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[AU: The area editor made the following suggestion: please open the essay by drawing attention to what seems to be one of strong themes of the essay: that the early history of American education has been shaped by the desire to “create” good Protestants (who come to “know” their god in an unmediated fashion through the study of the bible) and to “create” good citizens (who need a broader balance of skills and knowledge areas). This leaps off the page later, but it does seem to be very important here. In sum, just a little bit more “signposting” up front, so that the reader can sense the broad sweep of the essay right away.]

The United States

The history of education in what is today the United States of America reaches back to the early 1600s. In examining its goals, methods, and outcomes, and how social, political, and religious trends have affected it, the following topics will be considered: educational philosophies, the rise of public schooling, religious schools, elite universities, land grant colleges, historically black colleges, and the charter and homeschooling movements.

Educational Philosophies.

Educational philosophies are especially influenced by social, political, and religious views. The first peoples of the North American continent were organized along tribal lines. They had no schools; instead, . Boys boys and girls were educated for their roles in tribal life by role models on a one-to-one basis.

European settlers came to the continent in the 1600s and settled in different parts of what is now the United States. For example, the French settled in Louisiana, the Spanish in the Southwest, and the British in New England. It was the British whose philosophy of education eventually became the dominant one, in the sense that it came to have the greatest impact on how the subsequent structure and methods of education developed.

Perhaps the most notable group of the early British settlers were was the Puritans. They landed in the early 1600s and settled mainly in Massachusetts and Connecticut. They had been exiled from England for their religious views and went first to France and then to New England in order to practice their religion without persecution. They founded the first “public” schools in order to teach children reading so that they could read the Bible and learn moral lessons. These schools were public in the sense that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts gave money for the schools, in addition to the tuition that parents and apprentice masters contributed. The goals of these schools were to educate children who could, as the Massachusetts Bay Colony Law of 1642 [AU: Is this also called the Massachusetts Bay Colony School or Education Law? Please provide the clearest and most commonly used name for this law, so that our readers will be able to find it in other reference works. Thank you.] said, read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of the country. The Puritans had a great belief in fines and punishments as a cure for wrongdoing and began the tradition of corporal punishment in the schools. They also believed in memorizing verses from the Bible and from The New England Primer (1690).

Their idealistic view of education held sway until the early twentieth century. [AU: Area editor comments: Too sweeping given the subheads below? Clarify?] It was gradually replaced by the pragmatic views of John Dewey (1859–1952). Dewey’s masterwork was Democracy and Education: An, an Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916), in which . In it he promoted the view that the student learns by doing rather than by memorizing. He also believed in the social nature of the student, which he thought should be the focus of education.

The Rise of Public Schooling.

Education was originally a parental activity. However, as the Massachusetts “Old Deluder Satan” law of 1647 indicated, that parents were not doing their duty in this regard and so there was a need for schools to provide religious and civic education. The law of 1647This law mandated that elementary schoolmasters were to be hired in towns of with fifty or more families to teach children to read and write. Grammar schoolmasters were to be hired in towns of with one hundred or more families to prepare students to attend Harvard College.

Elementary schoolmasters were not highly qualified. It was thought that a man was able to teach whatever level of school he had completed. Teachers were poorly paid. Sometimes their pay included room and board, with their stay being rotated among the families of their students.

An exception to the new emphasis on schooling was found in the southern colonies. There tutoring was favored in place of schools, largely because of the dispersed nature of the population. Southern planters also considered education to be more of a private matter rather than a concern of the state. Slaves were present in large numbers in the south but, by law, they were forbidden to be educated. Any master who presumed to educate his slaves faced severe penalties.

With the coming of independence for the American colonies, there was a need to enculturate children along more American lines. Noah Webster (1758–1843) authored A Grammatical Institute of the English Language: Part I (1783), which . It was basically a spelling book and later became known as The American Spelling Book or, more simply, Webster’s Blue-Backed Speller. Webster’s aim was to foster “literary improvements” and, with the dictionaries he published laterhis later-published dictionaries, to standardize an American dialect of the English language.

