Education in America – Part 2

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Continuing series on how American education developed

Harvard College

Higher education in America began with Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The original Harvard was quite different than what we have today – its purpose was to educate and turn out ministers for the church, to assure that the more uneducated population had spiritual leaders who could accurately handle the word of God, and knew their Greek, Latin, and the writings of the church fathers. Most students entered at the age of sixteen, but some were younger.

In 1636, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony approved funds for a “school or colledge” to be named Harvard, after John Harvard. John was a minister at First Church in Charlestown, who graduated from Cambridge in England, and held a Reformed view of theology. He died of tuberculosis, and on his deathbed requested that half his estate and all of his library be given to begin the school. John came from Stratford-on-Avon, and his relatives were familiar with the descendants of Shakespeare. In 1638, the school received a printing press, the only one in the New England colonies at the time.

The original Harvard motto was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae, meaning “Truth for Christ and the Church”. Over half of the first graduates became ministers, and the president of Harvard was always a minister well into the nineteenth century. Though the Puritans, such as Harvard President Increase Mather, attempted to have Harvard adhere to their theology, under other leaders, it soon veered away to English Baptist views. The end of Mather’s presidency in 1701 marked the start of a long struggle between orthodoxy and liberalism. Harvard’s first secular president was John Leverett, who began his term in 1708. Leverett left the curriculum largely intact and sought to keep the College independent of the overwhelming influence of any single sect.

Ursuline Academy

The Puritan emphasis on education, aimed at reading the Bible, resulted in a seventy percent literacy rate. And though education was focused on boys, girls also attended the grammar and dame schools. Outside New England, education was sparse and mostly at home. Exceptions were William and Mary College in Virginia and  Ursuline Academy in New Orleans. Ursuline, founded in 1727 is a Catholic institution, was both the oldest, continuously-operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States. It also holds many American firsts, including the first female pharmacist, the first woman to contribute a book of literary merit, first convent, first free school and first retreat center for ladies, and first classes for female African-American slaves, free women of color, and Native Americans. (History of Education Quarterly, 1992)

The grammar schools of the day taught basic arithmetic (ciphering), reading, writing, and penmanship, the Bible, and theology. Secondary schools were rare, and where they existed, they taught Latin grammar, the art of persuasive speaking or writing, and advanced arithmetic with the goal of preparing boys to enter college. Some secondary schools also taught practical subjects such as accounting, navigation, surveying, and modern languages. In most cases, the goal was to prepare children to learn a trade through apprenticeship. An apprenticeship might last as long as fifteen years following the formal education.

With all this, children were still mostly receiving education at home. Benjamin Franklin was convinced that parents and educators needed a basic textbook from which to teach, other than the Bible. He printed the New England Primer, which became the most popular tool for education, until the advent of the McGuffy readers in 1838.

McGuffy Reader, First Lesson

Next week – Horace Mann and Henry Barnard advocated for the radical new idea of free public school for all American elementary age children.

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