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Education In The Colonies
In the New England colonies, the Puritans built their society almost entirely on the precepts of the Bible. The Puritans, in particular, valued education, because they believed that Satan was keeping those who couldn't read from the scriptures. According to The American Colonial Gazette, about two-thirds of Puritan men and one-third of Puritan women could sign their names -- the accepted standard of literacy for the time.
Many young Puritans, primarily boys ages six to eight, learned reading, spelling, and prayers at a "dame school," run very much like a home day care. Later, either the boys went on to a Latin grammar school to prepare for college and an eventual religious or political career or they trained in a trade. Girls usually continued their education -- in household skills -- at home.
In the middle colonies, where, according to the Gazette, about half the adults could sign their names, colonial leaders agreed that education was important but were not concerned with providing it. The decision of whether to educate children was left to individual families until 1683, when a Pennsylvania law was passed, requiring that all children be taught to read and write and be trained in a useful trade. Pennsylvania's first school was established that same year.
A variety of local religious groups ran most schools in the middle colonies and stressed the practical aspects of education. All boys learned a skill or trade. Depending on their social class, they might also study classical languages, history and literature, mathematics, and natural science. Girls were tutored at home in a variety of household and social skills.
In the southern colonies, children generally began their education at home. Because the distances between farms and plantations made community schools impossible, plantation owners often hired tutors to teach boys math, classical languages, science, geography, history, etiquette, and plantation management. Most then completed their education in England. A governess usually taught the girls enough reading, writing, and arithmetic to run a household and the social skills to attract a husband.
Class differences were most pronounced in the South, where only upper-class men were widely educated. The Gazette reports that, in Virginia, literacy among the male gentry was almost 100 percent, and only 40 percent of laborers, 25 percent of upper class women, and 1 percent of slaves could sign their names.
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