During the time of Colonial America and after the American Revolution many ideas about what education should instill, how education should be funded, why education was important, and what the educational system should look like were debated and advocated for. The environment of the newly forming country needed an educational system that could reflect the ever-changing needs of an expanding populace and a growing nation. Educational leaders came forth with their own ideas and goals about what would be best for the developing United States, and each one had to take into account the societal demands and constraints of the time period and social atmosphere in order to make effective decisions and choices. Some of the ideals that the founding fathers of education have put forth still exist in spirit in our modern educational system centuries later. Exploring the foundations of education in America may help us to better understand facets of contemporary education that still mirror early Colonial and American history’s practices.
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Early colonists believed that religion and morality were central to the education of the youth and populace of the colonies. Schools like Harvard and Yale (which was established with the help of Cotton Mather) served to train religious leaders that would head common schools that were supported locally instead of nationally. These schools headed by the religiously trained served to teach the students that came (as attendance was not mandatory and a lot less time was spent in school) moral values and literacy in order for them to read and interpret the bible, which was a very important Puritan or Protestant ideal. During the colonization of the New World, schools were more used to preserve the old order than to illicit change and growth. Jonathan Edwards preached that Old Deluder Satan was a very real threat to the youth, and adherence to traditional religious values was important in order to maintain morality and keep the youth on the right path. At this time, schooling was done more so by the church, the parents, and the community than by the few schooling institutions that existed.
Just before and during the American Revolution in the latter half of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, three prominent figures asserted the importance of education based upon their own ideas for what education should accomplish and in what manner education was best carried out. Benjamin Rush wanted schooling to ensure that citizens were selflessly devoted to their country and for school to enforce this same selflessness on every level, contending that the interests of all were greater than the interests of one. He also advocated for education to be regulated by the country and government, and not locally, as this would help to impart a sense of national pride in the “Republican machines” he wanted citizens to become and the Republic he hoped the nation would assume the form of.
Likewise, Noah Webster also asserted that a sense of national unity and patriotic brotherhood could be brought about through education. Webster believed that by educating students to speak the same, by using the same dialect and having a uniformity of their speech, that it would eliminate regional differences and foster oneness. Webster put his plan into action by creating “spellers” and a dictionary to be used in the classrooms that would teach children this way of speaking and writing in the American way. He, like Benjamin Rush, also believed that the United States should be a republic.
However, Thomas Jefferson advocated for a democracy in America. His concept of “National Aristocracy” relied on state and local systems of schools nationally in order to let people of both high and low birth have the same opportunity to rise to the top of the social ladder based upon their merit and skill. This would make the leaders the most talented instead of the ones with the most money and best family ties. In Virginia he tried to pass the “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” for a school system that would allow some students who did not come from backgrounds of wealth to go to a publicly funded institution of education. This did not take, and the bill never came to fruition, though it did impart a sense of importance to education on many influential minds. However, Jefferson was able to achieve the establishment of the University of Virginia, attesting to his belief of the importance of higher education in America.
These men were responding to the changes of the growth of a beginning nation. With population drastically increasing and new territory being added to the colonies as time passed, the need for unification was urgent, or the infantile United States would never unite as one body. The youth worked equally as hard as the adults, as everyone was contributing hark-work to the foundation of the colonies and the demands that came from settling in the New World. With the very real fear that the youth would go astray, trying to impart a sense of morality and religion in the children that would one day lead the nation was a very important task in the eyes of the adults. These early educational leaders tried to interpret the needs of the nation in order to set standards by which progress could be made to ensure uniformity and moral leadership in years to come.
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The old order was threatened by a new economy based on capitalist principles and trade. To try to ensure that change would not overtake the moral and religious foundation of why the New World was colonized, Rush and others tried to tie in religious and moral virtues as something to be learned alongside hard-work and adherence to the benefit of the public. Slowly, the new generation seemed to win out, replacing the moral and religious ideals of education with that of industrial education and education geared towards Enlightenment principles instead.
The founding ideas of education being a means of instilling national pride can still be seen today in some way. In elementary school we are still taught to say the Pledge of Allegiance; this is a way of continuing the patriotic tradition that unites us as a whole, as a country, and as one people. We are taught by this recitation of the pledge that our schooling is thereby connected with our rights and role as an American citizen. Our educational system ties us to a sense of national allegiance. Though literacy was first advocated for the public in order to be able to read and interpret the Bible, literacy is still the first and foremost concern of schooling in the United States. In order to excel in the contemporary school system, and in all subjects, one must be able to read in order to interpret the material in textbooks.
Also, when American education surpassed religious and moral training, it was still used as a means of coming up in the world. Jefferson’s “national aristocracy” is very much a part of modern, contemporary schooling. America is a nation in which the poorest person may, through education, rise to a high social, political, or financial station. Our school system advocates benefits for the talented, educated, intelligent hard-workers regardless of their background. American education allows people to be the makers of their own future and destiny, instead of having to reside in a caste or socioeconomic background prescribed to them by their station upon birth. American education seeks to let us know our past, be aware of the traditions, and gives us the tools to follow in the footsteps of our forefathers or to be revolutionaries in our own right by using our educations in order to secure a better future for ourselves and our nation. After all, that is the American dream, to have the ability to do as good as or to exceed those who came before you.
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