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

[Editor’s Note: This is the 18th 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.]

The Puritans were a large faction who became discontented with the Church of England and worked diligently toward religious, moral, and societal reforms. John Calvin’s ideas and writings made him a leader in the Church’s Reformation and were pivotal to the rise to Protestantism, which the Puritans embraced. The faction contended that the Church of England had become nothing more than a product of political struggles and man-made doctrines and was beyond hope of reform. To escape persecution from the Church and the king, they came to America.

Religious exclusiveness was the foremost principle of their society. God motivated all their actions, the New Testament was the guideline for all things, and anyone who thought otherwise was asked to leave or had to be converted. This spiritual strength governed everything, including community laws and customs.

The Puritans had great interest in educating their children, which was both exceptional for their time and religiously motivated. They believed reading the Bible was necessary to live a pious life, and so children were taught to read. The Puritans also believed educating the next generation was important to “purify” the church and perfect social living.

Three diversions common in English society were banned in the New England colonies: drama, erotic poetry, and religious music. The Puritans believed the first two led to immorality, while music during worship created a state unconducive to listening to God. With trivialities purged from their society, they were left with two godly pursuits.

Using the Bible to order their society also stimulated their cohesive intellect by promoting discussions of literature. As a result, they taught the Greek classics of Cicero, Virgil, Terence, and Ovid. They also taught poetry and Latin verse and even encouraged students to write their own poetry, though its content had to be based in religion.

Schooling, for the first time in history, was offered free to all children, and the Puritans established the first formal school in Massachusetts in 1635, the Roxbury Latin School. Only four years later, Harvard College, the first American institution of higher learning, was founded in Cambridge. Children 6-8 years old attended a “Dame school,” where the teacher, often a widow, taught reading. Ciphering and writing weren’t considered important.

The times and technologies continued to change. The first printing press hit the colonies in 1638, and by 1700, Boston became the second-largest publishing center in the English Empire. The Puritans took advantage of the opportunity, becoming the first group in the colonies to write books specifically for children, as well as to discuss the difficulties in communicating with them. At a time when most colonial Americans were physically building the country, the Puritans’ emphasis on study was advancing the country intellectually.

Interestingly, religion provided a stimulus and a context for later scientific thought, even though it might seem the two areas share little connection. Of the Americans admitted into the scientific “Royal Society of London,” the vast majority were Puritans from the New England colonies.

The large number of Puritans who came to America seeking religious freedom established a community that maintained a healthy economy, established a school system, and focused an eye on political concerns. Though much would change over the coming years, the Puritans’ influence on the early history of colonial education can’t be denied.

Next week: Colonial Period, books


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.



[1] Keizer, Kay. (June 15, 2004). “Puritans.” History of Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/puritans.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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