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Puritanism: The origin of public education

By Thomas E. Brewton
web posted September 25, 2006

From the beginning of colonial life in British North America, Puritans insisted that every man, woman, and child be literate enough to read the Bible and to discuss theological questions.  From this came America's first publicly funded elementary schools and our first colleges.

The Puritans who founded New England were among the most highly educated persons in England, the leaders and ministers being mostly Cambridge University graduates.  All of the original colonists, men and women, were able to read and write and were students of the Bible.

Even more important than formal training to read and write, however, was the totality of family, church, and political society in the formation of children's character, which was the original meaning of education.  Education was conceived broadly as the transference to its children of a society's culture, the absolute essentiality for the survival of society, particularly for Puritans in the savage wilds of North America in the early 17th century.

I wrote in How Far Have We Fallen?:

"Some scholars have described [John] Locke as the father of modern education in England.  His 1692 "Some Thoughts Concerning Education" provides us a base line for assessing present-day educational practices.  Harvard at that time was 56 years old.  The Pilgrims had landed at Plymouth 72 years earlier.

"Locke begins with a child's infancy and lays out an educational path through the child's coming of age.  Locke also advises that children's natural curiosity should be used to engage them in learning.  He continually admonishes against the use of punishments in education. 

"He brooks no nonsense or bullying by students, however, seeing that as a flaw in teaching morality and decorum. 

"Several things will surprise today's students.

"The first surprise is the order of emphasis Locke assigns to the objects of education.  They are virtue, wisdom, breeding (courtesy and decorum), and, last, learning specific subjects."

Locke, it must be remembered, was the author of the Second Treatise of Civil Government, the 1689 philosophical basis for England's ousting James II, because the king had arbitrarily abrogated the inalienable natural-law rights of his English subjects.  Locke's treatise was specifically and repeatedly cited in the colonies as the justification for the events of 1776.  It also provided some of Jefferson's memorable language in the Declaration of Independence.

Historian Bernard Bailyn, twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, wrote in Education in the Forming of American Society:

"The modern conception of public education, the very idea of a clean line of separation between "private" and "public," was unknown before the end of the eighteenth century."

Speaking of the colonial era, Professor Bailyn wrote, " The most important agency in the transfer of culture was not formal institutions of instruction or public instruments of communication, but the family; and the character of family life in late sixteenth – and early seventeenth-century England is critical for understanding the history of education in colonial America."

"..... [Families and their communities] were, in the first place, the primary agencies in the socialization of the child.  Not only did the family introduce him to the basic forms of civilized living, but it shaped his attitudes, formed his patterns of behavior, endowed him with manners and morals."

".... More explicit in its educational function than either family or community was the church. .... It furthered the introduction of the child to society by instructing him in the system of thought and imagery which underlay the culture's values and aims.  It provided the highest sanctions for the accepted forms of behavior, and brought the child into close relationship with the intangible loyalties, the ethos and highest principles, of the society in which he lived.  In this educational role, organized religion had a powerfully unifying influence."

Professor Bailyn notes that this English heritage was importantly modified by the harsh conditions in colonial America.  The family was critically changed by the hardships of disease, Indian raids, and the necessity for hard work in the fields from daylight to dark.  Little time was left for the ordered and leisurely educational pattern of English family life. 

Perforce, the educational function of transference of culture became more the responsibility of the communities organized around Congregational churches.

Historian John Fiske in The Beginnings of New England, or The Puritan Theocracy in its Relation to Civil and Religious Liberty, wrote:

"This intense interest in doctrinal theology was part and parcel of the whole theory of New England life; because, as I have said, it was taken for granted that each individual must hold his own opinions at his own personal risk in the world to come.  Such perpetual discussion, conducted under such a stimulus, afforded in itself no mean school of intellectual training.... According to that theory, it was absolutely essential that everyone should be taught from early childhood how to read and understand the Bible."

The famous Boston Latin School, still operating, was founded in 1635, only fifteen years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, as one of the first publicly funded schools providing free education.

In 1636 the Massachusetts General Court provided the funds to establish a college at Newtown.  To it in 1638 John Harvard bequeathed his library and half of his estate.  From the latter came the college's name and the renaming of Newtown as Cambridge in honor of John Harvard's alma mater.

Puritanism was thus quintessentially focused upon education of all its citizens, men and women.  And it was the fountainhead of public education in America. ESR

Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. His weblog is The View from 1776. Email comments to viewfrom1776@thomasbrewton.com.




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