A History of Education: The American Educational System: An Overview

[Editor’s Note: This is the 13th 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.]

Education is a part of socialization. It’s the process by which a society teaches its population the skills, knowledge, and values they need to become good, productive members of that society.

Education, as we’ve seen, can be both informal and formal. Informal education can take place anywhere at any time. In the early days of the human species, children learned through play and exploration of the world around them. Today, it primarily takes place in the home, with the parents serving as instructors.

Formal education, sometimes called schooling, occurs in a physical location (or today, over the internet) with teachers, principals, and other specially trained professionals providing instruction. And as women have become increasingly integrated into the workplace, necessitating day care for their young children, the day care setting has become another form of formal education and socialization for that segment of the population.

Education in the early days of American colonization was hardly formal. The Puritans, who left England to seek religious freedom and settled in what is now Massachusetts, required that parents teach their children to read; they also required larger towns to have a primary school, where children learned reading, writing, and especially religion. However, this was more of an exception than a rule, as overall, schooling wasn’t required in the colonies. Only about 10% of colonial children, usually from the wealthiest families, went to school, although others learned trades through an apprentice system (Urban, Jennings, & Wagoner, 2008).[1]

After the Revolutionary War and the formation of a new country from the 13 preexisting colonies, textbooks were written to standardize both spelling and pronunciation and to instill patriotism and religious beliefs in the students. At the same time, though, these textbooks included negative stereotypes of Native Americans and some immigrant groups, to prevent “pollution” of American values. The children who went to school continued to be those from wealthy families.

By the mid-1800s, there was a general call for free, compulsory education, and such education became widespread by the end of the century. This was a major shift in educational policy, as a free, formal education opened the door to children from all social classes, but it was necessary. The United States was becoming more industrialized, and an industrial economy demanded skills in reading, writing, and math far more than an agricultural economy had. However, compulsory education was still intended to promote national unity and to teach immigrants “American” values.

Free, compulsory education applied only to primary and secondary schools; until the mid-1900s, few people went to college, and those who did typically came from upper class families. After World War II, though, college enrollment soared, and today more people attend college than ever before, even though attendance still bears the marks of social inequality.

Two major themes emerge from this overview. The first is that, until very recently, formal schooling was restricted to wealthy males. Any boy neither white nor rich was excluded, as were almost all girls, whose education was expected to take place informally at home. That set up a system of inequality right from the start. Even today, we see that race, ethnicity, social class, and, to some extent, gender continue to affect educational achievement.

The second theme is that the reasons for the rise of free, compulsory education troubles some critics (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Cole, 2008).[1] As compulsory schooling began in part to prevent immigrants’ values from corrupting “American” values, they feel it smacks of an ethnocentrism that persists in the system. They also criticize its intent to teach workers the skills needed for the new industrial economy. Because most industrial workers were, compulsory education served the interests of the upper/capitalist class in providing them with low-cost labor more than it served the interests of workers, who could never get ahead.

Later educational reforms have sought to remedy these problems, though many people feel they fall short of creating an equal playing field for all students.


Next week: European Influences on American Education (Comenius)


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.



[1] In “A Brief History of Education in the United States.” University of Minnesota. Retrieved from https://open.lib.umn.edu/sociology/chapter/16-1-a-brief-history-of-education-in-the-united-states/.


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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