9 9: Colonial America

This chapter introduces students to educational ideas present during colonial America along with the social and political contexts within which education (formal and informal) took place. Public education as we know it today did not exist in the colonies. Colonial America was a new and dangerous place and explorers and colonists pursued a variety of interests in various regions. This chapter provides students with an overview of these various exploits, their purposes, and the various forms of schooling that did exist during the 17th and 18th centuries.


Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Distinguish among the cultural differences in the northern, middle, and southern colonies and how these differences framed colonial leaders’ perceptions about education and schooling.
  • Understand the differences between various forms of schooling and education where they existed at this time, including dame schools, field schools, Sunday schools, parson’s schools, charity schools, and community schools in what is now referred to as New England.
  • Understand the purposes of colonization in the various regions and how these purposes informed ideas about schooling and education.
  • Articulate the motives declared by King James I for colonizing eastern America.
  • Articulate the advantages and disadvantages (or limits) of education where it did take place.
  • Understand the moral intent of the curriculum adopted in Massachusetts Colony.
  • Understand how religion, education, and governance were interconnected in New England and how this perpetuated the dominant culture in this area.
  • Articulate how the colonists justified their presence in the colonies through their religious beliefs.
  • Articulate how the colonists justified the practice of slavery through their religious beliefs.


Part 2, Chapter 9 Preface to Readings

Timeline from 1606-1763

As early as 1606, King James I set forth a colonial and educational mission that would transcend his own time and structure the purposes of settlement and education in the colonies and the America continent for centuries. Specifically, he declared in the First Charter of Virginia that his investors and colonizers were to disseminate the “Christian Religion” among the indigenous population, which he described as “Infidels and Savages,” lacking in “Civility” and who were deprived of “settled and quiet government.”

In addition to granting the King’s subjects with the “License…to make Habitation [and] Plantation,” and leading Virginia’s administration, the monarch justified his endeavor as a religious mission, described in the charter as a “noble…Work which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty.” Imbued with both civil and religious authority, the King did not question his righteous claim to redeem America’s native population while procuring and prospering from their lands. “For Us, our Heirs, and Successors,” the King granted to a group of “loving and well-disposed Subjects” mentioned by name in the Charter, “all the Lands, Woods, Soil, Grounds, Havens, Ports, Rivers, Mines, Minerals, Marshes, Waters, Fishings, Commodities, and Hereditaments [inheritable property]…from “the…first Seat of their Plantation and Habitation.”

Puritan Massachusetts

While schooling the “Infidels and Savages” was largely delayed in Virginia in order to pursue investments, it was just forty-one years later when Puritans in Massachusetts passed the Act of 1642, requiring parents and apprenticeship masters to educate their children and apprentices in the principles of Puritan religion and the laws of the commonwealth. The purpose of legislating literacy was to ensure that children could read and obey the dictates of scripture and the laws of the commonwealth. Insistence for uniformity was heightened by the exigencies and vulnerabilities Puritans faced while trying to survive in a new world. The fact that early death was common only created greater urgency to education children as soon as possible so that they could learn the Word of God and improve their chances of salvation. Likewise, the Massachusetts law also gave authorities the power to remove children from their parents if the latter failed to respect its edicts.

Because parental negligence could not be risked, Massachusetts civic/religious leaders subsequently enacted the Law of 1647, also referred to as the Old Deluder Satan Act, requiring towns of fifty or more families to hire a schoolmaster to teach children basic literacy. The Act also required towns with 100 or more families to hire a grammar schoolmaster in order to prepare children for Harvard College, which was established in 1636. The institution was named after a minister by the name of John Harvard, and it was the first of its kind on the American continent. The development of formal schooling in the commonwealth of Massachusetts was aided by the closeness within which families lived in towns, as well as the homogeneity in religious belief. Small towns and villages that included close-knit residential patterns contributed to the ease at which formal schooling could be established. Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania were to follow in Massachusetts’ footsteps, passing similar laws and ordinances between the mid- and late-seventeenth century (Cremin, pp. 124-125).

