Before the United States of America was created, the American colonies were settled. The population steadily increased, which included families with children that needed to be educated. Those wealthier families often hired tutors or sent their children to private schools, while other children were taught by their parents. Teachers included women or widows who established schools in their homes, or educated schoolmasters. The Bible was usually an elemental part of the curriculum. Eventually public schools were established.
America’s colonial period encompassed a 168-year span. The Colonial period began with the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, in 1607. Plymouth was the second permanent English settlement along what is now Massachusetts, in 1620. As the colonies grew and thrived they moved towards a desire for independence from England. The Colonial period officially came to an end in 1775 with the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
Colonial society was comprised of several social classes. The upper class included the families of the wealthy merchants and planters. This group was often well educated and included lawyers, doctors and ministers. Next was the middle class, which included farmers and shopkeepers, who might own land but were not rich. Under the middle class was the lower class which included unskilled laborers. At the bottom of the classes were the slaves or indentured servants. Those in the upper classes might send their children to private schools or hire tutors. Poorer families taught their children at home. Public schools were first established in 1674.
In 1674 the first public school system, supported by taxes was established. In Massachusetts a law required every town with a minimum of 50 families to establish an elementary school. Larger towns were required to have a secondary school. Private schools were also established which were called “dame” schools. These were run by women (often widows) in their homes. Churches also helped to establish private free schools, with the minister often serving as the teacher and operating the school from his home.
Colonial teachers could be strict, and would use corporal punishment if they deemed it necessary. Teachers could even whip a child who they felt misbehaved. Punishment might also include humiliation, where a child would be required to wear a dunce hat (or some other object), which was intended to negatively single out the child. Families sometimes provided the firewood to warm the school room, or paid the teacher with currency or food.
One of the most famous teachers from colonial times was Ezekiel Cheever, who was born around 1614 and died in 1708. He was a New England Latin grammar instructor, from Puritan England who emigrated to Boston. He taught for about 70 years in four different New England towns. Initially he opened a school in his home in 1639. One of his students was poet Michael Wigglesworth. Cheever wrote the text book “A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue” which became known as “Accidence.” For many years it was a standard text in American schools. Many of his students went on to attend Harvard College.
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