Education in Colonial Times

Education in Colonial
by Sandra Rak, 7C1, ID1
A bit of background info
In 1636, Massachusetts became the first colony in the U.S. to have a government that put
forth money to build a school- a school that, two years later, became known as Harvard
There was much more emphasis on education in the Northern colonies [New England
colonies] as opposed to the Southern colonies. Northern colonists were required to have
dame schools and grammar schools. In the Southern colonies, the decision to educate
children was left up to each individual family; the government did not have any laws about
education until after the Civil War [when the South finally legislated for state-supported
schools]. In the south, they might have “field schools”. These were “schools” where a
teacher, hired by parents, would teach white children. Also, in the south, rich families might
hire tutors for their children. There were many slaves in the South, and Southerners feared
a revolt; therefore, they kept slaves from becoming educated, making it against the law for
them to even learn to read.
In the middle colonies, it was agreed that education was important. However, the decision
and means of educating children was left up to families until 1683, when a law was passed
in Pennsylvania stating that all children had to be taught to read and write, as well as be
learned in a useful trade. In the middle colonies, different religious groups set up their own
schools. Girls would learn domestic skills in the house. They did not go to grammar
schools, unless they were Quakers. Boys became educated in trades or skills, and
[depending on their economic status] learned about history, literature, or natural science.
The Dame School
• The Dame School would be the colonial children’s
first stop on the wonderful road of education. All in
all, it was something like nursery school/preschool.
• This schooling took place in the teacher’s home.
The teacher was usually a woman. There weren’t
any blackboards or desks, just hornbooks.
• It was where the boys and girls would learn to
read, write, do simple math, and some household
chores. Once they had learned these skills, they
were done with Dame School. This was the main
schooling for most girls.
In the School…
Grammar schools in colonial times had only one room, where the students would have to sit on
uncomfortable benches.
The school was very cold. The students were required to bring in wood for the fireplace. If they forgot,
they would sit furthest from the fire and freeze their heads off.
There was one schoolmaster, who taught every grade. The students’ families would pay him in food. The
students would trade the food for something else needed if the schoolmaster had too much. The
schoolmasters were also very strict disciplinarians, which will be coming up in the next slide, because
colonial schools actually had rather creative methods of punishments, most of which will probably make
the people of the twenty-first century long for their detentions.
The students would learn their lessons using hornbooks [which we’ll revisit in more depth in the slide
after the next], the Bible, and the New England Primer. The New England Primer was a book [the only
book available in public schooling, with the exception of the Bible] that had Bible passages and their
interpretations in it. Older students might use tablets made out of slate rock, on which they would write
with slate pencils. They could erase the work once the teacher had checked it.
It was the belief back then that not being able to read was Satan’s way of keeping you from the Bible
[therefore, holding you back from your religion]. This was why reading was so centered around the Bibleit was religious instruction as much as it was school.
Children would learn to read, write, and do arithmetic. The reading and writing were especially important,
because colonial parents wanted their children to be able to be able to study their religion and read the
Students had to memorize their lessons, since there were no textbooks.
SPELLING DIDN’T COUNT- seriously. It didn’t! There were no set spelling rules back then. However, as
though to compensate, handwriting and penmanship were very important. The teachers wanted
everybody’s handwriting to look perfect.
Discipline [ah, the joy]
In colonial times, discipline was much more harsh than it is now. The
schoolmasters had several creative methods of punishment.
One punishment administered to misbehaving students was this: the child would
be sent out to cut a small branch from a tree and bring it in to the teacher. The
teacher would cut a small gap in one end of the branch, and the child would have
to balance the stick on his nose with the split end pinching it.
In the Dame School, children who did not behave where tapped on the head with
a heavy thimble, a method known as “thimmel-pie”.
Children were also disciplined by being forced to sit on what was called a unipod.
A unipod was a stool with only one leg, on which is was difficult to balance.
There were also the old fashioned dunce caps/stools, a particular way of making
kids feel special about themselves [note: THAT WAS SARCASM].
Students were also forced to wear signs that read similarly ego-boosting names,
such as “Bite-Finger Baby”, “Tell-Tale”, “Idle Boy”, and “Pert-Miss-Prat-a-Pace”.
Children were also whipped, most commonly with birch rods, or smacked across
the hand with said birch rods.
The Hornbook
• The Hornbook was a board, paddle shaped, with a piece
of paper nailed to it. It was usually made of wood or
bone- rarer and more expensive ones could be made of
ivory. The paper was thinly covered with cow horn
shavings to keep the paper from tearing. It was used in
the place of textbooks.
• The alphabet, in uppercase and lowercase, and a prayer
would be written on the paper.
• The wealthy would decorate their hornbooks with jewels
and leather.
Girls vs. Boys
Both boys and girls would go to Dame School, where they
would learn to read and write. However, in colonial times, most
people did not believe girls needed further education. Girls learned
enough reading, writing, and arithmetic to be able to study the Bible
and manage family finances. Their education was more so based
towards making them better suited for marriage. After Dame School,
a girl’s education would be limited to the home. Girls would learn
domestic skills to prepare them for marriage, such as cooking,
cleaning, knitting, and sewing. These skills would be taught to them
by their mothers, or, in some cases, a governess/tutor.
Boys, on the other hand, would attend grammar school after
Dame School. Grammar school was in preparation for college; girls
did not attend. In grammar school, boys would learn Latin, math,
and other topics. Wealthy families might send their boys to England
for more formal schooling. Some boys could be apprenticed to
masters in order to learn a certain skill or trade.
Dame School
Grammar School
New England Primer
A grammar school, with a boy standing in the
corner wearing a dunce cap
Harvard University [in colonial times]
Child Life in Colonial Days by Alice Morse Earle,%20Education,%20and%20Literacy%20in%2

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