The Development of Early Forms of Educational Institutions in the US

            The Development of Early Forms of Educational Institutions in the US

            The Development of Early Forms of Educational Institutions in the US

Education is an integral part of American society. Initially, education was focused on providing religious teachings. Also, children were taught privately in their homes. As such, education began before the public school system, which was established as a response to an increase in immigrants who had different cultures and religions. The main aim of the system was to create social order and mainstream the large number of immigrant children into a typical school setting. However, the establishment of public schooling bred mistrust among parents who were used to privately educating their children. Nonetheless, the system developed with time, with parents accepting to let their children attend school. Its advent led to the emergence of educational institutions.

The Development of Early Forms of Educational Institutions in the US

With no established schooling system, the earliest educational institutions in the US were religious institutions where children were taught about religion. For those who were taught privately, their homes acted as educational institutions. The first educational institution was known as the Latin Grammar School, which was started in 1635 in Boston (Thattai, 2001). In the early 1600s, Puritan families were worried that someday their learned and trained leaders would be no longer available. They, therefore, needed an education system that would enable them to perpetuate knowledge and skills. The Latin Grammar schools were a preserve of male children from high social class families (Thattai, 2001). The curriculum comprised of Greek and Latin and their works of literature and religious studies. Girls were not permitted in these institutions since all the world leaders, and influential individuals were all men. The requirement for entry in the schools was mastery of one’s language, which provided the foundation needed to learn basic Latin and Greek. The schools taught arithmetic, reading, and writing.

Free schools were also established in 1635 in Virginia. However, this was not the first attempt at establishing an education system in Virginia. The London Company made the first one in 1619-1620, which was aimed at developing a school to educate Indian children about Christianity (Goldin, 1999). The second attempt was in the establishment of the East India School, which was aimed to teach white children in Virginia. Apart from the free schools, there were also pay schools, mostly funded by the community; they were mainly known as field school since they were built in a field (Goldin, 1999). The teachers were chosen by the community, with most of them coming from the clergy in the community. The pay schools did not operate during winter.

The first higher learning institution, Harvard College, was developed in 1636 in Massachusetts. It is the oldest higher education institution in the US, named after its first benefactor, John Harvard, who left half of his estate and library to the institution upon his death in 1938 (Thattai, 2001). In its formative years, courses at Harvard were studied for three years. Daily classes were restricted to a maximum of two studies. Morning hours were devoted to the theoretical aspect of a course while in the afternoon, students were taken through practicals. Mondays and Tuesdays were devoted to philosophy, with the first-year students being taught logic and physics, the second-years politics and ethics, and the third-years astronomy and geometry. In the afternoon for these two days, philosophical disputations were taught for each of the three mentioned fields. Wednesday was devoted to Greek for all classes (The Harvard Crimson, 1888).  Year one students learned etymology and syntax during morning hours and engaged in grammar practice in the afternoon. Second-years studied dialects and prosody in the morning and practiced poesy in the afternoon. Greek composition, verse, and prose were taught to third years. Eastern tongues were taught on Thursdays, with the main focus being on Chalde, Syriac and Hebrew, which were taught during morning hours. In the afternoon, students practiced bible texts (The Harvard Crimson, 1888). On Fridays, students learned about rhetoric and English composition while in Saturdays, they handled divinity catechetical, common places, history, and nature.

Latin missed in the curriculum because knowledge of the language was a requirement before one was admitted at Harvard. Students were also required to speak Latin within the institutional premises.  One was required to have knowledge of the work of at least one prominent classical Latin author, speak and write Latin, and successfully identify and develop Greek nouns and verbs (The Harvard Crimson, 1888). In general, Greek and Latin were among the main languages of communication, and one was required to have mastered them before getting a chance to be admitted at Harvard. Admission at the college was, therefore, an indication that one had knowledge of the languages and there was no need of being taught them again.

