Where U.S. Education Has Come From: Practices of the Early Settlers
Understanding the American school system of today requires understanding what it was built on. By looking at the history of the U.S. system of education, you get a better idea of what principles stand at its core and what characteristics have changed over time to produce the environment in which you work today.
The American education system as we know it today was influenced by educational practices that began in the early 1600s, when the New England colonies were settled by Pilgrims and Puritans. Both groups migrated from England to seek religious freedom during the Reformation in Europe. Protestant churches became more powerful and denied the authority of the Catholic Church. The Protestants themselves often differed substantially, and both the Pilgrims and the Puritans considered themselves separate from the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, as well as from the Catholic Church.
The Pilgrims were principally farmers lacking formal education, but most could read and write. Their exodus to the New World was driven in part by a desire to be completely independent of the Church of England.
The Puritans belonged to England’s middle class and were generally better educated. Their principal religious goal was not to distance themselves from the Church of England, but to bring about reforms and a more tolerant approach in the body politic. Although there was an apparent disconnect between Pilgrims and Puritans in the approach to religion, they had one objective in common— to achieve freedom to worship and practice religion according to their own beliefs. John Winthrop, a self-trained Puritan, attended Trinity College in Cambridge, where he studied law and later practiced law in London. Winthrop was frustrated economically (because his land no longer produced the income to which he had become accustomed) and frustrated religiously because of the strong anti-Puritan sentiment in England. He joined the Massachusetts Bay Company, which was granted a royal charter to develop a colony in New England in 1629. Winthrop, along with a group of Puritans, sailed to the Americas in search of a new way of life in 1630. He was later elected the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Both the Pilgrims and the Puritans eventually established their own churches and schools in the new colony to aid in the teaching and practice of the scriptures according their interpretations and beliefs. These schools formed the earliest framework for the Christian roots of the education system in America. This European connection also formed the foundation for the evolution of education in America.
Schooling and education in the New World were structured around teaching religious scriptures and practices. Schools in the newly established colonies taught children—primarily boys—proper conduct, devotional practices, and how to read the Bible. Although the general premise of the Puritan movement was the establishment of a more tolerant church, religious freedom was not widely pursued. In fact, Puritans insisted on adopting their vision and beliefs with no tolerance of other views. Their inflexibility resulted in the growth of many different school systems in the colonies, some secular (i.e., not connected to a church) and others more denominational.
Laws regulating education were first enacted in Massachusetts in 1642. The Massachusetts Law of 1642 required parents to make sure that their children knew the principles of religion and the laws of the commonwealth. The second law regulating education was passed in 1647. This law, known as the “Old Deluder Satan Act,” was passed to address what was believed to be families’ negligence to educate their children in the home. The act required towns of 50 families to hire a schoolmaster to teach reading and writing and required towns of 100 families to establish grammar schools. The law enabled leaders to ensure that children were receiving the education they deemed necessary to evade the wiles of Satan and were attaining a certain level of literacy. This law is believed to be the forerunner to the establishment of public education in America in later years. In 1650, Connecticut inducted a similar law.
New England was also at the forefront of higher education. Harvard University was founded in 1636. In addition to courses in literature, the arts, and the sciences, the institution also offered courses in theology. Harvard remained the only institution of higher learning for more than a half-century, until James Blair established William and Mary College. In smaller towns in the region, and within smaller communities, female members of the church provided education. Only larger towns had grammar schools run by qualified masters, but these were restricted to boys.
Outside New England, the diversity in religious beliefs resulted in a wide variety of schools. Most were founded on religious inspiration and did not focus as much on individual literacy or training. They were guided by ministers and motivated by the attainment of salvation and religious guidance.
In the middle and southern colonies, schooling was more of a community initiative and the result of decisions by individual parishes and communities. Large metropolitan cities like New York and Philadelphia had established schools around the close of the 17th century, with religion as the main focus. Finally, in the 18th century, with a growing awareness that communities needed literate working people, churches began to recognize the need for better schools.
Thus began the American school system. This article talks about the foundation that formed the modern system’s underpinnings, but there is still so much more to how American education got to where and what it is today. To get the full story, check out our other articles on the history of U.S. schooling.