Other Several founding fathers were involved in education. Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), noted as a statesman, inventor, and publisher, was concerned that education should become more practical in its orientation, that is, . That is, that it be given more useful and commercial goals. To this end he proposed the founding of the Philadelphia Academy, which would not be a grammar school but rather a boarding school where students would learn agriculture and mechanics in addition to such subjects as history and morality. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was also deeply involved in education. While a member of the Virginia legislature in 1779 [AU: Please confirm this date. CE found 1776 and 1778.], he proposed “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” which essentially outlined a plan of public education for Virginia with three years of tax-paid education to be provided for every child. It also involved a scholarship plan, of about which he commented in his Notes on the State of Virginia (published 1787 in the United States): “By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubish annually and be instructed at the public expense so far as the grammar schools go.” He was known as the “Father of the University of Virginia” for his work in designing the campus, as well as the curriculum, of that institution.

The one person who, by most accounts, made the greatest individual contribution to public education in the United States was Horace Mann (1796–1859). He served in the Massachusetts legislature and eventually became president of the Massachusetts Senate. He resigned this position in 1837 to become secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. In that position, which was somewhat comparable to a state superintendent of education, he spent twelve years (1837–1848) devoting himself to the reform of public education with an almost missionary zeal.

Mann feared political, class, and religious discord. He felt that if all children could be educated in a common school they would learn to be good citizens of the republic and would come to understand their responsibilities toward each other: those of the rich toward the poor and those of the poor toward the rich. The common school would become the “balance wheel of the social machinery.” [AU: Please provide the source for this quotation.]

The curriculum that Mann proposed for the common school consisted of arithmetic, English grammar, geography, reading, writing, spelling, human physiology, and vocal music. He did not believe that any one particular religion should be taught in the common school but believed that a kind of general Protestantism with emphasis on the moral teachings of the Bible and generic Christian prayers was appropriate. He never quite understood why certain religious groups, notably Roman Catholics, had problems with his religious synthesis.

In 1852, four years after Mann left office, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law compelling children to attend school. It required them to attend school three months a year, but only half of that time had to be continuous. All states had compulsory attendance laws by 1918, . [AU: Please confirm. CE was unable to do so.] The the southern states were being the last to adopt them. These laws were not effectively enforced until well into the twentieth century because of the lack of truant officers to enforce attendance and the lack of a school census which that would indicate how many children should be attending and the lack of truant officers to enforce attendance.

The last major accomplishment in the rise of public education was the development of the public high school, which . It gradually replaced the Latin grammar school and the academy as the dominant form of secondary education. In 1875 the high school was still fairly new and relatively few people went on from elementary school to attend it. Those who did so were usually the children of rich parents who could afford the tuition. When the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan, suggested supporting its high school with tax funds, many citizens objected on the grounds that a high school was an elite institution which that provided a specialized education for which the general public should not be taxed. The “Kalamazoo case” went to the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled that taxes could be used to support a high school. [AU: Please provide a year for this case; CE was unable to find one in a reliable source.] The elementary school Elementary schools began to be called the “grade” schools school toward the end of the nineteenth century when the original one-room school wasschools were divided into multiple rooms on the basis of students’ ages. This division resulted in the need for multiple teachers, the most senior of whom was designated the “principal” teacher. Eventually the noun “teacher” was dropped and the “principal” teacher” became concerned primarily with administration.

Religious Schools.

Most European nations at the time of the American Revolution had a tradition of religiously sponsored elementary schools and the . The United States followed suit was not an exception to this practice for most of the first century of its history. This practice did not become contentious until the mid-nineteenth century. At that time a large-scale immigration brought large numbers of Catholics to the U.S.United States, first from northern and western Europe and later from southern and eastern Europe. Many of these immigrants were from the lower socio-economic classes. The established Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the U.S.United States feared this influx and saw the immigrants’ Catholic allegiance as a threat to democracy. The political cartoons of Thomas Nast in the second half of the nineteenth century give ample evidence of this attitude.

Other groups, such as the Missouri -Synod of the Lutheran ChurchLutherans,, established a system of parochial schools in the U.S.America. The Roman Catholic system has been historically the largest.

Elite Universities.

