1754-1783: Education: Overview
1754-1783: Education: Overview
Mixture . In colonial America education included many types of learning, with little emphasis placed on formal schooling. Parents were more involved in their children’s learning than the government was, and schools received support from a great variety of places but were not accessible to all. Since the population of colonial America, especially south of New England, was widely scattered, the organization of a formal school system was also geographically demanding. Colonial education encompassed nearly every aspect of colonial society: families, communities, public and private schools, literary societies, churches, individual schoolteachers and tutors, missionary and philanthropic associations, and places of employment, including the household. Formal schooling existed primarily for wealthy males of European descent.
Religious Influence . In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries religion motivated most educational efforts. Literacy was the key to understanding the word of God, so most schools and colleges were organized by the clergy, missionaries, or some religious organization. Since 1642 New England had been under a mandate to establish schools because Puritans insisted that literacy was necessary to read the Bible. Primers and hornbooks were filled with religious and moral maxims and instructions. In the Middle colonies various denominations—German Pietists, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and Quakers—created their own forms of schooling. The Quakers were unique in their inclusion of males, females, blacks, and Indians in their education system. In the South the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts and a few other religious organized schools.
Enlightenment. The early colonial college and grammar school curriculum was based on the European tradition of instruction in classical languages and literatures though other subjects such as politics, mathematics, divinity, and ethics were taught as well. The course of study was the same for everyone: Latin and Greek were necessary, not only for theology but also for law and medicine, and proficiency in these languages was a mark of the well-educated man. The classical curriculum predominated, but by the middle of the eighteenth century it had been expanded to include more mathematics, natural science, English literature, and modern languages—changes influenced by the spread of European Enlightenment ideas of the philosophes, who embraced the sciences, reason, and natural law and scorned institutional religion and the supernatural. In America the new science, which emanated from the works of men such as Sir Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Sir Francis Bacon, and John Locke, touched a society that was becoming more commercial. A more practical, vocational education appealed to a rapidly increasing middle class of artisans, merchants, and traders, who needed courses such as accounting, business, and writing. The introduction of Enlightenment ideas created a tension between classical and practical education that resulted in important curricular changes. Philadelphia became the center of the debate, largely because many of the men who were thinking and writing about the educational application of these ideas lived there—men such as Benjamin Franklin, William Smith, Francis Alison, and John Morgan.
Formal Secondary Schools. During the eighteenth century the number of secondary schools increased rapidly though mainly in the Northern and Middle colonies. In general three types of formally established schools existed. The earliest formal secondary school in the colonies was the Latin grammar school, open primarily to boys from the upper classes, but some poor boys were able to attend for free. Here students could prepare for higher education, particularly for the ministry; a grammar school and a college together formed a single education system. Latin grammar schools were run either privately by masters or were set up under town authority. The curriculum was based on classical languages and literatures, but reading, arithmetic, and writing were also taught. The English school evolved in the eighteenth century as a popular alternative to the Latin school. It offered a more practical course of study with more emphasis placed on reading, arithmetic, English grammar, history, and writing and less on the classics and religious instruction. Finally the youngest and least well-defined of the formally established secondary schools was the academy, which developed in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Its curriculum was a combination of Latin grammar and English school curricula, but college-level courses were added as well. For the next century the academy became the foremost secondary school.
Southern Schools. The Southern colonies had few grammar schools compared to New England, but they had other kinds of schools: charity, publicly endowed free, private, parish and church-sponsored, old-field, and tutorial. Private schools were run by individuals who charged fees and hoped to make a profit teaching the public. Parish schools were funded by parishes. Old-field schools were set up usually in one of the abandoned buildings on worn-out tobacco fields. These were usually in rural areas, organized by parents who hired a teacher and paid fees for their children to attend. The tutorial school was set up on a plantation for the education of a planter’s children and his neighbors or relatives. The number of boys and girls could be twenty or thirty, all of different ages and educational levels. This kind of plantation school was most prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay area. Free schools and old-field schools could also be parish schools. Parish schools and church-related schools sometimes expanded to become academies and later colleges.
Colleges. By the beginning of the American Revolution nine colleges had been chartered to grant degrees: Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), King’s College (Columbia University), Queen’s College (Rutgers University), the College of Rhode Island (Brown University), Dartmouth, and the College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania). By 1784 four more had been established: Washington College in Maryland, Liberty Hall Academy (Washington and Lee University), Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, and Transylvania Seminary in present-day Kentucky. In addition some academies provided students with college-level courses so that approximately twenty to twenty-five institutions offered collegiate instruction of some kind by the end of the Revolution. The early colonial degree-granting colleges modeled themselves after Harvard, which had faithfully tried to replicate the traditions of Emmanuel College at Cambridge University. However, by the middle of the eighteenth century certain changes in colonial society were beginning to have an impact on higher education. The population had grown in cities and in rural areas and had become more ethnically and religiously diverse. At the same time commercialism was expanding and bringing with it an interest in secular pursuits. Earlier colleges had required their board members to be clergymen of the same denomination as the college, but colleges established after 1750 also included board members who were laymen and clergy of different denominations. Franklin and others even proposed the establishment of secular colleges. Though this was never fully realized in the eighteenth century, the colleges did begin to deemphasize clerical training and institute other intellectual disciplines, such as law, medicine, and agriculture. Until 1750 half of all college students trained to be clergymen, but by the end of the century only 22 percent of college students studied for the ministry.
