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The first American schools in the thirteen original colonies opened in the 17th century. Boston Latin School was founded in 1635 and is both the first public school and oldest existing school in the United States. The first free taxpayer-supported public school in North America, the Mather School, was opened in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1639. Cremin (1970) stresses that colonists tried at first to educate by the traditional English methods of family, church, community, and apprenticeship, with schools later becoming the key agent in "socialization." At first, the rudiments of literacy and arithmetic were taught inside the family, assuming the parents had those skills. Literacy rates were much higher in New England because much of the population had been deeply involved in the Protestant Reformation and learned to read in order to read the Scriptures. Literacy was much lower in the South, where the Anglican Church was the established church. Single working-class people formed a large part of the population in the early years, arriving as indentured servants. The planter class did not support public education but arranged for private tutors for their children, and sent some to England at appropriate ages for further education.

By the mid-19th century, the role of the schools in New England had expanded to such an extent that they took over many of the educational tasks traditionally handled by parents.

First Boston Latin School House

All the New England colonies required towns to set up schools, and many did so. In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made "proper" education compulsory; other New England colonies followed this example. Similar statutes were adopted in other colonies in the 1640s and 1650s. The schools were all male and all white, with few facilities for girls. In the 18th century, "common schools" were established; students of all ages were under the control of one teacher in one room. Although they were publicly supplied at the local (town) level, they were not free. Students' families were charged tuition or "rate bills."

The larger towns in New England opened grammar schools, the forerunner of the modern high school. The most famous was the Boston Latin School, which is still in operation as a public high school. Hopkins School in New Haven, Connecticut, was another. By the 1780s, most had been replaced by private academies. By the early 19th century New England operated a network of private high schools, now called "prep schools," typified by Phillips Andover Academy (1778), Phillips Exeter Academy (1781), and Deerfield Academy (1797). They became the major feeders for Ivy League colleges in the mid-19th century. These prep schools became coeducational in the 1970s, and remain highly prestigious in the 21st century.

The South

Residents of the Upper South, centered on the Chesapeake Bay, created some basic schools early in the colonial period. In late 17th century Maryland, the Catholic Jesuits operated some schools for Catholic students. Generally the planter class hired tutors for the education of their children or sent them to private schools. During the colonial years, some sent their sons to England or Scotland for schooling.

In March 1620, George Thorpe sailed from Bristol for Virginia. He became a deputy in charge of 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) of land to be set aside for a university and Indian school. The plans for the school for Native Americans ended when George Thorpe was killed in the Indian Massacre of 1622. In Virginia, rudimentary schooling for the poor and paupers was provided by the local parish. Most elite parents either home schooled their children using peripatetic tutors or sent them to small local private schools.

In the deep south (Georgia and South Carolina), schooling was carried out primarily by private venture teachers and a hodgepodge of publicly funded projects. In the colony of Georgia, at least ten grammar schools were in operation by 1770, many taught by ministers. The Bethesda Orphan House educated children. Dozens of private tutors and teachers advertised their service in newspapers. A study of women's signatures indicates a high degree of literacy in areas with schools. In South Carolina, scores of school projects were advertised in the South Carolina Gazette beginning in 1732. Although it is difficult to know how many ads yielded successful schools, many of the ventures advertised repeatedly over years, suggesting continuity.

After the American Revolution, Georgia and South Carolina tried to start small public universities. Wealthy families sent their sons North to college. In Georgia public county academies for white students became more common, and after 1811 South Carolina opened a few free "common schools" to teach reading, writing and arithmetic to whites.

Republican governments during the Reconstruction era established the first public school systems to be supported by general taxes. Both whites and blacks would be admitted, but legislators agreed on racially segregated schools. (The few integrated schools were located in New Orleans).

Particularly after white Democrats regained control of the state legislatures in former Confederate states, they consistently underfunded public schools for blacks which continued until 1954 when the United States Supreme Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

Generally public schooling in rural areas did not extend beyond the elementary grades for either whites or blacks. This was known as "eighth grade school" After 1900, some cities began to establish high schools, primarily for middle class whites. In the 1930s roughly one fourth of the US population still lived and worked on farms and few rural Southerners of either race went beyond the 8th grade until after 1945.

