Colonial Education

Many of America’s colonists were religious, in this case, some variation of Christian and came to escape persecution. As a result of valuing their religion, the colonists sought a way to pass on their beliefs to their children. Education was seen as an effective evangelism method because a person who could read could read the Bible. The literacy rate (for men) in the colonies was about 70% versus about 40% for Britain and 29% in France.

Massachusetts made the reason it valued education explicit in 1642 by passing a law that states, “Select men of every town, in the several precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes…..Also that all masters of families do once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to do so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kind…….”

In a positive reading of this law, Massachusetts is saying, while it takes a village to raise a child, each family is responsible to teach their children the basics of reading and writing. They are required to either do so themselves or to find some other arrangement (school/tutor) where their child will learn. The state also required parents to catechize (educate) their children about religion (Christianity).

In order to meet the demand for education, product hawkers and education publishers cropped up. One product that developed in this time period was the hornbook. A hornbook is simply a thin piece of wood with paper on top of it. Then, the paper is covered by a thin, transparent horn (hence, hornbook). The paper would often have the alphabet (upper and lower case), common syllables, and the Lord’s Prayer included.  

In 1647, Massachusetts passed a law requiring all towns of at least 50 families establish a petty (elementary) school and that every town of 100 or more families establish a Latin (grammar) school top help prepare students for higher education (often ministry, law, or medicine).

While both boys and girls would attend the petty schools, families prioritized education for their boys. There are a myriad of reasons for this, one of the large ones would be that the boys needed to be able to manage finances and take over the farm/family business one day. The petty schools taught reading, writing, cyphering (math, I think), and religion.

Students would attend Latin schools from the ages of 10-14. After this point, if students were going to continue their education they would move on to a university. In addition to Latin, these schools also taught math, science, and the classics.