Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/History/18th Century

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What are the markers of the 18th Century?

Eighteenth century education was marked by the division of several groups of people. Education was geographically divided between the northern and southern colonies. Due to the rural nature of the South, there were fewer schools and literacy rate lagged far behind the North until the late 19th century. (Wikipedia) However, structure of colonial and post-colonial education differed the most along gender, racial, and class lines. A great divide existed between the vast majority of blacks, whites and Native Americans; men and women; and the upper and lower classes ("Eighteenth Century"). This divide was present from New England to the Deep South.

Very early education was taken care of by women in the home. The women in middle to upper class families often used primers with religious text to teach elementary reading skills. For children whose families could afford it, formal schooling began about the age of 7 or 8. Formal education was taken care of by private community schools known as "little schools". These schools were often run by clergyman and included religious studies along with basic mathematics and writing skills. In gentry families, education past what could be taught by the women in the household may also have been taught by private tutors (Rowe).

The Gender Divide[edit]

With very few exceptions, white males had more educational opportunity than any other group of people in the colonies. Across all geographical and socio-economic factions, most white males were taught basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. Boys were often taught these basic skills by their mothers at home since public schools were virtually non-existent during this time period and education was thought to be the responsibility of the families. (Rowe) In poorer, planter-class families, education generally stopped for boys once they mastered these basic skills. Boys were too valuable as farmers or trades apprentices to continue schooling past what was thought necessary. Boys in upper-class families often continued their education in preparation for attending one of the new universities such as Harvard ("Eighteenth Century"). This preparation often included instruction from private tutors in subjects such as Latin (Rowe).

In the English colonies a good number of women were taught basic reading and writing skills, regardless of social status. Naturally education was less common for lower-class girls, but it was not unheard of. Past rudimentary reading and writing skills, girls were taught homemaking skills that were thought to be important in the colonial household such as sewing, cooking, and cleaning. This was true for most colonial families since it was thought improper and unnecessary to educate girls on the same level as their brothers. Girls in upper-class families however, were often sent on to what were known as Dame schools to continue their education. At these schools they were taught music, dancing, French and other skills thought to be pleasing to potential suitors. (Rowe) Gentry families also placed more importance on the education of girls in the family because they knew that it would fall on them to teach their children.

A letter was written from Father Beaubois to Abbe Raguet on May 6, 1728 that the Ursuline school served 16 boarded students, 9 slaves (also boarders), and 25 day students. (Robenstien 199)

There was an interesting exception to the English colonial education system. In French colonial Louisiana more importance was placed on the education of girls than that of boys. Colonial leaders felt that it was going to be females that brought French civilization and sophistication to the colony and that it was more important for boys to be educated in their future trade than to receive formal education (Robenstien 197). When the French first began to settle in North America, the majority of the colonists were male. It was thought by the French clergyman and politicians in the colonies that the men were participating in too much debauchery and that French men marrying Native American women was unacceptable and would lead to the downfall of the colonization effort. Leaders thought that in order for women to civilize the colony, they needed education. So, in order to attract French women to the colonies, politicians promised them education and husbands (Robenstien 206).

The education of French colonial women was overseen by the Ursuline nuns (Robenstien 193). They taught all French colonial girls regardless of class. All students were taught reading, writing, and basic math skills. All students were educated in the Catholic religion (Robenstien 199). They were also taught to sew, knit, as well as other skills thought valuable in running a colonial household (Robenstien 200). Women educated at the school were seen as given a “seal of approval” by the Ursuline nuns and therefore more desirable for marriage (Robenstein 206).

The Racial Divide[edit]

A more defined gap existed between the races. While girls may not have received the same level of education as their male counterparts, girls did have some opportunity for education. In contrast, educational opportunities for blacks were almost non-existent. Early in the century, the level of education a slave could receive was decided on by their owner ("Eighteenth Century"). Owners generally decided that slaves needed no more education than the knowledge needed to complete the jobs they were required to do. Since most of a slave’s work consisted of manual labor, reading and arithmetic were considered unnecessary. After the Revolutionary War it came to be believed that the education of slaves made them more prone to disobedience and was a threat to local security. Due to this way of thinking many colonies, particularly those in the South, made it illegal for slaves to learn to read or write ("Eighteenth Century").

Native Americans fared a little better than the slaves. Due to English colonists desire to "civilize" their new neighbors, Native Americans were often offered some type of education. Between the 1730s and 1760s many colonies experimented with the education of Native Americans. In these schools, they were taught reading, writing, and religion, just like the white colonists. ("Eighteenth Century") One such school was formed by Eleazar Wheelock in Connecticut. In New England, girls’ education was primarily focused on “home and hearth” and education was received at home. Since the Native American girls had no home in which to be taught, Wheelock sent the girls to local colonists’ homes to be educated in homemaking. Often these girls were treated like servants or slaves by the families they were placed with (Szasz 222-23). Native American boys at his school were taught reading, writing, and religion much like the English colonial boys in Connecticut (Szasz 224).

