Allegiance to either side was both fierce and inflexible on the part of loyalists and patriots. During the struggle for independence, a significant number of boys and girls received no education or a deficient one at best. Access to books on the frontier was problematic. Printing presses had been present in the colonies ever since the seventeenth century, but replacement of broken parts sent by ship from England was expensive. In addition, British authorities destroyed the presses of those printers said to be publishing materials subversive to the Crown or colonial governors. Libraries existed in the colonies at the time of the Revolution, but these were not the lending libraries of the modern era.

Undereducated, overworked, short-tempered male schoolmasters often presided over the schools. Corporal punishment was a euphemism for outright brutality against children. Perhaps because books were in short supply, the custom of the day was to ask students to memorize long chapters or even whole books, making learning laborious and irksome. Not until the teacher rang a hand bell were students free to express their individual natures. Discipline and utter quiet were valued, not discussion and examination of ideas.

The educators of the time saw that the colonies had become overly dependent upon English manufactured goods, including pamphlets, textbooks, and Bibles, as well as financial support from the crown and teachers and scholars trained in the great universities of England. A great national fervor following the breaking away from England led to nothing short of jingoism, or patriotism, for a time in the nation's schools as they were gradually rebuilt or established anew. Even grammar books contained passages containing patriotic themes. History classes emphasized the cultural heroes of the revolution, and in every schoolhouse in America the walls contained a portrait of General George Washington.

The Constitution and Bill of Rights put great emphasis on preserving freedom of the press and speech, reflected in American curricula in subjects such as composition and rhetoric. Pro-American sentiment led to some historical inaccuracies and biased interpretations that were to become part of everyday learning the classroom, and it would be many years before the role of women and ethnic minorities received anywhere near the attention they receive in the twenty-first century.

Gradually, after the revolution, the priorities of the fledgling country also encompassed education. As the British departed, they ceded by treaty a grand wilderness known as the Northwest Territory that extended to the west banks of the Mississippi River, eventually becoming the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Congress wrote forward-thinking legislation, setting aside ample lands in every township for schools. Yet as the 1803 Louisiana Purchase expanded the territory of the United States, and commerce grew in economic importance, national interest in the classical lives of the Romans and Greeks declined. Grammar schools became less dominant, and languages such as French and German were more widely taught outside ethnic communities. Astronomy, logic, and rhetoric were also staples in the curriculum.

Secondary schools were touted in Massachusetts following the final defeat of the British in the War of 1812. Since lawmakers viewed organized common schools for older children to be a splendid democratic way to provide an equal opportunity education, legislators passed a statute in 1827 requiring these "high schools" to be installed in larger townships across the state. One of the chief backers of such legislation was James G. Carter. Carter supported democratic high schools and vigorously opposed the nation's private schools, which he viewed as elitist institutions catering to the wealthy and class conscious. In spite of his passion, full compliance with the law did not occur; opposition from private academies and taxpayers asked to foot the bill for high school construction was vociferous. Practically, these could be maintained only in towns large enough to enroll students in sufficient numbers to justify paying teacher salaries and building schools. Carter's idea of a democratic school system would not fully begin to be realized for another 150 years, as reformers following the civil rights movement pressed for equal-opportunity schools.

James Madison championed a movement to found a great national university, but though money and considerable energies were expended on behalf of such an institution, it failed to overcome opposition from those who thought the founding of schools was a matter for individual states to oversee rather than the federal government. There was more support for national military academies, and the first institution of its kind was established in 1802 at West Point. The U.S. Naval Academy followed in 1845, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1876. More successful than Madison as an educational visionary was Thomas Jefferson, an advocate for free schools under local supervision. Jefferson was the prime mover behind the founding of a great state college in his own state, the University of Virginia. Its Jefferson-planned library and well-designed classroom buildings served as models for subsequent state schools of higher learning.

Civil War & Progressive Era: The late nineteenth century began to show signs of the progressive school systems that were to evolve in the twentieth century. However, education as a whole was seriously set back during the Civil War. Money that had gone to school districts was diverted to the war effort. Young male teachers were plucked from high schools and sent to war as soldiers. As the war dragged on, many schools in the South shut down entirely, and school districts in rural farming communities and mountain areas with small populations would take many decades to reach educational parity with similar communities in the North. Similarly, the South long would feel the effects of operating with a large population of poorly educated workers.

