The first post in this series dealt with the definition of education. This post will begin to deal with the history of education. I have chosen to deal with the history of education by looking at a number of different influences upon education.

I see seven basic influences which have brought American education to where it is today:

First, the influence of the founding of the New World. American education developed from European traditions and institutions, which were then modified by colonial groups and settlers. The basic influence in the new world which set the “mold” for education was English Protestantism.

Before the Protestant Reformation in Europe (1517 is seen as the date of the Protestant Reformation), it was normally the privileged who received formal education. Martin Luther urged the establishment of government financed schools in Germany. Other reformers established schools in other parts of Europe. The purpose of these schools was to provide academic learning and teach the principles of the Reformation. In the 1600’s, many cities in Europe had public schools and colleges and universities.

The first settlers to America were primarily Protestants. Thus, it was natural to transport the ideas of Protestant Europe to America.

There were two primary vehicles the early colonists used for education. The first, and foundational, element in education was the family. For the most part, the early colonists followed the Bible very closely in its prescriptions concerning the family. The fathers were primarily responsible for the education of their children. Their wives and other relatives helped in the educational process. The elements which were taught were: reading (usually from the Bible and/or a primer), practical skills for earning a living, a sense of duty, and moral teachings.

The second vehicle used to accomplish education in early America was formal schools. These consisted of two categories. First, was the town-sponsored school. As early as 1630 a specialized school was in place in Boston. In 1647 the “old Deluder Satan Act” was passed in Massachusetts. This act required every town of at least 50 households to hire a teacher of reading and writing and those of at least 100 households to also establish a grammar school. It was called the Old Deluder Act because the act reads in part, “It being the chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of Scriptures…” The stated purpose of this act was that all could possess “knowledge of the Scriptures.” In other words, the purpose of learning to read was so that a person could read the Bible and thus obey God’s Word. Students were taught Greek and Latin in order to be able to read copies of ancient Biblical manuscripts.

The second category of formal schools was the church-sponsored school. These schools were scattered throughout the colonies. They provided free education. This helped the poor children to become educated.

The home was used to give an education to children and prepare them for life, either through entering a vocation or first going to college. It is interesting to note just how complete an education was provided in the homes. When at least nine colleges were established in the 1700s, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, they were founded on Christianity and emphasized classical studies. There were strict  entrance requirements.

In 1750, Harvard demanded that applicants be able to extemporaneously “read, construe, and parse Tully [Cicero], Virgil, or such like classical authors and to write Latin in prose, and to be skilled in making Latin verse, or at least to know the rules of Prosodia, and to read, construe, and parse ordinary Greek as in the New Testament, Isocrates, or such like and decline the paradigms of Greek nouns and verbs.” Of note is the fact that John Trumbull, the illustrious artist, passed Harvard’s exacting entrance exam at only 12 years of age.

Alexander Hamilton’s alma mater, King’s College (now Columbia), had similarly stringent prerequisites for prospective students. Applicants were required to “give a rational account of the Greek and Latin grammars, read three orations of Cicero and three books of Virgil’s Aeneid, and translate the first 10 chapters of John from Greek into Latin.”

James Madison had it no easier when he applied for entrance to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1769. Madison and his fellow applicants were obliged to demonstrate “the ability to write Latin prose, translate Virgil, Cicero, and the Greek gospels and a commensurate knowledge of Latin and Greek grammar.” (See The Founding Fathers and the Classics)

Where formal education existed it was available for the elementary ages. After that, students either attended universities or received vocational training through hands on experience and apprenticeships. High school, as we know it, did not exist (it can be argued that adolescence as we have it today is a modern invention).

To be continued…

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