This series of four articles brings together the history of education in the United States. Beginning with the Puritans in the 17th century and closing on the Brown v. Board debate, the series touches upon key themes in our educational history and pushes us to question the foundation upon which it was founded, and the direction it is taking for its future. In this article, I will start with the colonization of North America by the Puritans and the consequences of this colonial endeavor on the history, present, and future of education in America .
In the early 17th century, North America was colonized by “Puritans” from England. The name “Puritan” comes from their value system: this group advocated for the purity of doctrine or practice of their Protestant religion and were dissatisfied with the church practices of the Church of England. A large part of maintaining this purity meant ensuring that these values are passed down to their new generations through education. The Puritans' approach to education reflected their hopes, desires, and anxieties. To date, the Puritan legacy continues to exist within our own modern education system, from the organization of our schools, to the content we teach, and in attitudes about the role of schools and the purposes of education in society at large. Puritan education was “a direct inheritance from the medieval past” (Tyack 1967 p. 6). Their educational customs were an imitation of the lives they had in England, as opposed to developed for their life in America. This stemmed from two sources, a nostalgia for the past and a fear of the future (Mintz 2004). The educational curriculum of the Puritans provides us with insight into the parts of their tradition they held most closely to themselves. In their reproduction of British education in the US, we are made aware of what it is they decided to preserve as they began their new lives.
Children, in the Puritan tradition, were not sentimentalized. Rather, they were seen as adults in the making. Like any other adult, therefore, children were susceptible to sin at any given moment (Mintz 2004). Thus, not only were children in the process of becoming adults, but they were also in the process of becoming sinners. The role of education thereby was to ensure that Puritan children were prepared and polished for adulthood while ensuring that they were pure from sin. The New-England Primer’s very first lesson is the story of Adam’s sin and the role of Scripture to mend the lives of individuals. There was a hyperawareness of one’s identity as a potential sinner and the remedy was to stay as close to the Scripture as possible. This reveals the anxieties of the Puritans, the loss of faith and tradition, and the potential for sin were of the highest concern. Bringing Scripture into the classroom at the earliest opportunity ensured that children were raised with similar sensitivities and sensibilities as their adult counterparts.
Beyond the hope of children being strong in faith and obedient to custom, there was an emphasis on maintaining European High Culture . This is evident through the inclusion of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in the classroom and the emphasis to memorize, reproduce, and repeat the languages and their literature (Tyack 1967). Not only were Puritan children expected to maintain their faith, but also to become refined in their consumption of literature. This was in direct contrast to what was considered the ‘savage’ culture of Indigenous peoples around them. In adopting literature from cultures well-esteemed by those in England, and now New England, there was an effort to establish one’s identity as learned and polished in contrast to the knowledge, wisdom, and skills of Native peoples, which were looked down upon. This indicates the hope for Puritan children to participate in High Culture and distancing themselves from other kinds of peoples, knowledge, or traditions. One of the great roles of education, therefore, was the transmission of English culture across the generations (Tyack 1967).
While Modern American educational institutes have come a long way from the recitation of archaic languages and the repetition of Scripture, we find ourselves confronted with remnants of America’s Puritan past. Our curriculum speaks to this; curriculum is not only analyzed for what it includes, but also for what it leaves out. In the inclusion of the history of Puritans and the erasure of the lives of Native Americans, there is a statement made on what is important enough to include and what can be forgotten. Our history books begin with the arrival of the Europeans, with little if any space given to the lives of those who had lived on the land for centuries before. Another example of reproduction of puritan values is Sexual Education which indicates the persistence of Christian-based faith as a determinant of what is deemed acceptable or unacceptable in our classrooms. As recently as 2019, 26 states were mandated to stress abstinence if sex education is taught at all. In addition, $90 million in federal funding was allocated for abstinence-only education in 2017 (Daily Mail 2019).Abstinence, a concern held dearly by the Puritans (Mintz 2004), remains a concern in our schools to date. In speaking about the structure of education, our classrooms are organized in a power dynamic between students and a teacher. This model of unidirectional education mimics the values of the Puritans wherein learning was not a mutual process, but the knowledge transmitted from teacher to student. Similarly, the close monitoring and punishment of students to ensure that they remain well-mannered echoes the notion of children as inherently misbehaving individuals who require monitoring to stay within the defined limits.
By no means has the education system of America remained static, nor is it uniform across states. However, there are glimpses of the Puritan past that seep into the way we teach and structure our education to date. Similar to the way Puritan education highlighted their values, anxieties, and hopes, our education system today is a look into what we hold dearly to ourselves as a nation, and what we choose to disregard. It is essential that we intentionally and actively confront our schools and ask ourselves: what does our education tell us about who we are? And, as a multicultural nation, whose values are we upholding, reproducing, and valuing?
Before doing so, I must recognize that systems of education existed before the English arrived. The English were not the first to bring education to the land. While this article does not cover the pre-colonial systems of education, I have linked below relevant readings that offer insight into the systems of learning before the arrivals of the Puritans.
High Culture can broadly be defined as a set of cultural products, mainly in the arts, held in the highest esteem by a culture.
David Tyack, “A City Upon a Hill: Education in the Massachusetts Bay Colony” in Turning Points in American Educational History (Waltham MA: Blaisdell Publishing, 1967). 1-14.
Daily Mail (2019). Sex ed shame: 37 states teach abstinence-only, using misogynistic metaphors comparing people who have premarital sex to a 'cup of spit' and a 'chewed up piece of gum'. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6972237/Many-states-teach-students-people-multiple-sexual-partners-chewed-piece-gum.html
Steven Mintz, “Children of the Covenant,” in Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004). 7-32.
Lawrence, A (2019). Precolonial Indigenous Education in the Western Hemisphere and Pacific. The [Oxford] Handbook of the History of Education. Edited by John L. Rury and Eileen H. Tamura.
Kroupa, K (2014). Education as Arikara Spiritual Renewal and Cultural Evolution. History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3 (august 2014), pp. 303-322. Cambridge University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24482181