Once again, the exception was the Ursuline nuns’ school in French colonial Louisiana. A letter written in 1728 stated that the nuns were teaching 9 slave girls who were also boarders. While slaves as well as Native American girls were taught at the school, they were taught separately from the white girls who attended. Slaves and Native Americans at the school were taught reading, writing, and religion as well as manual skills such as sewing, weaving fabric, and raising silkworms (Robenstien 199).

The Social Divide[edit]

While a great number of colonial children, regardless of socio-economic status, received some form of education a divide did exist. Due to the fact that education was primarily given at home, if poorer parents had no education then it was likely that their children were also uneducated. Even if parents in poorer planter-class families had reading skills, education was generally focused on the child being able to help with farm labor as soon as they were old enough. In middle-class merchant families, girls were often given as much reading and writing knowledge as they would need to assist with the family business. Boys in these same places may be further educated in hopes that they could attend a university and better the family’s social standing (Rowe). Boys who attended the “little schools” often did so for as long as their families’ status allowed them to. For working class boys it was a term for about 1-3 years and middle to upper-class boys it depended upon the family’s ability to send them to a university (Rowe).


The racial divide continued on until desegregation laws were passed in the twentieth century. Post-Revolutionary war, however, changes started to be made that began to close the socio-economic and gender divides. During this time period, about half of the American population was under the age of sixteen. Due to the over-whelming population of youth, states started to realize the need for public, state-funded schools. During the 1780s and 1790s the gender and social gap began to close as states began to use tax money to fund elementary schools that offered the same education for students regardless of financial status or gender ("Eighteenth Century").

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

In English Colonial America, what gender, race, and social status would you need in order to attend a university?
A. White, middle-class, boy
B. Slave, lower-class, girl
C. White, upper-class, boy
D. Native-American, middle-class, girl

C. White, upper-class, boy

If you were an upper-class girl in English Colonial America, why might your parents teach you French?
A. In order to better the relationship between the French and English colonists
B. In hopes it would make you more desirable to a future husband
C. Because French tutors were cheaper
D. For your senior-year Spring Break trip to Paris

B. In hopes it would make you more desirable to a future husband

If you were a white, upper-class boy, what language would be expected to learn if you were University-bound?
A. Spanish
B. Portuguese
C. Mandarin Chinese
D. Latin

D. Latin

If you were a girl in French Colonial Louisiana, why was so much importance placed on your education?
A. Educated girls were seen as the key to a civilized colonial society
B. Because all the boys were slow learners
C. Because boys were too busy for education
D. Because French colonial leaders thought that it would be an interesting experiment

A. Educated girls were seen as the key to a civilized colonial society

Why did both French and English colonists also try to educate the Native Americans?
A. It was thought that giving Native Americans a Christian-based education would make them more civilized.
B. To experiment with brainwashing
C. To test out the new public school system
D. It would be easier to take their land if their children were busy at school

A. It was thought that giving Native Americans a Christian-based education would make them more civilized.

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

The majority of Eighteenth century American education took place in the home. How might the lack of educational opportunities for girls negatively effected home-based education? How might the implementation of a public school system alter these effects?

With the major educational focus being home-based, much of the job of educator fell upon the women in the family. They were the ones who taught their children how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. These basic skills were not only necessary but essential to boys who may be able to attend college. If the women in the family lacked education, then they would be unable to pass that knowledge on to their children. This lack of education in families would perpetuate a generational cycle of uneducated children growing up to be uneducated adults. This would ultimately affect the poorer, planter class families. It would prevent them from being able to educate their children for generations while upper-class families are able to continually educate the current generation of children. This would ultimately cause the gap between upper and lower class families to continually widen. The implementation of public school systems in the latter part of the century would help to stall the widening of this gap if not close it entirely. In public schools, children are able to learn regardless of class or gender. While children of poorer families might not be able to extend their education like those of upper-class families, at the very least most children had the opportunity to learn to read and write.


  • Education in Colonial America. (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved on Sept. 13, 2007, from
  • Eighteenth Century, The. (n.d.). Retrieved on Sept. 12, 2007, from
  • Robenstien, Clark. (1992). French Colonial Policy and the Education of Women and Minorities: Louisiana in the Early Eighteenth Century. History of Education Quarterly Volume 32, Issue 2, 193-211.
  • Rowe, Linda (2002). Women and Education in 18th Century Virginia [Electronic Version]. Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Vol. 42, No. 2. Retrieved from: Sept. 12, 2007
  • Szasz, Margaret Connell. (1980). "Poor Richard" Meets the Native American: Schooling for Young Indian Women in Eighteenth Century Connecticut [Electronic Version] Pacific Historical Review Vol. 49, Issue 2, 215-235.