The so-called Reconstruction of the South was more accurately a dismantling of the South by Northern Republicans in retaliation for the Civil War. As a result, struggling industries and cities and towns barely able to exist could ill afford to spend money on improving school systems or paying teacher salaries. Following the Civil War, numerous schools for the education of freed slaves were established, but these were poorly financed. Impoverished students could not stay in school very long without financial support and ended up dropping out. Finding teachers to meet the demand was another battle. Only about 24 college degrees were awarded to African-Americans prior to the outbreak of the "War Between the States." The most famous teacher-preparation college for blacks, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, failed to prosper until the coming of energetic visionary Booker T. Washington in 1875.

As America's population grew, and modes of transportation grew sophisticated, one-room common schools began closing in favor of the establishment of larger elementary schools for grades one through eight. Secondary schools provided four years of increasingly more sophisticated instruction, although for the most part the curriculum of individual schools remained restrictive, with few, if any, course choices allowed by the school boards to make allowances for individual interests of students. In addition, by the late nineteenth century, a number of regions opted to adopt more uniform curriculums among schools under their geographical boundaries. There were, however, some vocationally oriented schools that offered practical subjects in shop subjects for students who, for financial or other reasons, were not planning to attend college. An industrial education association began in 1884, dedicated to professional standards, the hiring of trained teachers, and standardized instruction. With the Industrial Revolution had come a high demand existed for industrial workers that were literate and possessed practical training.


Women's Education: Increasingly, although female education in the United States was slow to gain hold as an idea, mothers were expected in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to initiate their children in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Well into the twentieth century, advocates for women's rights fought hard to abolish the notion that women were professionally fit only for nursing or teaching professions, thereby facing exclusion or harassment when attempting to gain entrance into professional schools.

Nonetheless, in earlier years many Americans had paid serious attention to the writings of English author Isaac Watts (1674-1748), who bemoaned the fact that women, untrained and uneducated, often were reduced to the sorriest financial circumstances if unmarried or left alone after the death of a father or spouse. Massachusetts by 1789 was more liberal and allowed females to attend schools; Connecticut and other New England states followed. In the late 1790s, Pennsylvanian Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, advocated the formal instruction of girls since they were the guardians of society's morality. Industrialization was rapidly changing familiar social roles. Women replaced schoolmasters in larger cities in the nineteenth century, and primary schools taught by females were instituted in Boston by 1818.

Nationwide, however, attempts to educate females were sporadic, and many religious denominations, such as the German Reformed Church, opposed school learning for their daughters. Even some who supposedly advocated education for girls in the nineteenth century were referring merely to "finishing schools" where social graces could be picked up, so that as married women the girls would have some preparation to teach their male offspring. Many seminaries were opened for wealthier girls in the nineteenth century as an alternative to male academies, but these primarily were intended to produce educated mothers and few other professional women other than teachers. In spite of these limitations, a small number of women did achieve upward mobility as physicians, taking advantage of their overwhelming talents, intellects, and instincts for seizing opportunities. One of the more significant seminary founders was Emma Willard, who founded her oft-emulated institution in 1821 in Troy, New York. Together with Catherine Beecher and Mary Lyon, Willard became an advocate for quality secondary educational opportunities for girls.


American Educational Leaders: Although early American settlers had been chiefly influenced by European philosophy, by the time of the Revolution, schools were working to break with the past. Nonetheless, American colonists did respect fine English minds. One of the most influential thinkers upon American educational philosophy was the British thinker John Locke, who wrote that all minds at birth were a blank tablet and the mind was imprinted with what it learned through experience. American leaders liked his emphasis on common sense and empirical knowledge, leading to a strong emphasis on the value of practical experience and the worthiness of scientific experimentation that could be replicated by others.

Among the first truly American educational philosophers was the nineteenth-century visionary Horace Mann (1796-1859), an orator and champion for the cause of preserving American democracy by the continuous development of an educated citizenry. Mann was a Massachusetts legislator who used his influence to get the state to set up a Massachusetts board of education. That accomplished, Mann quit his position and assumed the post of Massachusetts Board of Education secretary, 1837-1848. Mann used his public forum to preach with vigor the benefits of state-run schools, and he was just as passionately opposed to Calvinist schools, which he viewed as provincial and lacking in foresight.

