The formation of our modern American School System has been heavily influenced by the religious views of our predecessors, the colonial settlers of New England. The general interest of settlers in their children’s ability to read, their establishment of elementary and secondary grammar schools, and the founding of colleges and universities were all religiously motivated advances in early American education. While the twentieth century has brought about a separation between church and state (in this case, state referring to education), the roots of education in religion are still readily apparent.
The moral theology of Puritanism, the dominant religion in seventeenth century New England, seems to have been a major catalyst in the evolution of American education. The Puritans believed that the very young, like the old, were sinners who were damned from birth and doomed to lose their souls. The only way to escape the “one chief project of that old deluder, Satan” (Massachusetts Education Law of 1647) and achieve salvation was to be taught the ground rules of the good society. The Bible was the “textbook” in which a young Puritan was to look for and find these rules. In order for this discovery to be possible, however, a child had to become literate. While the task of teaching them first befell the parents, the burden was often conferred upon the school.
Town, dame, and pauper schools were all educational establishments organized by the Puritans in order to fulfill their desire for literate, and therefore moral, citizens. Younger New England children in attendance were expected to learn basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills. Secondary grammar schools were then instituted, but only as preparatory environments for male students who might continue on to college or a university. These colonial teenagers were instructed in the language of Latin and great literature. Following secondary grammar school, one might be admitted to a college or university. These institutions were established for the purpose of training youth for important Puritan places, particularly in the ministry. Once admitted, they were to live and learn at the college, being educated in such courses as grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, ethics, ancient history, Greek, and Hebrew. After four years of success in his studies, a student would be made a bachelor of arts (B.A), and a master of arts (M.A.) after an additional three years.
The aforementioned institutions of learning are the framework around which we have built our ideas for the formation of twentieth century education. Society still relies on the two-track system (first advocated by John Calvin of the Reformation and then put into practice by the Puritans of New England), depends on colleges or universities for further training, and follows the fundamental colonial curriculum for each. Elementary schools continue to focus upon teaching basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills to younger children, as did the town, dame, and pauper schools of the mid-seventeenth century. The emphasis of secondary colonial grammar schools on language, humane learning, and good literature still holds true in the high schools of the United States today. Even the bachelor and masters of arts degrees, attainable only through colleges and universities, still exist stressing the importance of an education in the liberal arts.
The very basic purposes of education in Colonial America are similar to those today. Nearly four hundred years after the Puritans first established the idea of education as a necessity for religious instruction, salvation, and good citizenship in the colonies, we continue to follow their core curriculum and fundamental organizational methods. Although a line has been drawn between church and state throughout the twentieth century, we are still able to recognize the influence of religion on the formation of our modern American School System.