Education in America was quite different from that of Great Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The amount of transformation that occurred in the colonies during those time periods was true also for the state of education. The evolution of education transpired because of the significant people whom played a part in its commencement and development. European Enlightenment’s wave of popularity swept through the colonial schools and began a new philosophical approach to thinking while the American Independence focal point was to be free and separate from Great Britain which created a different approach for education in the newly formed states. In addition to these movements, the contribution of Thomas Jefferson’s (1743-1826) Religious Freedom Statute changed the face of schools throughout the country.
Before the days of John Locke (1632–1704), The Declaration of Independence and The Virginia Statute Establishing Religious Freedom, education in New England was small and very seldom practiced. This paper will discuss the state of education in the colonies prior to the revolutionary eighteenth century including the educational impact of three influential and historical accounts. The paper will argue how the growth of education extended from a religious and theologian aspect to a more philosophical and enlightened method based on three historical attributes; Enlightenment, Independence and Jefferson.
I-HISTOROGRAPHY OF AMERICAN EDUCATION
John Rury, professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Kansas has studied and written about the history of American education and education policy in the colonies. His work manifests the growth of education during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and depicts the change of religious education in America. His examination of this era of education assists in the development of the thesis of how religion escaped schools during the time. This new proposal of religious studies in America would correlate well with the scholarship of John Rury as it ties together a continuous understanding of early education in America. This paper offers a unique and specific understanding of religious studies in American and examines how they assisted in the evolution of education.
II- EDUCATION IN THE COLONIES
As early as the seventeenth century children in homes across New England were learning to read and write. The purpose for their instruction was to be able to read and interpret the bible. Historian Lawrence Cremin (1925-1990) “argued that the English colonies transplanted from England an educational configuration of household, church and school.” Their objective was to learn faith and morals along with the understanding that family was the most important commodity. Most New Englanders trained their children how to complete certain jobs so they could successfully run the household. Another important reason for their instruction was to assist in converting the Native Americans into Christians in an attempt to civilize them.
As it was voluntary to attend school during that time, families decided who in their family would attend. The elementary schools that were created were small and the only subjects that were taught were The Holy Bible, spellers and books of prayers.
The New England Primer was a common book that students would learn from. Filled with biblical stories and God’s plan for the future, the curriculum was the leading book used in the colonies. In addition to the biblical stories The New England Primer also included prayers and religious hymns along with the rhymed alphabet. The information in the primer centered on literacy through the use of the bible. An example from the primer outlines a lesson for young children,
“A Lesson for Children, Pray to God. Call no ill names. Love God. Use no ill words. Fear God. Tell no lies. Serve God. Hate Lies. Take not God’s Speak the Truth. Name in vain. Spend your Time well. Do not Swear. Love your School. Do not Steal. Mind your Book. Cheat not in your play. Strive to learn. Play not with bad boys. Be not a Dunce.”
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the North American Colonies were becoming a place of prosperity for immigrants from other areas of the world and most importantly, England. The people who flocked to the colonies were the Puritans, whom believed that education of the bible was essential to live a prosperous and healthy life. John Rury, author of Education and Social Change: Themes in the History of American Schooling, describes education during this time as the teaching of civility, “Families gathered in a church building that instructed them on the best ways to live.” To make sure their objective was achieved, the Puritans devised a law which made them notable. They became the first to pass education regulation in the colonies.
The Old Deluder Satan Law (1647) in Massachusetts was passed so if a community had more than fifty inhabitants they were required to have a school. The sole purpose of this was so people would not stray from the Christian faith. The first paragraph of the law stated the importance of education as protection from the devil. The law read,
“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.”
This distinctive type of learning was different than the education taught in Great Britain. The teachings in the colonies surrounded using literature from the bible to teach piety and civility. These two subjects were important to the colonists because it was a way to teach children the importance of their faith, family structure and manners for decorum.