Harvard College was historically the first college in what is now the United States. It was founded in 1636 as a Puritan seminary so that the Puritans would not have to send their future ministers back to England and have them exposed to what they perceived to be the heretical views (from their standpoint) which that were rampant in Oxford and Cambridge. The original curriculum at Harvard included philosophy, natural science, ancient history, Hebrew, and Greek (the latter two being the languages of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible).

The second college to be established in what is now the United States was Yale College. It was founded in 1701 in reaction to what the Puritans thought was too much liberalism at Harvard. Colleges throughout the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries were sponsored by religious denominations, had clergymen as their presidents, and required their students to attend daily chapel exercises.

The first state-sponsored university was the University of Georgia, chartered in 1785 and opened in 1800 [AU: The Web site for the university states that it was “actually established” in 1801, when land was selected for the school. May we cite this slightly later date instead?].

In 1815 the New Hampshire legislature attempted to turn Dartmouth College (which had been established by a charter from King George III of England [r. 1760–1820] in 1769) into a state college. The members of the legislature believed that it was proper to do this because, even though Dartmouth was a private institution, the legislature had been supporting it with public funds for many years. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled, in Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) in 1819, that, as a private institution, Dartmouth could not be taken over by the state. Its reasoning was that what makes a school public or private is not where its funding comes from but rather who has title to it [AU: Please clarify this: Who actually owns it? Who is allowed to attend?].

In the late 1820s 1828 there was growing concern that the traditional college curriculum, which taught the classics through Latin and Greek and required students to listen to lectures and recite from memory, was not practical enough. The In 1828 the faculty of Yale College deliberated this question and issued a report that said that the old ways were still the best ways and that collegiate educational practice should not change. The classical approach, with its aim of forming a “gentleman,” was retained. The faculty ruled that “the skills of the counting house should be learned in the counting house.” This report effectively deferred vocational education (i.e., education that could be applied to a job) for more than half a century. Also deferred was the higher education of women in the United States. It was argued well into the late 1800s that women did not have the physical strength to endure a college education.

Land Grant Colleges.

The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 gave 33,000 [AU: Oxford’s Companion to United States History states the amount as 30,000. Might that be correct?] acres of federally owned land to each state for every member that the state had in Congress. The states used this land to establish colleges whose purpose would be to teach the agricultural and mechanical mechanic arts. Hence, these institutions were known as A&M colleges. The land grant college in Illinois Illinois’ land grant college originally had the title “Illinois Industrial University” and later became the University of Illinois. The Morrill Act was important for two reasons. First, it shifted the purpose of higher education in the United States from the classical preparation of a gentleman to the more applied, vocationally oriented purpose of preparing the student for the world of work. Second, this was the first time that the federal government gave tangible support to higher education.

Historically Black Colleges.

If higher education was slow in coming for women, it was even slower for African Americans. Only one college was created as a land grant college specifically for African Americans (Alcorn State University). The second Second Morrill Act, passed in 1890, opened up greater opportunity opportunities for African Americans to attend college by specifying that states using Morrill funds must either be nondiscriminatory in admissions or create land grant colleges specifically for African American students.

A great debate was waged in the African American community after the Civil War regarding what kind of higher education was best for African Americans. On one side, Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), a former slave, advocated a practical curriculum emphasizing agriculture and the mechanical mechanic arts. On the other, W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963), the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, argued that African Americans should receive the same kind of liberal arts education that Caucasian -Americans received.

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 said,: “The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.” This decision gave the legal sanction of the highest court in the land to the theory of separate but equal education for the races. It This separation was maintained until 1954 when the Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, Kansas) case reversed Plessy., In Brown, the Court said,: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

Charter Schools.

Charter schools have their roots in the educational reform movement of the 1970s. About 3,000 of them have appeared since states began passing legislation in the 1990s to allow for their creation.

Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice. That is, they are operated by a sponsor (usually a state or local school board) and are freed of free from many of the rules and regulations that govern regular public schools. These schools are granted charters that usually run from three to five years and that specify the format and structure of the school and how students will be assessed. If the school evidences success during this period, its charter may be renewed. Thus, charter schools are granted freedom from myriad regulations in return for the production of educational results (including meeting state and federal standards of achievement).


