The Inception of Public Schools (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: Part 2 is a continuation from the June issue on the history of public education). Surprisingly, as the early colonies continued to grow in population, the introduction of more religious groups caused the “clergy-driven” schools to dissipate. Since many of the early settlers sought out religious freedom in the colonies, sending their children to “church school” predominately affiliated with the Church of England, went against their principles. People refused to learn only in English and opposed the clergy imposing religious views through public education. By the middle of the eighteenth century, private schooling had become the norm. To the extent that education involved “schooling,” parents were now responsible for it. For families of means, they hired tutors or sent their young children to “Dame Schools” where they learned their ABC’s. Other forms of this secular approach to education included joining other parents in the community to support subscription schools or sending children to missionary or charity schools. Voted in-town meetings were also held to support a town school on a year-by-year basis through a combination of parental fees and town support. Of course, many communities and families could not afford these luxuries, so their children received no education and remained illiterate.

As appalled as we would be today with the acceptance of illiteracy, in the mid-18th Century the education level required of the workforce were modest. The people who had a say in such matters, mostly male property owners, were very content to leave the education of children in the hands of parents and churches. This idea that schooling depended on local and familial initiatives was a tradition firmly embedded in the colonies at the time of the American Revolution. But some of the famous leaders of that time, Noah Webster and Thomas Jefferson, were concerned about the inequities and disparities of schooling between communities. Jefferson summed up this position when he said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” Reference material: School-The Story of American Public Education. Beacon Press. 2001