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The History of Education In America (Timeline) and How It Compares to Today

NickiTruesdell.com | by Nicki Truesdell | January 31, 2023

It doesn’t take twelve years to educate a child.

Stay with me here while I beg you to re-think the education system that has been the norm in America for 100 years. Ahhh, 100 years? Only that long? Yes. So what happened before that?

I’m glad you asked.

The K-12 system, preceded quite often by “preschool” and followed up with 4+ years of college, is a 20th century idea. Based on this, an American child can (and often does) spend up to 18 years in institutionalized education. It grew from the basic home-tutoring model, to the local one-room school house, and into the behemoth we accept as normal today.

But it’s not normal at all, nor is it necessary, as you’ll soon see for yourself through this history of education in America timeline.

It Doesn’t Take Twelve Years to Educate a Child

Before I begin, I want you to understand that this concept is key to home education. When you begin to realize that the current public school system is a fabricated system, based on very little science or educational philosphy other than spending billions of tax dollars and filling up the day with busy work, you’ll realize what so many homeschooling parents have already learned: it does not take twelve years to educate a child. That’s why I say that Anyone Can Homeschool; because you need not recreate the current system as we know it.

So let’s dive in!

The History of Education Timeline

Education’s history around the world and throughout time is a long story, so for this article, I’m going to focus on America. It’s a much shorter history, and it’s the most relevant for my audience.

1600s

There were many types of settlers on the shores of America in the 1600s, but the ones who first brought their children were known as the Pilgrims. And their goal in coming here was to find a haven from religious persecution, to spread the gospel, and to begin a new work in a new, free land. Their children’s hearts and minds were one of their top priorities.

Related Article: What the Pilgrims Did

As you might imagine, settling in a strange wilderness created many challenges, one of which was the education of children. The Pilgrim mothers and fathers wanted their children to read for the purpose of reading the Bible. Keep in mind, the Pilgrims were the descendants of the Protestant Reformation. Out of this desire came the New England Primer. This simple little book took the catechism and created a reading program out of it.

New England Primer

The New England Colonies in 1690 first published the standard for educational textbooks known as the “New England Primer”. It was the single most influential Christian textbook in history and the first reading primer designed for the American Colonies. It became the most successful educational textbook published in 18th century America and it became the foundation of most schooling before 1790. Most scholars agree that most, if not all, of the Founding Fathers, were taught to read and write using this The New England Primer, which is unsurpassed to this day for its excellence of practical training and Christian worldview. The goal of the Primer was to combine the study of the Bible with the alphabet, vocabulary, and the reading of prose and poetry. This is the book that introduced the children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” and which became the core of education for all American children.(AN AMERICAN HERITAGE)

I encourage you to purchase a copy for your family as a means of preserving this important piece of our history.

New England Primer, the start of history of education in america timeline

Naturally, there were no schools in the early colonies, so the history of education timeline began in the home, either by the parents or with a tutor from the village. Children learned to read with the Primer, and were then able to move on to reading other great works that might be available. Once a child was able to read, they were expected to get their education from what we call “the classics,” great works of history, science, mathematics, and philosophy.

Was this enough?

latin reader

It was. By the end of the 1600s, colonists had already established colleges, two of which are now Ivy League universities (Harvard and College of William and Mary). In 1701, Yale was established. It’s important to note that early university students attended these schools as young teenagers, somewhere around the age of 12-14. “Students were expected to arrive at Harvard well-versed in Latin grammar and, once enrolled, followed a prescribed course of studies in Latin, Greek and Hebrew; the examination of classical languages through histories and drama providing the base for scholarly pursuits.  Other disciplines included Rhetoric and Logic, Ethics and Politics, Arithmetic and Geometry, and later, Algebra, Astronomy, Physics, Metaphysics and Theology (although Harvard College never functioned strictly as a divinity school).” (Source)

The men who founded these universities were educated first with the New England Primer, and their posterity went on to fight a revolution and form a new nation. And it’s no secret that they were much better educated than our current generation, despite finishing grammar school by age 12-14, and graduating from college by 16-18 years of age. This further proves my point that it doesn’t take twelve years to educate a child.

