How the Close of the Revolutionary War Changed the History of American Education
While many of the basics of education have remained constant over the centuries, much of American education has changed and developed as the nation has grown. One of the first major shifts in the U.S. education system happened after the close of the Revolutionary War.
A generation of colonists who knew only the American colonies as home began to develop their own identity, distinct from their European roots. The American Revolution and the independence of the 13 colonies from Great Britain was the consequence of this growing awareness. Interestingly, the newly drafted U.S. Constitution did not initially set out to document any educational goals or stipulations, which, as is evident from the numerous court cases arising from unconstitutional practices in education, was a grave oversight.
Following the Revolutionary War, however, there was an increasing realization that the nation needed a system of education that would help bind it together. Thomas Jefferson was among the leading voices wanting to see education extend its boundaries beyond the elites in the society. He was a great believer in the division of church and state and was convinced that it was the responsibility of states to educate their citizenry, so that they would be able to take part in governmental affairs.
In 1779, Jefferson proposed the More General Diffusion of Knowledge Bill in the Virginia legislature, which outlined plans for educating children throughout Virginia. The bill also proposed periodic checks of students’ progress and a proposition to publicly fund the education careers of successful students. A notable feature of the bill was that academic excellence was given importance over social standing or wealth. Jefferson also established the University of Virginia and was actively involved in getting his ideas adopted and implemented on a broader scale.
Sentiment grew that all groups in America should have access to education. Anthony Benezet, father of Atlantic Abolitionism, staunchly fought for the education of African Americans in 1773. In New York City, the African Free School was established in 1787 to educate freed slaves.
A growing sense of nationalism after the Revolutionary War also fueled a desire for a distinctly American educational experience. A significant event was the development of a common language championed by Noah Webster (1758–1843). Webster, who wrote the American Spelling Book (1783), believed a common American language was needed to bind the nation together, and to create a distinct identity, separate from that of Great Britain. The American Spelling Book turned out to be one of the most successful schoolbooks in the history of American education. Over time, it sold more than 100 million copies.
Because of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which makes education a state responsibility, the federal government’s role in education was limited during this historical period. However, two pieces of legislation, the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, had an impact on education. The Land Ordinance legislation specified that “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” The Northwest Ordinance specified that all townships in the Northwest Territories would be divided into 36 sections, of which one should be set aside for public schools.
How America had come to understand itself as a nation greatly impacted how it thought about the structure of all its systems, education included. After the Revolutionary War, the United States entered a period of self-definition, and what exactly education should look like was a part of that – and the identity the education was imbued with as a result of that definition persists somewhat to this day.