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Colonial Education: The Free Market in Action

By Sam Blumenfeld
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #58, 2004.

Education in the 13 colonies
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Sam Blumenfeld


With the Puritans in New England setting a high standard for education, the rest of the colonies followed suit so that literacy was virtually universal. The need for biblical literacy was the driving force behind education in general.

As we saw in my article in the previous issue of PHS, the aim of the Puritan leadership was to maintain the religious stability of the Commonwealth, which included the highly democratic Congregational form of church governance. In Massachusetts education was more of a religious function than a secular one.

Private Colleges

Because of the stress Puritan society placed on education, Massachusetts gained a reputation for having the best schools in the colonies. The Massachusetts Puritans founded Harvard in 1636. But the other colonies were not far behind. All of the Protestant sects, most of which were Calvinistic in theology, placed high value on education. Colleges were also founded in Virginia (1693), Connecticut (1701), New Jersey (1746 and 1766), New York (1754), Pennsylvania (1755), Rhode Island (1764), and New Hampshire (1770). All were private colleges, and there were usually private academies in the towns to prepare students for higher education.

Where the Founding Fathers Were Educated

We can get a good picture of the various forms of education that were extant during the colonial period by surveying the education that formed the 89 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. According to author Lawrence Cremin:

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 22 were products of the provincial colleges, two had attended the academy conducted by Francis Alison at New London, Pennsylvania, and the others represented every conceivable combination of parental, church, apprenticeship, school, tutorial, and self education, including some who studied abroad. Of the 33 signers of the Constitution, who had not also signed the Declaration, 14 were products of the provincial colleges, one was a product of the Newark Academy, and the remainder spanned the same wide range of alternatives.

The fact is that the men who founded the United States were educated under the freest conditions possible. George Washington was educated at home by his father and half-brother. Benjamin Franklin was taught to read by his father and attended a private school for writing and arithmetic. Thomas Jefferson studied Latin and Greek under a tutor. Of the 117 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, one out of three had had only a few months of formal schooling, and only one in four had gone to college.

Education & the Constitution

And that is probably why the Constitution made no mention of education. It was considered a parental, religious, and private matter beyond the jurisdiction of government. There were some statesmen, like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who advocated free, state-supported education on a modest scale. But they were clearly in the minority.

Thus, at the beginning of the American nation, except for some town-supported common schools in New England, education was on a completely laissez-faire basis.

Contrast the highly effective educational freedom and high literacy that existed then to what we have in America today: completely centralized and regulated education by the government, plus compulsory school attendance, plus highly unionized teachers with enormous political clout. Add to that the drugging of four million children by their educators, a steep decline in literacy, and an anti-Christian philosophy of education and you have government schools that cannot truly educate. If it were not for the growth of the home-school movement and the restoration of educational freedom by this dedicated remnant, this country would in time become a totalitarian society, controlled by behavioral psychologists and corrupt politicians.

That is why it is so important for Americans to know the history of education in this country so that they can see our current trends in their proper context. Our nation was founded by Christian men and women who believed in educational freedom because it produced the young men and women capable of maintaining a free society. Our freedom depends on our nation's willingness to adhere to biblical morality. Because without it, we shall founder in a sea of sin and immorality.

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