Women and girls

The earliest continually operating school for girls in the United States is the Catholic Ursuline Academy in New Orleans. It was founded in 1727 by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula. The Academy graduated the first female pharmacist. The first convent established in the United States supported the Academy. This was the first free school and first retreat center for young women. It was the first school to teach free women of color, Native Americans, and female African-American slaves. In the region, Ursuline provided the first center of social welfare in the Mississippi Valley; and it was the first boarding school for girls in Louisiana, and the first school of music in New Orleans.

Tax-supported schooling for girls began as early as 1767 in New England. It was optional and some towns proved reluctant to support this innovation. Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, was a late adopter because it had many rich families who dominated the political and social structures. They did not want to pay taxes to aid poor families. Northampton assessed taxes on all households, rather than only on those with children, and used the funds to support a grammar school to prepare boys for college. Not until after 1800 did Northampton educate girls with public money. In contrast, the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, was diverse in terms of social leadership and religion at an early point in its history. Sutton paid for its schools by means of taxes on households with children only, thereby creating an active constituency in favor of universal education for both boys and girls.

Colonial schoolhouse in Hollis, New Hampshire

Historians note that reading and writing were different skills in the colonial era. Schools taught both, but in places without schools, writing was taught mainly to boys and a few privileged girls. Men handled worldly affairs and needed to both read and write. It was believed that girls needed only to read (especially religious materials). This educational disparity between reading and writing explains why the colonial women often could read, but could not write and could not sign their names—they used an "X".

The education of elite women in Philadelphia after 1740 followed the British model developed by the gentry classes during the early 18th century. Rather than emphasizing ornamental aspects of women's roles, this new model encouraged women to engage in more substantive education, reaching into the classical arts and sciences to improve their reasoning skills. Education had the capacity to help colonial women secure their elite status by giving them traits that their 'inferiors' could not easily mimic. Fatherly (2004) examines British and American writings that influenced Philadelphia during the 1740s–1770s and the ways in which Philadelphia women gained education and demonstrated their status.

Non-English schools

By 1664, when the territory was taken over by the English, most towns in the New Netherland colony had already set up elementary schools. The schools were closely related to the Dutch Reformed Church, and emphasized reading for religious instruction and prayer. The English closed the Dutch-language public schools; in some cases these were converted into private academies. The new English government showed little interest in public schools.

German settlements from New York through Pennsylvania, Maryland and down to the Carolinas sponsored elementary schools closely tied to their churches, with each denomination or sect sponsoring its own schools. In the early colonial years, German immigrants were Protestant and the drive for education was related to teaching students to read Scripture.

Following waves of German Catholic immigration after the 1848 revolutions, and after the end of the Civil War, both Catholics and Missouri Synod Lutherans began to set up their own German-language parochial schools, especially in cities of heavy German immigration: such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee, as well as rural areas heavily settled by Germans. The Amish, a small religious sect speaking German, are opposed to schooling past the elementary level. They see it as unnecessary, as dangerous to preservation of their faith, and as beyond the purview of government.

Spain had small settlements in Florida, the Southwest, and also controlled Louisiana. There is little evidence that they schooled any girls. Parish schools were administered by Jesuits or Franciscans and were limited to male students.

Textbooks

In the 17th century, colonists imported schoolbooks from England. By 1690, Boston publishers were reprinting the English Protestant Tutor under the title of The New England Primer. The Primer was built on rote memorization. By simplifying Calvinist theology, the Primer enabled the Puritan child to define the limits of the self by relating his life to the authority of God and his parents. The Primer included additional material that made it widely popular in colonial schools until it was supplanted by Webster's work. The "blue backed speller" of Noah Webster was by far the most common textbook from the 1790s until 1836, when the McGuffey Readers appeared. Both series emphasized civic duty and morality, and sold tens of millions of copies nationwide.

Webster's Speller was the pedagogical blueprint for American textbooks; it was so arranged that it could be easily taught to students, and it progressed by age. Webster believed students learned most readily when complex problems were broken into its component parts. Each pupil could master one part before moving to the next. Ellis argues that Webster anticipated some of the insights associated in the 20th century with Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. Webster said that children pass through distinctive learning phases in which they master increasingly complex or abstract tasks. He stressed that teachers should not try to teach a three-year-old how to read—wait until they are ready at age five. He planned the Speller accordingly, starting with the alphabet, then covering the different sounds of vowels and consonants, then syllables; simple words came next, followed by more complex words, then sentences. Webster's Speller was entirely secular. It ended with two pages of important dates in American history, beginning with Columbus' "discovery" in 1492 and ending with the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, by which the United States achieved independence. There was no mention of God, the Bible, or sacred events. As Ellis explains, "Webster began to construct a secular catechism to the nation-state. Here was the first appearance of 'civics' in American schoolbooks. In this sense, Webster's speller was the secular successor to The New England Primer with its explicitly biblical injunctions." Bynack (1984) examines Webster in relation to his commitment to the idea of a unified American national culture that would prevent the decline of republican virtues and national solidarity. Webster acquired his perspective on language from such German theorists as Johann David Michaelis and Johann Gottfried Herder. He believed with them that a nation's linguistic forms and the thoughts correlated with them shaped individuals' behavior. He intended the etymological clarification and reform of American English to improve citizens' manners and thereby preserve republican purity and social stability. Webster animated his Speller and Grammar by following these principles.