A former Calvinist turned Unitarian, Mann was not against religious training per se, advocating scripture readings in the schools and moral lessons. In his role as administrator, he came to argue that common schools were essential for molding of character of the nation's youth and providing the training that would make them self-sufficient throughout life. Mann regarded classrooms as sanctuaries to keep children away from the world's vices. He saw teachers as guides entrusted with leading their charges down the golden paths of virtuous living. Since the U.S. government continued to distance itself from religion in affairs of state, he considered schools essential for the development of godly leaders.

When the ambitious Mann became editor of The Common School Journal and espoused his ideas there, his views on education soon were debated nationally and adopted in some form by many states. Gleefully he said in a 1839 speech that "the universal diffusion and ultimate triumph of all-glorious Christianity itself must await the time when knowledge shall be diffused among men through the instrumentality of good schools." In Mann's era, immigration then was mainly of Europeans with Christian convictions, and he did not anticipate the day when diverse numbers of people of all religions would send their children to public schools. His philosophy is also dated by his promotion of the pseudo-science of phrenology, believing that the most intelligent students could be determined by the shape and bone structure of their skulls.

On the other hand, Mann's desire to use the schools for character building would fall on equally receptive ears in the twenty-first century, and he was a tireless fighter for higher taxes to pay teachers a fair living wage and for curriculum reform. He also was an advocate for better teaching institutions to train teachers; specialized colleges for teachers and elementary and high school administrators, then, fell well below standards for graduation of accredited universities and colleges.

Mann's contemporary, educator Henry Barnard (1811-1900), was another nineteenth-century giant in education. As a member of the Connecticut legislature, he lobbied for the creation of a state school board. During his long career, Barnard was Connecticut Board of Education secretary, Rhode Island superintendent of schools, a college president (St. John's, Annapolis), a University of Wisconsin chancellor, and ultimately, in 1867, the first U.S. Commissioner of Education. In part due to his advocacy work, nearly 30 cities employed school superintendents during his tenure as U.S. Commissioner of Education.

His achievements were varied. He persuaded Rhode Island officials to begin a state system of public schools. He championed his ideas for educational reform at all levels as the publisher and editor of the American Journal of Education (1855-1881) and other trade periodicals, paving the way for educational administration to be recognized as a field in its own right. Perhaps Barnard's greatest contribution was his ability to raise public interest in the schools for the betterment of state school systems nationwide, but he also fought for better textbooks, the creation of cooperative parent-teacher associations, and systematic procedures for inspection of schools. In his lifetime, peers honored him as the foremost authority in school administration.

One of the most important educational philosophers of the early twentieth century was John Dewey (1859-1952), a pragmatist who as a young man tried to reconcile his passion for science with his New England Christian upbringing. He preached the theory of "instrumentalism," that mankind must accept statements presented by scientists that can be verified by repeated observation, instead of looking the other way or rationalizing problems away. Dewey thus introduced a system of ethics to education. His important books, How We Think and Democracy and Education, appeared respectively in 1910 and 1916 and cemented his reputation as one of the century's great thinkers and educators.

His pragmatic approach held that education was meant to help students know the world as it actually is, not in some mythic sense. His theory maintained that there is always hidden information that mankind cannot know and that the acquisition of new knowledge brings with it ever changing ways of looking at the universe. For human beings to remain unchanged in the face of rational explanations, citing unyielding belief in a higher authority was to stifle inquiry, problem-solving, and free expression. Dewey championed democracy as a way of life but left open the possibility that as new knowledge was acquired, human beings might follow a more perfect form of government in the distant future. The Progressive Education Association touted other ideas of Dewey in the 1930s particularly, attacking inflexible curriculums that stifled the personal growth of individual students and their talents and interests.


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almost 6 years ago

I like this article but i think that in order to be better it needs to have headings on each paragraph so I can easily find what i am looking for. Thanks :).

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I wish you included a f=reference section that would help us believe that the article is of high-quality. I really like the article, it was very useful.

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This information is really well written, but maybe a bit more of organization would help people follow along better. I'm 12 years old, and I had a project about the schools in the 1600's. I got some information out of this site, but it was hard to put the bug words into words that I could understand. It would be helpful to make this website more "kid friendly".
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Do you have any current peer reviewed referenced articles?
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Who is the author of this article what is the title of the work and what's the publication date

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