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Colonial America | Culture | Education

Education in colonial America varied by region. The New England colonies, Middle colonies, and Southern colonies each had their own principles that they deemed most important to a child's education. Each region's schools and methods were tailored to teach those principles to the next generation.

Schools in the New England colonies were based largely on religion. Religious principles were taught, prayers and scriptures were memorized and recited, and the primary purpose for learning how to read was to read the Bible.

Read the original text of the
Deluder Satan Act of 1647.

In fact, the Puritans believed that illiteracy was the work of Satan to prevent people from being able to read the Bible. Accordingly, Massachusetts Bay passed a law in 1647 called the Deluder Satan Act. It required that all New England villages of 50 families or more hire a teacher for reading and writing. Towns that grew to 100 families were also required to set up a Latin grammar school to prepare young men for college. The teacher's salary was to be paid by the parents of the children who attended the school.

New England Primer

Book cover of a 1807 New England
Click to read the interior

Children used quill pens and inkwells to write. Their primers and hornbooks were a precursor to today's textbooks. Primers were books that contained the alphabet, poems, rhymes, scriptures, numbers, and other useful information. Colonial children also used hornbooks, which were a type of primer. Hornbooks were made of wood and shaped like a paddle. A few pieces of parchment with basic lessons written on them were attached. A clear sheet of horn covered the parchment to protect it from damage.


Colonial students used a
hornbook for their lessons.

Young children in the colonies sometimes attended private dame schools, which were similar to a modern day-care center. A woman, often a widow, taught children the alphabet, counting, and prayers as she went about her day. In most cases, this was the only formal education that girls received.

In the more diverse Middle colonies, education took place at schools run by a distinct religious group. Besides reading and math skills, religious principles and culture were also passed down to the next generation. Overall, more emphasis was placed on apprenticeships and practical education in the Middle colonies than on traditional school subjects. Boys around the age of 12 learned the skills of a specific trade with an apprentice outside the home, who also provided room and board. Girls were taught at home by their parents or a governess, where they learned household skills such as sewing, cooking, gardening, and nursing. Wealthier families sent their boys to community schools, where they learned subjects such as mathematics, history, languages, and literature.

Social class heavily determined the quality and amount of education children received in the Southern colonies. Geography also played a part—plantations were so far apart from one another that community schools did not exist. In the upper classes, a governess taught girls in their homes just enough reading, writing, and mathematics to help them run their own household someday. After being taught basic subjects by a hired tutor, most young men were sent to England to complete their education. Some stayed abroad to attend medical or law school, but most returned to help their fathers run the family plantation. Children born in the lower classes received a very minimal education, but instead learned practical skills through apprenticeships that lasted between 3–10 years.

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