The History of Education: The American Educational System, Early National Period (Benjamin Rush)

[Editor’s Note: This is the 23rd 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.]

Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) was one of the leaders of the Revolutionary movement, serving as a professor at the College of Philadelphia when the Revolution broke out. He was also one of the founders of Dickenson College and frequently spoke and wrote about education topics. Of primary concern to him was the reform of American education. He believed American education should be in line with American needs and work alongside the principles of democracy.

In 1786, Rush produced a plan for an educational system called “Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic.” His plan contained 20 main points, some more robust than others, and some we’d now consider outdated, or at least controversial. We describe several of these here.

  1. “Education must take place in the United States.”

Rush advocated for the establishment of a general, uniform system of education adequate for the essential purposes of becoming good and effective citizens. However, he did have a mindset common at that time. He believed when this system was established, “Our schools of learning, by producing a general, and more uniform system of education, will render the mass of the people more homogeneous.”

  1. “Duty must be coupled with “republican principles” and progressive development.”

One of the basic tenets of the new country was that it was established for the progress of “mankind.” Its institutions were meant to function progressively and had to be modified constantly; therefore, it would be a mistake to train the country’s youth to simply continue the institutions as they had been established. For these reasons, students “must be taught that there can be no durable liberty in a republic and that government, like all other sciences, is of a progressive nature.”

  1. “A new type of education [is] required for [a] new type of duties and new social control.”

Following the American Revolution, people assumed the new government had “created a new class of duties [for] every American.” A second assumption was that the force of former controls had largely disappeared. According to Rush, “It becomes us, therefore, to examine our former habits upon this subject, and in laying the foundations for nurseries of wise and good men, to adapt our modes of teaching to the peculiar form of our government.”

Education, too, should provide a thorough grounding in democratic principles yet also allow for society to progress toward greater freedom.

  1. “Latin and Greek [are] not suited to American education.”

The traditional school curriculum previously stressed Latin and Greek; this outdated idea needed to be replaced by a curriculum that would function immediately. Since the prosperity and future development of the United States depended on the advancement of science, and since Rush believed there wasn’t enough time to gain both a mastery of languages and science, the curriculum should focus on the sciences to serve the country.

  1. “Curriculum suitable for American democracy”

Rush outlined the following curriculum: “Let the first eight years be employed in learning to speak, spell, read, and write the English language. Arithmetic and some of the more simple branches of the mathematics should be acquired between the twelfth and fourteenth years of his life. Natural history should find a prominent place early in the education, geography should be understood and mastered by age 12, and in place of the ancient languages should come French and German.

Between the fourteenth and eighteenth years, the pupil should be instructed in grammar, oratory, criticism, the higher branches of mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, logic, metaphysics, chronology, history, government, the principles of agriculture, manufactures, and in everything else that is necessary to qualify him for public usefulness and private happiness.”

Interestingly, though, Rush proposed two ideas that ran counter to the educational trends of the previous few decades. First, he believed a course of lectures should be given to teach about the evidences, doctrines, and precepts of the Christian religion, blurring the line again between church and state. And second, he felt the curriculum should be for boys alone.

  1. “Education of women in citizenship; their particular duties in a republic.”

Rush believed any educational system that would render the laws of democracy effective had to provide adequate training for women to give them a grasp of the principles involved in a democracy, for they “must concur in all our plans of education for young men.”

Women also had the responsibility of educating their children. Rush felt they should be prepared “by a suitable education, for the discharge of this most important duty as mothers.” Along with other economic and political duties, the woman had to be the manager of her home.

To carry out her obligations, a woman’s education had to consist of a mastery of the English language and the ability to read and write well. In addition, the curriculum should include “knowledge of figures and bookkeeping, and acquaintance with geography and some instruction in chronology, vocal music, dancing, the reading of history, travels, poetry, and moral essays. These were, of course, in addition to the “regular instruction in the Christian religion.” However, Rush believed the purpose of a woman’s education was for her to prepare her children to be guardians of democracy, not in any way for her personal betterment.

  1. Liberal national support for educated teachers.”

For such a vast and different system of education to become the standard, Rush felt the nation needed to provide schools and colleges adequately equipped for national purposes, as well as provide teachers well-qualified for their task at all levels. Through liberal support of such a plan, Rush believed all the best talent would be attracted into the teaching profession.


Next week: Early National Period,  Thomas Jefferson


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.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.



[1] Wassenhove, Emily. (June 15, 2004). “Benjamin Rush.” History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from


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

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