Education in the home prior to the enactment of legislation and in the school afterwards was utilitarian in that it maintained, according to Edward McClellan, “religious orthodoxy,” and it “promoted social harmony, encouraged hard work, and spread the Christian faith to the” savages. “In the eyes of the Puritans and other Christians of this era, religious and moral education were inextricably intertwined.” Puritans during this time and Protestants generally, taught children to read by using the Holy Scriptures and catechisms as educational texts. Differentiating themselves from the Catholic Church, Protestants preferred a “popular understanding of the Bible,” and they utilized its text as “the most widely used pedagogical device of the” period. By using the Bible, families and schoolmasters (who were male at this time) were able to inculcate right morality by educating the young through “God’s Law.” Puritan education “reinforced…moral lessons” by using “materials that were suffused with religious and moral imagery.” The primers that were used “contained simple verses, songs, and stories designed to teach at once the skills of literacy and the virtues of Christian living.” (McClellan, pp. 2-3). Due to the homogeneity of Puritan communities, the moral values taught in schools and in the home were mutually reinforcing. In other words, Puritan schools serve as excellent examples of static cultural transmission and schooling as a functional and regulatory institution.

Catechisms or religious jingles in New England primers included the following examples when teaching the alphabet:

A In Adam’s Fall
We sinned all.
B Heaven to find,
The Bible Mind.
C Christ crucify’d
For sinners dy’d.
D The Deluge drown’d
The Earth around.

A religious jingle was provided for each of the 26 letters in the alphabet along with images in order to reinforce Puritan morality. The importance of faith, prayer, humility, rewards of virtue, honesty, obedience, thrift, proverbs, religious stories, the fear of death, and the importance of hard work served as major moral principles featured throughout the texts. When native Indians are depicted or mentioned in the text, they are treated ethnocentrically as inferior to Anglo-Saxon culture. As “savages and infidels,” the indigenous population is presented as ignorant and in desperate need of or desiring inspiration from English cultural norms.

Another form of education occurred in “dame schools.” Where available, some parents sent their children to a neighboring housewife who taught them basic literacy skills, including reading, numbers, and writing. Families who were considered to be what we would call middle-class today would pay a modest fee to the “dame” who then provided these basic forms of learning, as well as daycare, particularly if a child’s parents were illiterate and unable to teach in the home. Teaching aids and texts included Scripture, hornbooks, catechisms, and primers. (Urban and Wagoner, 45-46).

The following texts were often used in various schools prior to the American Revolution (log-in required):

The Middle and Southern Colonies

Regional variations existed throughout the colonies, and unlike Puritan New England, colonists in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies were much more focused on economics. They were still religious, of course, but they believed religion, like schooling, to be a private matter, which resulted in these regions’ ability to differentiate their economic pursuits from their religious and moral pursuits. With populations that tended to be sparser, a diminished religious evangelism in comparison to the Puritans, and a priority placed on economic opportunities, town or village schooling failed to take root in places like Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Again, education was considered a private matter and a responsibility not of government, but of individual parents. Schooling was seen as a service that should be paid by the users of that service. Systems of schooling as we know them today did not exist at the time, and paying tuition to receive the services of a tutor was viewed as part of English custom. Therefore, since formal schooling was private and costly, cultural expectations in the Chesapeake and southern colonies also maintained the status quo. Wealthier parents often sent their children to English boarding schools (they were proud to consider themselves British subjects), or they paid for private schooling in the colonies. Parson schools also existed and were available for the most affluent families. These were operated by a highly educated minister who opened his home to young scholars and often taught secular subjects. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were beneficiaries of private and costly
“parson’s schools” (Urban and Wagoner, p. 27). Puritan anxieties were largely absent in the middle and southern colonies and families felt much more comfortable in maintaining the educational status quo, which meant accepting a stratified system of education whereby schooling was largely available to the wealthy and largely absent for the rest of the inhabitants. Education for the poor was usually limited to the rudiments of basic literacy learned in the home or occasionally at church. Apprenticeships also provided limited learning opportunities as apprentices often needed to teach various skills to their apprentices based on contractual agreements. This highly stratified form of schooling severely limited opportunities for most people in these regions, and the laissez-faire cultural rejection of public or common responsibility for schooling would last well into the nineteenth century in these regions.