For cities and towns that did not have school, many children were taught out of their home or within their church institution. For the wealthy, parents hired private tutors and for many, students acquired apprenticeships to aid in their learning of a skilled profession.
As the colonies expanded, education had become more popular in order to train young men to be religious leaders. Rury also found that most schools, Yale (1701), Harvard (1636) and Princeton (1746), were schools that were particular when looking at students, “Not everyone could attend these schools and young men were hand selected.” Many higher education facilities began to offer students biblical teachings along with the study of Greek and Latin. The College of William and Mary (1693) began its reign in Virginia as a school that offered Philosophy, Divinity and Languages. Directed by the Church of England, The College of William and Mary had issued statutes in 1727 that proclaimed the governing rules for its establishment. The Virginia college believed that the youth should be raised with good morals and that higher education should be preparing students, stating: “The Churches of America should be supplied with good ministers of the Doctrine of Government of the Church of England and the college should be a constant seminary for this purpose.” The College of William and Mary was not alone in this mission. Yale also had several spiritual regulations including, “Pray in the college hall every morning and evening,” and “scholars should live religious, Godly, Blameless lives according to the Rules of God.”
Colonial schools were held to a standard of religious piety and virtue. During the time of growth and prosperity in the colonies, education was seen as a way to create a concrete family with a system of morals, values and faith. This was their only objective to education.
III-ENLIGHTENMENT IMPACT ON EDUCATION
The mid-eighteenth century brought changes to education, particularly in the idea of philosophy. In the past, education was only provided so children would learn the bible. Education soon flourished to teach children manners and rules of civility. With the Enlightenment Period thriving in the colonies, education began to take another direction. The role of education began to consider other ideas about natural law and its connection to society. The reason for this shift can be placed on the European Enlightenment Thinkers, John Locke (1632–1704) and Isaac Newton (1643–1727) who believed in the human and scientific understandings of relationships. During this period, people began to see a shift in society because of the examination of scientific reason to reform society. Thinkers began to challenge ideas grounded in faith and advance their knowledge through science. When this Enlightenment Era reached America, it began a wave of new thinking that questioned life in the colonies.
One of the books that was popular at Harvard was, The Principles of Natural Law (1752) by Jean Jacques Burlamaqui (1694-1748). This book was studied by John Adams (1735-1826) and John Hancock (1737-1793) and was considered to be a major influence in the pre-revolutionary era. The book made many who attended Harvard question their role in society and their natural rights. Once these thoughts were placed into the minds of people such as Adams, Jefferson and Hancock, the colonies changed forever. The book published several laws that connected man and his relationship with nature and his creator and stated, “By natural law we understand a law, that God imposes on all men, and which they are able to discover and know by the sole light of reason, and by attentively considering their state and nature.” These natural laws created a new goal for education in the colonies designed for young students to question government and new social norms. This contemporary view led to new educational practices including, Charity Schools, which helped educate freed black slaves. The goal of these schools was to give all a proper education in order to function in society.
The Enlightenment period in America created a new place of questioning and understanding of rights as human beings. The period was fundamentally popular and many were seeing the book along with other enlightenment publications enter school facilities throughout the colonies, creating a new sense of ambition for the colonists. As the colonies grew, schools were now seeing a shift from a pure religious sentiment to a more philosophical approach designed to question laws of humans and the world around them.
IV-AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE AND EDUCATION
The result of American Independence did not only provide a separation from Great Britain but established a complete reform on education. Because the newly formed states were no longer a part of the Church of England, religion was no longer the main focus of the curriculum. Many schools were free to teach whatever form of curriculum they chose. Most schools during this time began to view education as a way to prepare its people for citizenship while others added new and more unique opportunities for learning advancement.
Beginning in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, The College of William and Mary went through many changes including the disbanding of the divinity school. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted in 1786, created another perspective of curriculum at the college adding a school of Law and Medicine. The principles of American Independence and the Statute began a wind of change for education. Schools of divinity were disappearing and being replaced with more elite subjects such as philosophy, law, medicine and mathematics.
