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Education in Colonial America

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  • 0:01 Colonial America
  • 1:20 Tutors & Schools
  • 3:22 Regional Differences
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Early America was very different from the America we know today. Among other differences, children were educated in ways that would seem foreign to us today. In this lesson, we'll examine education during the colonial period.

Colonial America

When you think about education in America, what do you picture? If you're like most people, you probably think about education the way it is today. Students go to school with many other students and are taught by many teachers throughout the years. They learn math, science, reading, history and probably many other subjects as well. Of course, when they are around 17 or 18, they graduate and either go on to college or enter the workforce.

That's a pretty standard view of American education, but that's not the way it's always been. During Colonial America, which was during the 1600s and most of the 1700s, education was very different from the way it is today. Even before the American colonies were established, there was education in America. Some American Indian tribes, like the Cherokee, had a written language and an education system. But education in the colonies was not influenced very much by the American Indians. Instead, they were most influenced by their European roots. The English education system in particular gave a vision to early Americans for how to educate their children. Let's look closer at the way children were educated in Colonial America, including tutors, schools, and regional differences in education.

Tutors and Schools

Imagine for a moment that you are a child in Colonial America. Life is very different: no fast food, no air conditioning, and no smart phones. In fact, you don't even have electricity! What does education look like for you? In large part, the answer to that question rests in who you were, because education was determined by class, race, and gender in Colonial America.

Lower classes and minorities were usually not educated. Instead, they usually participated in an apprenticeship, or on-the-job training under the tutelage of an experienced practitioner. These apprenticeships usually lasted three to seven years and taught the apprentice the ins and outs of a trade. For example, if you were a poor boy in Colonial America, you might become a blacksmith's apprentice, learning how to be a blacksmith by working for one. After a certain number of years, you would be skilled enough to open your own blacksmith shop.

But upper-class children were educated outside the bounds of apprenticeship. Usually this took the form of tutoring, or working one-on-one or in small groups with a teacher. Wealthy families often hired a tutor to work with the children of that family, so siblings would study together with a tutor at their home. Boys were usually tutored until they were ready for boarding school or college, which was usually in Europe. Girls were tutored until they were ready to run a household, at which point they were married off.

But what about children who were not rich enough for a tutor, but also not poor? Sometimes they would go to dame schools, which were like a day care. Families sent children to the house of a local woman who taught the children the basics, like the ABCs or basic arithmetic, while going about her normal daily routine. So, as she cooked and cleaned and stirred lye to make soap, the 'dame' in charge of the dame school would teach local children.

Regional Differences

While economics, race, and gender were a driving force in educational opportunities in the colonies, so was geography. If you were a child in New England, your education would be very different from one in the south during the colonial period.

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