While most families in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies went without the benefit of formal schooling, charity schools (often referred to as “endowed ‘free’ schools”), according to Urban and Wagoner, were occasionally established when an affluent individual made provisions in his or her will, including land, to construct and manage a school for the poor. In addition, “groups of citizens” occasionally built field schools in “rural areas where population density was sufficient and interest warranted.” Named after the “abandoned fields” they were constructed upon, these schoolhouses “were open without charge to children of a neighborhood,” and “teachers…were supported by fees paid by parents of children who attended.” These schools were also referred to by a variety of names including “rate schools, subscription schools, or fee schools –and eventually as district schools.” Teachers often boarded with a local family while serving a field school.

As Urban and Jennings have shown, “missionary societies representing various denominations,” including “dissenting sects,” sought to “fill the educational breach” as well. In all of the colonies, these “groups established ‘charity schools’ in which instruction was provided to the poor and indigent children without charge” in order “to combat atheism, infidelity, and the ‘popish superstition and idolatry’ that threatened the colonists” (p. 27). These various examples illustrate the inherent religious nature of schooling during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with few exceptions, such as the parson’s schools.

Finally, apprenticeships, which “emerged from the guild system of medieval Europe,” served as venue for education. The master apprentices or “craftsmen could protect their incomes as well as the quality of workmanship by restricting practice in a craft or trade to men who had been properly trained.” According to Urban and Wagoner, “this…arrangement made it possible for perhaps one half to one third of all immigrants to the American colonies to pay for their passage by ‘binding’ themselves out as indentured servants for a specified number of years” (p. 29).

Education in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies was heavily stratified and remained out of reach for most inhabitants. However, where it did exist, the historical record illustrates that schooling was sporadic, and often haphazardly developed, particularly beyond elite schooling, which was highly institutionalized within southern culture. New England Puritans, on the other hand, established schools as fervently as they sought to worship and maintain their evangelical religious beliefs. Fear, anxiety, and the struggle for survival lent urgency to their quest for cultural transmission, which helps us understand their desire for formal schooling.

Forms of Schooling that Existed in Colonial America

New England Middle and Southern Colonies
Home Home
Church Church
Town schools Parson’s
Grammar schools Charity
Dame schools Denominational
Colleges Endowed
free schools

Questions to Consider

  • What were the social, historical, religious, and economic contexts that influenced ideas about education and schooling in Puritan New England and the southern colonies?
  • What were the attitudes of the initial colonists toward natives?
  • Do you recognize any similarities or differences between schooling in colonial America and schooling today?
  • How did schooling perpetuate the status quo in colonial America?
  • How did cultural perceptions of schooling in the southern colonies play out during future generations in the South?


Cremin, Lawrence. A. (1972). American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783. New York: Harper Collins.

McClellan, B. Edward. (1999). Moral Education in America: Schools and the Shaping of Character from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Teachers College Press.

Urban, Wayne J. and Wagoner, Jennings L, Jr. (2009). American Education: A History. Fourth Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.


Have students read Bill Bigelow’s Discovering Columbus: Re-reading the Past, which is available on the Zinn Education Project website. Afterward, break students up into groups to discuss the reading and have them answer the following questions:

  • Why is the notion of “discovery” connected with Columbus?
  • Why do American history textbooks misrepresent or distort the story of Columbus?
  • Why is it important to understand the perspectives given by native Indians?
  • What parallels can be made to the First Charter of Virginia in 1606?
  • How does this history impact relationships today between dominant social groups and subgroups? Can you think of institutional links between then and now? Explain.
  • What do your answers to the above questions imply about schooling and learning?
  • How is maintaining “a critical distance from the written word…and one’s society” important?
  • As future teachers, how will you challenge your students when they read textbooks or other sources?

Textbooks are excellent artifacts for historians who can apply critical discourse analyses in order to identify the ways in which a dominant group presents and depicts its culture, ideologies, religion, social institutions, and members of subcultures. Critical discourse analysis is defined by Rogers, Malancharuvil-Berkes, et al (2005) in the following quote:

Discourse is defined as language use [that is inherently rooted in] social practice. That is, discourse moves back and forth between reflecting and constructing the social world. Seen in this way, language cannot be considered neutral, because it is caught up in political, social, racial, economic, religious, and cultural formations.

