Colonial and Early American (1600-1800)

Though there were only two universities in the nascent colonies (Harvard and William and Mary), a high value was placed on education at all levels. The Puritans valued universal literacy which buoyed university attendance. In turning their back England, the rebelling colonists made decisions that continue to shape American education today. The first women attended university, schools were encouraged to spring up without official charters.

Colonial and Early American (1600-1800) Colonial and Early American (1600-1800) Colonial and Early American (1600-1800) Colonial and Early American (1600-1800) Colonial and Early American (1600-1800)

Creating the Uniquely American College

The first college in Colonial America was Harvard University, which began in 1636, followed by William and Mary in 1693. Harvard was designed in the Medieval model of Oxford and Cambridge, but subsequent US schools broke away from that model. As the idea of American independence began to emerge, so did the idea that American universities should not mirror their European forbears. During this era, the first women attended university, schools were encouraged to spring up without official charters, classes began to be taught in English. The subjects of study were still the Quadrivium, but an effort was made to include more modern subjects. American professors are likely to be specialized teaching scholars, though they are also members of the religious clergy.

Low College Attendance

College attendance in the USA, however, was a bit of an anomaly at this time: a very small percentage of colonists attended college, and for those who did, it was in anticipation of undergoing further study in Europe. Therefore, college wasn't a prerequisite for any professional positions and most workers attained professional success through apprenticeships rather than formal education. Since a college education was expensive, and not a professional requirement, it is a luxury for the few and very wealthy.

The Importance of Literacy

Though there were only two lightly-attended universities in the nascent colonies, a high value was placed on education at all levels. The Puritan's placed a high value on universal literacy -- as the ability for all people to read the bible was central to their religion -- which led to a wide-ranging effort to educate all children. In 1647, a law was passed in Massachusetts mandating that every town of at least 50 families hire a schoolmaster who would teach the town's children to read and write. In most cases, however, education took place in private homes or at the church; instruction came form parents or from clergy members. Particularly leading up to and after the Revolutionary War, education was considered patriotic, and the US developed one of the highest literacy rates worldwide.

Take Aways

  1. Colonial American universities identify themselves as distinctly different from European schools.
  2. University attendance in the colonies is very low and is not a prerequisite for any jobs.
  3. Puritan ideals lead to the USA having one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

References