Colonial colleges

Higher education was largely oriented toward training men as ministers before 1800. Doctors and lawyers were trained in local apprentice systems.

Religious denominations established most early colleges in order to train ministers. New England had a long emphasis on literacy in order that individuals could read the Bible. Harvard College was founded by the colonial legislature in 1636, and named after an early benefactor. Most of the funding came from the colony, but the college began to build an endowment from its early years. Harvard at first focused on training young men for the ministry, but many alumni went into law, medicine, government or business. The college was a leader in bringing Newtonian science to the colonies.

The College of William & Mary was founded by Virginia government in 1693, with 20,000 acres (8,100 ha) of land for an endowment, and a penny tax on every pound of tobacco, together with an annual appropriation. It was closely associated with the established Anglican Church. James Blair, the leading Anglican minister in the colony, was president for 50 years. The college won the broad support of the Virginia planter class, most of whom were Anglicans. It hired the first law professor and trained many of the lawyers, politicians, and leading planters. Students headed for the ministry were given free tuition.

The first history of Yale was written by President Thomas Clap in 1766.
Yale College was founded by Puritans in 1701, and in 1716 was relocated to New Haven, Connecticut. The conservative Puritan ministers of Connecticut had grown dissatisfied with the more liberal theology of Harvard, and wanted their own school to train orthodox ministers. However president Thomas Clap (1740–1766) strengthened the curriculum in the natural sciences and made Yale a stronghold of revivalist New Light theology.

New Side Presbyterians in 1747 set up the College of New Jersey, in the town of Princeton; much later it was renamed as Princeton University. Baptists established Rhode Island College in 1764, and in 1804 it was renamed Brown University in honor of a benefactor. Brown was especially liberal in welcoming young men from other denominations.

In New York City, the Anglicans set up Kings College in 1746, with its president Samuel Johnson the only teacher. It closed during the American Revolution, and reopened in 1784 as an independent institution under the name of Columbia College; it is now Columbia University.

The Academy of Philadelphia was created in 1749 by Benjamin Franklin and other civic minded leaders in Philadelphia. Unlike colleges in other cities, it was not oriented toward the training of ministers. It founded the first medical school in America in 1765, therefore becoming America's first university. The Pennsylvania state legislature conferred a new corporate charter upon the College of Philadelphia and renamed it the University of Pennsylvania in 1791.

The Dutch Reform Church in 1766 set up Queens College in New Jersey, which later became known as Rutgers University and gained state support. Dartmouth College, chartered in 1769 as a school for Native Americans, relocated to its present site in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1770.

All of the schools were small, with a limited undergraduate curriculum oriented on the classical liberal arts. Students were drilled in Greek, Latin, geometry, ancient history, logic, ethics and rhetoric, with few discussions, little homework and no lab sessions. The college president typically tried to enforce strict discipline. The upperclassmen enjoyed hazing the freshmen. Many students were younger than 17, and most of the colleges also operated a preparatory school. There were no organized sports, or Greek-letter fraternities, but many of the schools had active literary societies. Tuition was very low and scholarships were few.

The colonies had no schools of law. A few young American students studied at the prestigious Inns of Court in London. The majority of aspiring lawyers served apprenticeships with established American lawyers, or "read the law" to qualify for bar exams. Law became very well established in the colonies, compared to medicine, which was in rudimentary condition. In the 18th century, 117 Americans had graduated in medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, but most physicians learned as apprentices in the colonies.

The trustees of the Academy of Philadelphia, later the University of Pennsylvania, established the first medical school in the colonies in 1765, becoming the first university in the colonies. In New York, the medical department of King's College was established in 1767, and in 1770 it awarded the first American M.D. degree.


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