Colonial Education: The Perpetuation of Heritage and the Practice of Living

Jefferson William and Mary MemeColonial Education: The Perpetuation of Heritage and the Practice of Living – By Daniel W. Sheridan (Twitter: @DanielWSheridan)

Colonial Americans were passionate about learning and perpetuating their heritage. To ensure this, the people of Massachusetts Bay, though poor, saw to it that their children received a proper education. The Boston Latin School was started in 1635. The age of grammar school children was about the same as it is now, but that’s where similarities end.

Grammar School was preparation for College, so when colonial children entered the institution they had already learned how to read and write at home under the tutelage of their parents. These new students began to learn Latin while the older students were studying Greek.

In 1636, the General Court voted a large sum of money to found a college at Cambridge so that “the light of learning might not go out, nor the study of God’s Word perish.” Two years later, the Reverend John Harvard died leaving to the college money and his library. Thereafter the institution bore his name, Harvard College. Harvard curriculum included logic, rhetoric, ethics, Greek, Hebrew, and metaphysics. Harvard focused on Biblical studies and the perpetuation of the Classics.

In 1647, a New England General Court decreed that every township of fifty families or more must raise taxes to maintain public schools dedicated to teaching, reading, and writing; every township having one-hundred families had to establish a school teaching grammar. The lessons were mainly confined to the catechism and the spelling-book with a young minister usually conducting the classes.

Colonists put forth great efforts to educate Indians as well. John Eliot, a learned and enthusiastic missionary, devoted his whole life to instructing Indians in the Christian religion. “Amid many dangers and hardships this noble man and his assistants made numerous converts among the Indians of Massachusetts and neighboring regions.”

In those early days this education movement was confined to the north. Governor Berkeley of Virginia, hearing about these “sinister” northern educational movements, said “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing in Virginia, and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years.” Berkeley didn’t believe in popular government or in the education of common people believing that too much education breeds rebellious spirits. Education is detrimental to tyranny, and Berkeley knew ignorance would keep the masses in check!

But Berkeley’s days of suppressing education were numbered. On February 8, 1693, the College of William and Mary was founded at Williamsburg in Virginia. “This, the second college in the United States, became a famous school ; within its walls were trained some of the Revolutionary leaders who, many years later, were to free the colonies from the growing burden of English rule.”

Other colleges were also established; Yale in 1701, College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton, in 1746, Franklin’s Academy, which later became University of Pennsylvania, in 1751, King’s College, later Columbia, in 1754, Rhode Island College, later Brown, in 1764, Queen’s College, later Rutgers, in 1766, and Dartmouth, in 1769.

Education trained a generation of Americans for the momentous task of self-government. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

Something must be made abundantly clear as we conclude. The colonists did not view education the way we do today. They never confused schooling with education. Their goal was extremely practical; to instruct their children so as to perpetuate classical and Biblical Learning in order to make them better family men and productive citizens. Education was a family and local matter, close to the home and close to the heart.



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