Educating Females. In colonial society most formal secondary education and all higher education were open only to men. Women were regarded as helpmates of men, and their education was defined in terms of what would be most useful in making them good wives, mothers, and homemakers. Therefore they were not educated in the same manner as men, as this would be unnecessary preparation for their roles in society; they would for the most part not be involved in the public sphere of men but rather the private sphere of the home and family and as such were under the authority of their husbands unless the husbands were absent or deceased. A female’s formal education was rudimentary, limited in general to instruction in reading and sewing. Though women had always had some occupations, such as midwifery, outside the home, by the mid eighteenth century their public roles expanded more in areas such as keeping inns, taverns, and small shops; printing or publishing; and assisting in or running family businesses. During the Revolution women’s roles changed as wives were forced to assume their husbands’ public responsibilities while the men were at war. Women participated in raising funds, in organizing protests, and in carrying out other duties related to the patriot cause. During the 1770s some of the upper-class, better-educated women challenged the educational limit imposed on females. Two of these were Abigail Smith Adams, wife of John Adams, and Mercy Warren, wife of James Warren. Mercy Otis Warren wrote political satires and plays against the supporters of Britain, and Abigail Adams protested the lack of education for females. But though ideas about women’s education were changing during this period, the world dominated by men was not ready to accept the need for the higher education of women until later in the nineteenth century, nor did it even find useful a complete secondary education for women. Domestic duties remained women’s priority, and no one, including Mercy Warren and Abigail Adams, challenged this or advocated that women compete with men in law, medicine, or the ministry.
African Americans. Supporters of education for blacks in the colonial period fell generally into two categories: those who wanted to provide occupational training for economic benefit and those with religious and charitable goals such as missionaries, who regarded literacy or at least the ability to read the Bible as necessary for conversion. Since skilled labor was scarce in eighteenth-century America, masters found it necessary to train some of their slaves in a trade. Slave men and women either learned these skills from other slaves or served apprenticeships under white craftsmen. Some slaves received training in more than one trade, depending on the needs of the master. As far as reading and writing were concerned, slaves usually received these under the auspices of a religious group. While most religious denominations supported the education of free and enslaved blacks, two religious groups stood out as especially active in this area: the Society for the Preservation of the Gospel (S.P.G.), a missionary society run by the Anglican Church in England; and the Quakers. Both had been active in black education since the beginning of the eighteenth century, and both established schools for blacks. The S.P.G. also sent out missionaries to catechise African Americans in order to prepare them for conversion. But education for blacks was at best haphazard and ephemeral and at worst forbidden outright, and it was often met with resistance by white slave owners, who were afraid that literate slaves would organize protests against enslavement. In 1770 Georgia even went as far as making it unlawful for anyone to teach a slave to read or write and imposed a fine of twenty pounds for doing so.
Antislavery Advocates. Education for blacks had powerful advocates in the later eighteenth century, including such important colonial thinkers as Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Rush. Franklin believed that the social condition of African Americans was the result of their lack of education, and in his essay “Negro Literature” he stated that blacks have “unusual intellectual power.” He published antislavery pamphlets, supported schools for blacks in many of the colonies, and became a member of Thomas Bray’s Associates, a society that endeavored to provide both formal and informal education for blacks in America. Franklin also became president of the Abolition Society of Philadelphia, which started a school for blacks in 1774. Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister in Virginia, who later became the president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), tried to convert and educate African Americans. Davies received aid from Great Britain in the form of spelling books and catechisms. He continued his instruction from 1748 to 1759 until he assumed his responsibilities as college president.
Native Americans. Education of Indians in colonial America was almost always the result of efforts of religious organizations to convert them to Christianity. Before conversion could take place, the ability at least to be able to read the Bible and religious literature was necessary, so education went hand in hand with conversion. Various approaches were used. Many missionaries went to Indian societies to teach reading and writing, thereby making it possible for the children to remain with their families and at the same time giving them skills to become interpreters. Some Indians, such as those recruited by Eleazar Wheelock for his Indian Charity School, were taken away from their homes to be educated in English settings. Most of these found the separation from their culture too difficult and went back to their old ways when they rejoined their native groups. However, some became cultural brokers and were able to live and communicate in both worlds. What the colonists considered success in educating Indians depended in large measure on the degree to which the Indians were acculturated or on the extent to which their culture had already been disrupted by the encroachment of the European population. Few Indians received the benefits of higher education. From as early as 1618, when the Virginia Company of London made plans for Henrico Indian College in Virginia, to the end of the eighteenth century various parties raised money to provide higher education for the Native Americans, though the actual numbers of Indian students were always low. In the middle of the eighteenth century, from the 1750s to the beginning of the Revolution, the College of William and Mary always had about three to five Indian students. The last such effort in the colonial period was Wheelock’s establishment in 1754 of the Indian Charity School (later Dartmouth College). Wheelock’s agents raised about £12,000 in Britain, which was, to that date, the largest fund collected solely for Indian education. However, Wheelock used the money to build the college mainly for the benefit of English scholars, and by 1774 the fund, out of which only the interest was to be used, had been completely expended. The basis of all these efforts was the pious commitment to convert Indians. However, even though large sums of money were raised to support Indian education, little of it was actually used for that purpose. Throughout the colonial period funds gathered abroad for Indian higher education were deceptively funneled to other areas of the colleges, which were always struggling to stay afloat.
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