In 1642, the Massachusetts General Court enacted the first education law, which required parents and guardians to ensure that children under their care could read and understand religion principles and Commonwealth laws (A Brief history of education in America). The law increased homeschooling, with parents being the primary teachers. It also set the stage for the development of public schooling system in the 1800s. In 1749, Benjamin Franklin founded a private secondary school, which offered a practical curriculum comprising of various subjects and useful skills (A Brief history of education in America). Franklin, himself, had limited formal schooling. Since he did not attend school, since his childhood, he was compelled to work out his system of education. The lack of a chance to get formal education made him appreciate education, and thus, he contributed towards its development. The education system at Franklin’s secondary school was based on the idea of the practical and self-activity, which involved educating people to help themselves. The concept was based on his own experience of teaching himself. Having failed arithmetic at school, he taught himself the subject since he needed it to study navigation and geometry. Knowing that good was important, he taught himself how to write. The practical aspect of his education system involved having education as part of one’s life. For him, education was value in itself, and people were supposed to acquire it for its own sake. 

In 1821, the first government-owned public high school was opened in Boston. It was soon followed by the enactment of a law in Massachusetts, which required every town to select a school committee that initiated the policy of organizing public schools under a single authority. Connecticut followed shortly with similar legislation (A Brief history of education in America). The enactment of these laws set off the development of government-operated public schools, and this resulted in the increased development of educational institutions in the US. In addition, the laws provided an opportunity for increased school attendance.

Before independence, the educational institutions were based on the European education system, which was elitist. Education was reserved for individuals with exceptional abilities, innate differences, and from prominent family backgrounds. However, after independence, the US education system shifted to egalitarian, which is a belief that all people are equal and should be provided with the same opportunity (Goldin, 1999). Americans developed different education systems for different children and embraced the idea that everyone should have a common and unified academic education. However, the system had its own shortcomings. For example, the system had no provision for educating the slaves, particularly after the southern states enacted laws affirming this position. Additionally, in the North, where there was no slavery, blacks were put in segregated schools.

As the country grew, a new model of the educational institution known as the township model emerged. Departments in governments were established to oversee the development of education. Some schools were the jurisdiction of the district, the state, or the national government, and this contributed to increased diversification of the educational institutions. The junior high school was introduced in 1909 in Columbus and Berkeley, but spread quickly to other districts (Goldin, 1999). The junior high school aimed to keep pupils in the school who would leave at age 14 after elementary school. Since then, little has changed in the US education system, although educational institutions have changed significantly in terms of infrastructure to improve learning. 

The early development of educational institutions influenced the current institutions and the education system as a whole. For example, the segregation in the early educational institutions where schools for blacks were poorly developed continues to this day as schools in predominantly black communities continue to be neglected (Tate IV, 1997). The philosophies that guided the development of curriculum continue to be applied to today even though there have been significant changes in the content taught. For example, currently, there is a limited emphasis on religion in schools. Instead, there has been an increased focus on science and other subjects such as law. Technology has also been incorporated into learning institutions to aid in the learning process (Goldin, 1999). Lastly, there has been a change in the learning and teaching practices in most institutions. For instance, currently, there is more focus on student-centred learning while initially, the teacher was the center of attention. Nonetheless, the early schools provided the basis for the development of modern institutions.

Initially, education in the US was carried out at home or in churches, with the curriculum being focused on religious teachings. However, from 1635, educational institutions began emerging in the US, with most of them being as a result of individual and community efforts. Initially, schools were a preserve of a few individuals from prominent families. It was also preserved for boys only. However, after independence, education became egalitarian, with all people allowed to access it. However, there were still differences in the way it was designed for different groups of people. For instance, blacks were relegated to segregated schools that were poorly developed.


A Brief history of education in America. Retrieved from https://cblpi.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/EdHistory_0.pdf

Goldin, C. (1999). A brief history of education in the United States. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from https://www.nber.org/papers/h0119.pdf

Tate IV, W. F. (1997). Chapter 4: Critical race theory and education: History, theory, and implications. Review of research in education, 22(1), 195-247. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/William_Tate/publication/250185306_Chapter_4_Critical_Race_Theory_and_Education_History_Theory_and_Implications/links/569808a408ae34f3cf1f3554.pdf

Thattai, D. (2001). A history of public education in the United States. Journal of Literacy and Education in Developing Societies, 1(2), 2001-11. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Deeptha_Thattai/publication/321179948_A_History_of_Public_Education_in_the_United_States_Editorial_Summary/links/5a1393820f7e9b1e57309035/A-History-of-Public-Education-in-the-United-States-Editorial-Summary.pdf

The Harvard Crimson (1888). The curriculum of study at Harvard in early years. Retrieved from https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1888/1/3/the-curriculum-of-study-at-harvard/


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