Education in the Revolutionary Era
|I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power. -Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis, 1820.|
As the American colonies continued to grow and prosper, the European traditions that had previously guided the development of schools and education began to lose some of their influence. Though religion was still an important part of the curriculum, the need to build and maintain commerce, agriculture and shipping interests required a different focus. As generations were born and grew up in the American colonies, people began to see themselves as apart from their European roots and started to develop their own identity. The American Revolution was the culmination of this movement away from the European traditions and resulted in independence for the thirteen colonies from Great Britain. As the United States of America, the former colonists wanted to establish their independence in both thought and deed and saw education as a means to this end. Education was also seen as the tool that would both establish and promote the growth of concepts such as freedom, liberty, and democracy to insure that citizens would learn how to be responsible citizens and secure the United States as a nation for generations to come.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a Renaissance man who had a profound influence in many different areas. He was a journalist and writer, establishing one of the first newspapers in the American colonies, a statesman and an ambassador to France, as well as one of the leaders in the American Revolution, an inventor, and an educator who founded the Philadelphia Academy, a secondary school that opened in 1751. This school followed Franklin's instructional curriculum that emphasized the more practical subjects such as modern languages, agriculture, accounting, etc. rather than the more traditional classical education such as employed by the Latin grammar schools.
Females for the most part received little or no formal education during the 17th and 18th centuries. Most were educated at home, although occasionally they attended dame schools. Sometimes a governess would be provided if the family was wealthy enough and girls were taught sewing, drawing, music, and languages such as French. Sarah Pierce established the Litchfield Female Academy in 1792 beginning with just two students and which eventually grew to 140 students. Almost 3000 girls were educated in this school. However, most females were not educated outside the home and formal education in secondary schools and colleges was reserved for males.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third president of the United States, believed in the education of the common man as the most effective means of preserving the democratic ideal. He consistently advocated for free public education, even as early as 1779 when he tried to persuade the Virginia legislature to fund elementary and secondary schools. Though he was not successful in this particular endeavor, Jefferson still was able to exert an influence on the development of formal education in the United States. He went on to establish the University of Virginia and oversaw the adoption and implementation of many of his ideas regarding education.
A standard curriculum was difficult to achieve in a country as large and sparsely populated as the new United States of America. One of the means of promoting a curriculum that advocated the ideals of democracy and independence from England was the development of textbooks. Noah Webster (1758-1853) introduced his first text in 1783, a speller with an emphasis on developing patriotic and moral values as well as teaching children correct grammar and spelling. Webster's "blue books" as they were commonly known eventually sold over twenty-four million copies, a staggering number given the population of the United States at this time.
Education for African and Native Americans
As mentioned earlier, the Native American population had little or no influence on the development of educational practice in the United States and very little effort was extended to formally educate them during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Various churches and other religious organizations sent missionaries to try to convert this population to Christianity, but the primary focus was religious indoctrination as opposed to learning basic skills and subject matter. At any rate, most Native Americans had little access to formal education at this time for various reasons ranging from availability to not seeing the need for this type of knowledge.
Although there were almost half a million African-Americans in the United States around the time of the Revolutionary War, most were slaves. Education for this group was considered the responsibility of the owner and most African-Americans had little or no opportunity to learn skills beyond what they needed to serve their masters. The Quakers, who believed that slavery was wrong, were one of the first groups to establish schools for both African and Native Americans. However, many southern states passed laws forbidding people to teach slaves how to read and write.Think about It: