The Surprising History of the 18th Century’s Educational Influence

The 18th century was a period of massive growth for the United States, and education was swept along with the tide. To really understand the development of American schooling, you need to know about the way it stretched and shifted after its conception over the course of the 1700’s.

A slow shift to an emphasis on science in the curriculum emerged at the beginning of the 18th century. Religious explanations of natural phenomena were slowly being questioned, and certain areas, particularly Pennsylvania, became notable centers of scientific studies. Eighteenth-century changes in educational approaches reflected the changing needs of American society. For instance, the theater arts were considered sinful in the American colonies. But after the 1730s, as tastes changed and society became more sophisticated, the demand for live stage performances increased, and the popularity of theater arts also increased. Similarly, interest in classical music and the fine arts grew slowly during this period.

As the colonies grew and evolved into networks of towns, cities, and states, the economy also evolved. There was a growing perception that the Latin-focused grammar school was too elitist and provided little of the practical education needed for an economy based on business and other vocations. Pressure was placed on the education system to provide a more practical education that would offer vocational and business skills to young men. This was especially evident in the middle colonies, which had a large middle-class business population.

The emergence of English grammar schools was one response to the call for a more practical education system. These schools served students who needed education beyond elementary school but who did not intend to go to college. In addition to courses that led to the world of work in business, students were also taught courses in the “social graces” (e.g., dance, art, music). English grammar schools were the first secondary schools to accept both girls and boys.

A second outcome of the need for more practical education was the growth of the academy, a school for higher learning, and the precursor of the modern university. Benjamin Franklin established the first academy, which was chartered in 1749 and opened in 1751. In 1791, it became the University of Pennsylvania. Academies were essentially private secondary schools that offered a broad range of subjects and practical training.

In a sense, they combined aspects of Latin grammar schools and English grammar schools. The curriculum included courses in mathematics, languages, science, astronomy, athletics, dramatics, agriculture, and navigation. Because academies were not bound by religious influence, they were free to evolve unfettered. They admitted both boys and girls. As industries grew, private academies prospered and flourished. Although academies focused on practical aspects of education, elements of the classical curriculum continued to surface.

As we talk about in another of our articles on the history of the U.S. school system, the education of ethnic minorities, namely African Americans and Native Americans, was limited in the 18th century, and the education of slaves in America was strictly forbidden by law. The Anglican Church did establish schools for the religious education of minorities as early as 1704. But even these efforts were sporadic, unsupported, or not sustained.

The 18th century planted the seeds that would grow into the structures of the Industrial Revolution and beyond. To get a full look at the story of American schooling and where it’s come from, check out our other articles on where education went in the 19th century and on, all the way up to present day.

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