A History of Education: The American Educational System, Colonial Period (Harvard College)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 21st in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

Harvard University, which is approaching its 390th anniversary in 2026, is the oldest higher education institution in the United States. It was founded by the Pilgrims 16 years after they arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and has grown from nine students with a single master to almost 18,800 degree candidates, including undergraduates, graduate students, and professional students in 10 schools.

A 1636 vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony established Harvard College as an institution. It was named for its first benefactor, John Harvard of Charlestown, a young minister. When he died in 1638, he left his library and half his estate to the new college.

During its early years, Harvard offered a “hybrid” education: a classic academic course based on the English university model yet still consistent with the Puritan philosophy of the first colonists. Many of its early graduates became ministers in Puritan congregations throughout the New England colonies, but the college was never formally affiliated with any specific religious denomination. A brochure published in 1643 explained the college’s existence: “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.”[1]

In 1708, John Leverett was elected president of the college, the first who wasn’t also a clergyman; this marked a turning point for the college toward intellectual independence from Puritanism. As the institution grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, the curriculum was broadened, especially in the sciences, and a long list of famous scholars attended or got their start: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, William James, and the elder Oliver Wendell Holmes.

College president Charles W. Eliot, who served from 1869 to 1909, transformed the small provincial college into a modern university. During his 40-year tenure, the law and medical schools were upgraded, and the business, dental medicine, and arts and sciences graduate schools were established. Enrollment increased from 1,000 to 3,000 students, the faculty grew from a mere 49 to 278, and the operational endowment increased from $2.3 million to $22.5 million.

President A. Lawrence Lowell (1909-33) redesigned the undergraduate course of study to ensure students a liberal education through a concentration in a single field with course requirements distributed among other disciplines. Today, Harvard students can choose from 51 fields of concentration. Lowell also introduced the tutorial system, which remains a distinctive feature of a Harvard education. It offers undergraduates informal specialized instruction in their fields.

Next week: Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.




[1] n/a (June 15, 2004). Information taken from http://www.news.harvard.edu/guide/intro. History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/harvard.html.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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