Uncovering the Roots of Secular Education
The foundations of the modern American school system can be found right in the early days of the country. Even public schooling has its roots in the settlers’ education, of which secular education already had a major part.
Basic education in the colonies was initially the responsibility of parents. Parents were considered responsible for ensuring that their children could read and write, were adequately socialized, and could lead suitable and productive lives outside the home. As time progressed and communities grew, organized schooling became more prevalent, as shown by the rise of Dame schools. Widows and housewives ran these independent units of education in their homes, providing academic instruction, for a fee, to children whose families either couldn’t teach them in their homes or chose to send them to the Dame schools for convenience. Both boys and girls were instructed, although instruction for girls typically revolved around learning household skills. Dame schools were attended by children from families with money. Children from poorer families were apprenticed to tradesmen to learn vocational skills.
Grammar schools were developed in the early 17th century and were patronized by the wealthy and academically inclined children. The first of these, the Boston Latin Grammar School, was established in 1635. The Latin grammar schools were modeled on those in Europe and were the forerunners of the high school as we know it today.
With the enactment of the first law on education in Massachusetts in 1642, periodic checks to verify the learning progress of students were also introduced. The law sought to check students on their reading, writing, and comprehension of the scriptural lessons. In fact, any deficiencies meant that the parents or the masters could be fined and that parents could even lose custody of the children. The law ensured that parents were primarily responsible for their children’s education.
The Massachusetts Act of 1642 and the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647 paved the way for compulsory education. After the 1642 law, parents could no longer choose whether or not to educate their children. Children were now required to be educated outside of the home. And because education and religion were so intricately connected, the 1647 act required every town consisting of 50 households or more to found a school and hire a teacher. Although their primary purpose was to ensure adequate focus on the religious education of children, these acts created a very stable foundation for American education and allowed an organized system of education to take shape. When education by parents in the home wasn’t conducted to the satisfaction of leaders, they enacted legal requirements for education at the community or town level.
With the more organized form of education, boys and some girls entered school around the age of six or seven and were taught the alphabet, numbers, and the scriptures. The schools of the 17th century were very different from what we would expect to see in a school today. Children were required to be passive and obedient, and to memorize without questioning. There were no lively discussions or stimulating activities, and even compassion and sensitivity to children’s needs were not considered important.
The Bible and the hornbook were the primary textbooks in these schools. The hornbook consisted of an alphabet laminated on a piece of wood using transparent sheets made out of a cow’s horn. As students progressed from the basics, they were instructed using the New England Primer, which was an illustrated textbook of religious readings. The New England Primer was originally published in 1690, and was the main instructional textbook for more than a hundred years. During the colonial period, the material in the New England Primer composed the entire formal education curriculum.
What education means has grown and expanded since those early days when the United States was still a set of colonies. However, books and teachers have still remained timeless components. To learn more about what schooling in the U.S. used to look like and just how much change has occurred, read more in our series of articles on the history of the American educational system.