V-JEFFERSON’S STATUTE AND EDUCATION
Jefferson’s father, Peter Jefferson (1708-1757), did not have the education his son had appreciated in his younger years, however, he was a self-taught man that pushed young Mr. Jefferson into a life of education. Jefferson explains his childhood education in his autobiography, “He placed me at an English school at 5 years of age and at Latin at 9 where I continued until his death.” Upon his father’s death at the age of fourteen, Jefferson, began his two year tutorship with Rev. James Maury (1718-1769) and then continued at the College of William and Mary. Jefferson’s education was a substantial part of his life as he recollects this in his autobiography stating, “It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life.”
E.M Halliday’s book, Understanding Thomas Jefferson, uncovers different sides to Jefferson in terms of understanding his puzzling character. Halliday uses many of Jefferson’s letters and writings to uncover the religious belief system that Thomas Jefferson possessed. He exposes a letter in which Jefferson had written to Benjamin Rush describing his oppositional thoughts on a national religion, “For I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Jefferson’s own personal revelations on religion are gathered through the many letters and writings that he produced. In a letter to Benjamin Rush on April 21, 1803 he declares himself a Christian, “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” Jefferson stated further that he believes Christianity has been corrupted, “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.” Jefferson strictly wanted to enforce the disestablishment of the Church of England in Virginia. At the time the Church of England was the established church of Virginia which was supported by the tax payer. Virginia law stated that citizens must pay taxes to the clergy and made it punishable if children were not baptized. Jefferson in 1781 had published a book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which described the state of Virginia’s history, economic situation and also was a platform for Jefferson to express his views on religious freedom. In his book he described how the Quaker immigrants came to North America to seek refuge for religious freedom, however, upon arrival they discovered that many laws were much the same as in England, “Several acts of the Virginia Assembly of 1659, 1662, and 1693 had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring in a Quaker in to the state.”
In 1779, with his resilient feelings about the subject of religion, he drafted a bill that would eventually come to pass as the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. The bill suggested that religion was a personal choice for citizens and religious views and support should not be supported by the government and forced upon to its citizens. The original bill did not pass until Jefferson convinced his colleague, James Madison (1751-1836) to assist with its amendments. Madison was able to enact the bill into law in 1786, labeling it as, The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
The Statute declared the principle of the separation of church and state and was decidedly the motivation behind the First Amendment. The document proclaimed the power of the man to choose his own religious beliefs, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness.” Jefferson also stated the will of man to deny attendance or to pay taxes on any church that he does not feel obligated, “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
The Statute was significant to Virginia and the United States and created another shift in education. The Statute was the major motivator of the first amendment which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Schools were not yet a part of the American Government structure, however, school was seen as a place to learn and grow to become good citizens. The impact of the revolution and Jefferson’s Statute made it possible for education to be free of religious practices in order for students to concentrate on becoming citizens of their new country. Shortly after America’s Independence and the passing of Jefferson’s statute a wave of education reform began to sweep through the states, beginning with the Virginia Statute and followed by The Act of 1795 in New York, which enabled another shift away from religion in public education. The Act of 1795 For the Encouragement of Schools and the Practice in Worchester County, was New York’s first general statute for education and called for, “only reading, writing and common arithmetic.” America was seeing firsthand the beginning of the elimination of religion in the educational arena.
In summation, the evolution of America’s education system began teaching religion and family as the strong central unit of the colonies. This approach of education was significant to the development of the colonies and depicted the culture of the colonists. As new Enlightenment thinkers entered the theater, the colonists began considering a different understanding of their place within the colonies. These understandings were a revolutionary impact on the state of education, as many began to become philosophers of Enlightenment thinking. Schools were becoming places of thought and reason instead of a sole practice of religion. Jefferson was a key component to education as he became in a sense the deity of thought, reason, independence and education in America. His Statute set the bar for not only the First Amendment, but for the separation of religion in schools.
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