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Identify the founders and the reasons for the establishment of educational institutions in the colonies (grammar schools and colleges such as Harvard the College of William and Mary).
A New England Dame school, 1713
Focus Question: What was the history of education in colonial America?
Topics on the Page
Native American Education
article by Oregon State University for further information.
See also the
page on early colonial education for boys and girls for comprehensive overviews and further links.
For information on women and education in colonial Virginia, click
For more, see
Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642 and 1647
United States history I.30
for more on the development of education in the new nation.
For upper class children during colonial days, education was primarily in the subjects of reading, writing, math and a strong emphasis on Bible study, which was often the only textbook they had, other than a primer and a hornbook, which can be thought of as the colonial equivalent of a modern compilation of study guides or other memorization tools. For more on hornbooks click
. Often education standards differed as boys and girls grew up, with a far more domestic emphasis in the lessons imparted to the younger upper class girls, often led by an English governess.
As for children from families with less property or money, the emphasis was often far more practical and fewer abstract or higher intellectual inroads. They often learned an apprenticeship under a blacksmith or other tradesman that would allow for their contribution to colonial society.
Given the Puritanical foundations of many of these societies, the issue of Satan's influence was always a primary factor in the formation of educational doctrine.
Old Deluder's Satan Law
, passed in Massachusetts in 1647, in particular illustrates this point. This was also historical as one of the first educational acts. The prevailing thought was that with proper instruction in the core subjects plus a strong emphasis on theological instruction, young schoolchildren would be able to resist Satanic influence and follow a pious life path. Original text and a brief explanation can be found
Read "The Education of Children" by influential colonial thinker Cotton Mather
The Dame Schools
One the most common forms of schooling in the American colonies
Parents would leave their children with a "dame," or a neighborhood lady, who would teach them the alphabet, basic reading and mathematics, and prayer as she went about her daily household schedule.
The dame would charge a modest fee for the students to attend.
Attendance at the schools was both seasonal and inconsistent, as young boys spent much of their time working at home.
Female students concentrated mostly on learning household tasks such as sewing and knitting.
For more, see
A Salem Dame-School,
an article published in 1885 in the Atlantic Monthly
Higher Education Institutions
Harvard College 1636
The oldest institution of higher education in the United States, Harvard was established by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Named after John Harvard of Charlestown, who left his library and half of his estate to the institution upon his death.
During colonial times, Harvard trained many Puritan ministers.
It was based on the English university model but was consistent with Puritan philosophies.
designed "to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches."(Wright, Louis B,)
History in Photographs
of Harvard University designed for its 375th anniversary.
the College of William and Mary 1693
College of William and Mary
The second oldest college in America was established when King William III and Queen Mary II of England signed the charter for a “perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences” to be founded in the Virginia Colony.
The College has been called “the Alma Mater of a Nation” because of its close ties to America’s founding fathers. A 17-year-old George Washington received his surveyor's license through the College and would return as its first American chancellor. Thomas Jefferson received his undergraduate education here, as did presidents John Tyler and James Monroe.
William & Mary is famous for its firsts: the first U.S. institution with a Royal Charter, the first Greek-letter society (Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776), the first student honor code and the first law school in Americ
Education for Native Americans and African Americans
Native American population had little or no influence on the development of educational practice in the United States and very little effort was extended to formally educate them during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Various churches and other religious organizations sent missionaries to try to convert this population to Christianity, but the primary focus was religious indoctrination as opposed to learning basic skills and subject matter.
Most of the African American population in the United States during the time of the Revolutionary War was slaves. Although any formal education would have been the responsibility of their owners, most African-Americans had little or no opportunity to learn skills beyond what they needed to serve their masters. The Quakers, who believed that slavery was wrong, were one of the first groups to establish schools for both African and Native Americans. However, many southern states passed laws forbidding people to teach slaves how to read and write.
1.Wright, Louis B. (2002).
The Cultural Life of the American Colonies
. p. 116.
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