<Standard 5.12.................................................................................................................................Standard 5.14>

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
A New England Dame school, 1713

Topics on the Page

Teaching Resources
Primary Education
Dame Schools
Higher Education
Native American and African American Education
  • Harvard Indian College
    • Wowaus or James Printer

Focus Question: What was the history of education in colonial America?

See AMERICAN EDUCATION article by Oregon State University for further information.

See also the Chesapeake page on early colonial education for boys and girls for comprehensive overviews and further links.

Female_Rose.pngFor information on women and education in colonial Virginia, click here.

For more, link to Massachusetts Education Laws of 1642 and 1647.

rotating gif.gifSee also United States history I.30 for more on the development of education in the new nation.

Primary Education

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 here. 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.

primary_sources.PNGGiven 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 here.

primary_sources.PNGRead "The Education of Children" by influential colonial thinker Cotton Mather here.

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.
  • primary_sources.PNGFor more, see A Salem Dame-School, an article published in 1885 in the Atlantic Monthly

Higher Education Institutions

Harvard College 1636

external image Harvard_1740_by_William_Burgis.jpg
  • 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,)
Multimedia.pngSee a History in Photographs of Harvard University designed for its 375th anniversary.

the College of William and Mary 1693
College of William and Mary
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

Rotating_globe-small.gifEducation 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 were 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.

Harvard Indian College

The Harvard Indian College, Peabody Museum at Harvard University
  • The founding Harvard Charter of 1650 manifests this promise and dedicates the institution to "the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge: and godliness."
    • Only five native students attended the Indian College at HarvardThe Indian College was disbanded and demolished in the 1690s

Quill_and_ink.pngWowaus or James Printer

1.Wright, Louis B. (2002). The Cultural Life of the American Colonies. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-486-42223-7.