Divide students into groups and assign them specific sections in The New England Primer, which was used in Puritan schools during the eighteenth century. Ask them to consider the following analyses as shown in the diagram below. Depending on the text, some questions/perspectives may be more applicable than others.

Elements of Historical Reasoning Diagram

Diagram 1: Elements of Historical Thinking Diagram (Courtesy of the Foundation for Critical Thinking)

The following questions may be helpful for students to consider during their analysis, and they may wish to create questions of their own:

  1. What is the author’s / speaker’s socio-political position? With what social, political, or professional groups is the speaker identified?
  2. Does the speaker have anything to gain personally from delivering the message?
  3. What is the bias of the medium? Who stands to gain?
  4. What sources does the speaker use, and how credible are they? Does the speaker cite statistics? If so, how were the data gathered, who gathered the data, and are the data being presented fully?
  5. How does the speaker present arguments? Is the message one-sided, or does it include alternative points of view? Does the speaker fairly present alternative arguments? Does the speaker ignore obviously conflicting arguments?
  6. If the message includes alternative points of view, how are those views characterized? Does the speaker use positive words and images to describe his/her point of view and negative words and images to describe other points of view? Does the speaker ascribe positive motivations to his/her point of view and negative motivations to alternative points of view?

Once groups have had a chance to research and analyze their findings, have them create and present PowerPoints to illustrate their findings, including examples from the texts in their PowerPoint. After each group’s presentation, include a brief reflective discussion with the entire class.

A reprint and a digitized eighteenth-century primer are provided below, which is made accessible through the 19th Century Schoolbooks and The New England Primer websites:

Anon. The New-England Primer Improved, For the More easy attaining the true Reading of English. To which is added, The Assembly of Divines CATECHISM. New York, 1750.

Ford, Paul Leicester. Ed. The New England Primer (Reprint). Boston: 1789?

Other texts can be utilized depending on the user’s digitized library holdings.

External Readings & Resources

Sergeant, John. (1743). A letter from the Revd Mr. Sergeant of Stockbridge, to Dr. Colman of Boston: containing Mr. Sergeant’s proposal of a more effectual method for …Boston. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. University of Georgia. (Login Required)

Jernegan, Marcus W. (1919). Compulsory Education in the Southern Colonies. The School ReviewM/em> 27(6): 405-425.

Urban, Wayne J. and Wagoner, Jennings L., Jr. (2009). Colonization and Cultural Transplantation: 1607-1776. In American Education: A History. New York: Routledge.

The New England Primer (chapter III) In Johnson, Clifton. (1963). Old-Time Schools and School-Books. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Westminister Assembly (1643-1652). The New-England primer improved: for the more easy attaining the true reading of English: to which is added, the Assembly of Divines, and Mr. Cotton’s catechism. Sabin Americana. Gale, Cengage Learning. University of Georgia. (Login Required)

Supplemental Materials

God in America: The Puritans (Courtesy of PBS’s American Experience)

The Puritans: Apocalypticism Explained (Courtesy of PBS’s Frontline)

Puritanism and Predestination (Courtesy of the National Humanities Center)

The Puritans (Courtesy of Gettysburg College)

Colonial Education (Courtesy of Chesapeake College)

Rare Map Collection – Colonial America (Courtesy of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia)

Colonial Charters, Grants, and Related Documents (Courtesy of The Avalon Project, Yale Law School)

Cremin, Lawrence. A. (1972). American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783. New York: Harper Collins.

Greven, Philip. (1988). The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America. University of Chicago Press.

Miller, Perry. (1982). The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Miller, Perry. (1981). The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Rebecca Rogers, Elizabeth Malancharuvil-Berkes, Melissa Mosley, Diane Hui and Glynis O’Garro Joseph. Critical Discourse Analysis in Education: A Review of the Literature. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 75, No. 3 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 365-416.

Szasz, Margaret C. (2007). Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1783. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Urban, Wayne J. and Wagoner, Jennings L, Jr. (2009). American Education: A History. Fourth Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.


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