A moment’s reflection will reveal that the term “homeschooling” is an oxymoron. Yet the fact that most people use it without such reflection is understandable, since education was historically done at home but, for a number of social, political, and religious reasons, was eventually handed over to the school. There were many complaints in the 1970s and 1980s that the school wasn’t doing its job.schools were not doing their jobs. Ivan Illich, in his book Deschooling Society (1970), said that schools serve the economic interests of the rich and do more harm to the poor than good. One reaction to these complaints was the charter school movement mentioned above. Another more radical answer was the homeschooling movement. In 1981, it is estimated that only 15,000 to 20,000 children were being taught at home. In 2003, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reported that 1.1 million children were being homeschooled. As to the reasons for homeschooling, the NCES said,: “Thirty-one percent of homeschoolers had parents who said the most important reason for homeschooling was concern about the environment of other schools. Thirty percent said the most important reason was to provide religious or moral instruction. The next reason was given about half as often; 16 percent of homeschooled students had parents who said dissatisfaction with the academic instruction available at other schools was their most important reason for homeschooling.”

Education is a state responsibility and so each state makes its own rules and regulations governing homeschooling concerning with regard to such things as curriculum, amount of required instruction, and qualifications of the parent-teachers. Because of the press of responsibilities for operating regular schools, these regulations concerning homeschooling are sometimes not well policed.


Americans have been paradoxical about their relation to education. They have held teachers in high regard, yet have paid them low wages. They have expected schools to inculcate morality in children, yet they have excluded religious bases of morality from public schools. They have sought to be inclusive, yet have not always provided equitable treatment with regard to race, religion, ethnic origin, and handicapped status.

Education in the United States is a state responsibility. All states, except Hawaii, have passed on much of that responsibility to the local level. Assuming that this status quo continues, it is likely that education in the United States will continue to be a basically democratic activity.

[See also Catholicism, subentry Overview; Protestantism; Slavery, subentry on The United States; United States, subentries on Colonial Settlement, The Early Republic, Nation Building and Westward Expansion, and The Regulatory State; and Universities, subentry Overview.]

Anonymous. The New England Primer. Boston, 1690. The classic first text for children used by the Puritans. It contained a catechism and an introduction to the alphabet employing religious examples. [AU: CE was unable to find any copies of this very early edition in the Harvard Library or Library of Congress catalogues; would you be able to cite some later, and more accessible, editions? Thank you.]
Dewey, John. Democracy and Education,: an An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Arguably, thisThis book arguably was responsible for a change in the purpose and methods of education in the United States.
Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. New York, 1970. [AU: CE was only able to find a New York: Harper & Row, 1971 edition. Might that be correct?] An influential book in educational reform by a leading social critic.
Mann, Horace. Cremin, Lawrence A. The Republic and the School: Horace Mann On theThe Education of Free Men. Edited by Lawrence A. Cremin. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1957. [AU: Changes per Harvard Library and University of California Library catalogues.] This work contains an excellent introduction to Mann’s work, together with selections from his twelve annual reports.
National Center for Educational Statistics. “1.1 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2003.” http://nces.ed.gov/nhes/homeschool/. Retrieved 8 January 2006. A brief report concerning numbers of students that were homeschooled in 2003 and parents’ most important reasons for homeschooling them.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform: A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1983. The federal report which that spurred a wave of educational reform at the elementary and secondary levels in the last decades of the twentieth century.
Rudolph, FrederickFredrick. The American College and University: A History. New York: Vintage Books, 1962. A classic history of American higher education.
Anonymous. U.S. Charter Schools. http://www.uscharterschools.org. Retrieved 7 January 2006.[AU: Please provide a brief summary of what readers can find on this Web site. Thank you.]
Webster, Noah. A Grammatical Institute of the English Language: Part I. Boston, 1783. [AU: CE was only able to find a 1783 edition published in Hartford. Might that be correct?] This book, also known as the Blue-Backed Speller, was one of the first textbooks in the newly independent United States.

Robert N. Barger [AU: This is the way your name is going to appear at the end of the article and in the Directory of Contributors. Is this correct? Please also supply your affiliation (department and institution) or “Independent scholar” (or some such). Thank you.]

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