The Surprising Diversity of Early American Approaches to Schooling

Early American schooling was anything but uniform. The United States has always been a melting pot, and its educational system has reflected that diversity from the beginning. Understanding the myriad styles of schooling that have existed over the course of U.S. history is vital to understanding the systems in place today.

To start, there are significant differences in the way schools developed in the different regions during the colonial period. Colonies were not homogenous, and differences in ideologies, beliefs, and religious orientation began to influence the way schools developed in different regions. While the Puritans primarily influenced New England, the middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) had a diverse ethnic population, with a greater educational emphasis on skills required to run commerce and conduct businesses. The middle colonies were populated by European immigrants who were from various cultural and religious backgrounds and who largely spoke different languages. As a result, it was almost futile to consider establishing large public schools that could meet the needs of the population. Each of these communities wanted their children educated according to their beliefs and needs.

Parochial schools were established by the Catholics, Methodists, Quakers, and other religious groups. These were considered to be private venture schools. They received no public support or funding. The Southern colonies (Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) were populated by wealthy settlers who established large plantations. The area and people were primarily rural, with great distances separating the agricultural divisions, making community schools an impractical solution to the education of their children. In many cases, private tutors were employed to come into the home to teach students. The plantation owners often aimed to have their children sent back to Europe for their university education, and hired tutors on the basis of their abilities to perform this duty.

Across all states, usually no formal education structures were established for either Native Americans or African Americans. Native Americans had cultures, languages, and religions that were largely different from Protestantism. They had their own unique system of practical education. But Native Americans were permitted in colonial schools if they learned English and religious studies. In 1665, a Wampanoag man became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard.

African Americans were considered “chattel,” or property of owners, at this time. Their conversion by missionaries was largely due to the religious affiliations of their owners but had no bearing on whether they were educated or not. Because the cultural ties and communication with their native countries had been severed, there were very few ways for traditional African education to take place. This was particularly prevalent in the South, where the education of African Americans was forbidden by law. These highly unjust and unethical disparities in education were maintained to prevent slaves from questioning their position and station in life. Notably, the inability of these peoples to document their history and journey makes an analysis of the history of their education difficult.

The schooling of early America set precedents that still echo in today’s systems. By understanding where U.S. education came from, you can better understand how it got to the point it’s at today, and how to help it keep moving forward.

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