1700s

As a new century dawned in the American colonies, the New England Primer continued to be the primary textbook for American children. In fact, as we follow along the history of education timeline, the most common reproduction available today is the 1777 edition. Education continued very much as it had in the 1600s, beginning with the New England Primer, and continuing with “readers” that educated children in writing, spelling, vocabulary, history, science, and Bible.

Read my related post: What the New England Primer Teaches Us About America

Geography reader, history of education timeline

The important thing to note is that school was not compulsory, nor was it government funded, except in a few situations. Each family saw to the educational needs of its own children, and in a variety of ways. Mothers and fathers (and often grandparents) taught the youngest children to read at home. After this, a child might continue to learn basic mathematics and composition in the home, while others attended a local school in the community, or learned at the home of a private tutor. Parents determined the level of education their children would receive based on many things, such as the family business or trade, natural inclination, talent, or even the needs of the family. As with many things in the colonies, it was haphazard (sort of) and not at all standardized. It was based most explicitly on freedom, privacy, and the free market, which would become very important themes as the century moved forward.

Related Article: Education in Colonial America

Again, by the early teen years, students were capable and ready for either an apprenticeship or futher education in the many colonial colleges. Remember that they entered fully educated in Latin? How did these primitive colonists achieve this? They did it because the majority was educated this way. One generation passed on their knowledge to the next, and it was solid, useful knowledge. This basic education lasted 4-8 years, depending on the time, the place, and the individuals.

And this is the generation that founded a uniquely new country, the generation that started the history of education in America timeline. Chew on that for a bit.

Founding Fathers colonial education

1800s

The pioneers and their one-room schoolhouses are probably the most quaint and familiar part of education in 19th century America. But let’s think about that for a moment: young men and women, often teenagers themselves, would teach multiple-aged children together in one classroom. Some of the students were learning to read, while others were writing advanced compositions on topics that today’s high schoolers wouldn’t recognize, and doing complicated math problems on a chalkboard slate or in their head.

Don’t believe me? If you’ve read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, Little Town on the Praire, you might remember the school exhibition of 1884. All of the students were tasked with reciting many things they had learned. Laura recited geography, sentence diagramming, long division, and the first 2/3 of American history to that point. RECITED. All of it. And her education was obtained in exactly the same manner as thousands of American pioneer children.

How was this possible?

Just as with the two previous centuries in our history of education timeline, education was focused on the necessary, not the frivolous. Students were educated from a set of readers (like the McGuffey’s and others) that introduced letters and sounds, simple words, and easy-to-read sentences in the primer. As each reader progressed, the level was more advanced, and the “reader” included selections on all topics. There were also grammar books, math books, geography books, and others. They were straightforward and basic, and could be learned in just a few short years.

Don’t fall under the assumption that the students of these school rooms were simpletons; check out a lesson from the McGuffey 5th reader to get an idea of the type of text and exercises utilized in prairie schools here. And then you’ll start considering that maybe it doesn’t take twelve years to educate a child after all.

one room school

As usual, American students finished their “grammar” education by the early teen years (though there were instances where the hit-and-miss nature of pioneer life caused a student to begin or end at a later age). They were well prepared for business, a trade, an apprenticeship, farming, mining, or college.

Now, think about the progress made in the 19th century. Steam engines, railroads, electricity, the light bulb, advances in farming and engineering. . . all of these were accomplished as a result of this old-fashioned but very effective education.

And what did it include? A simple stack of readers, the Bible, sporadic hours at home or in a local school, 4-8 years, and zero technology.

By the end of the 19th century, America was proving that a free and educated society could do anything it set its mind to. America was the promised land, for three centuries and counting. No government needed to tell parents when and how and why eduction was important. Government didn’t set educational standards or school years or weekly schedules. It didn’t test its children, or pass them or fail them.

And it didn’t take 12+ years to educate the great minds that made America.

The 20th Century

So now we come to the age of progress in our history of education in America timeline, the century that changed the world in so many ways. Most of us were born in that century, and are the products of it in one way or another.

Compulsory education got its start toward the end of the 19th century, but it was not widespread until the early 20th century. As with all of history and time, there were children who received an education, and there were those who did not. (Despite what some claim, there is no such thing as a “right to education.” It’s a privilege and a gift.) But the push for more and more children to be formally educated continued to grow, and over the first decades of the 20th century, the school day became longer and longer.

The reasons are many, and the players are varied. Some genuinely wanted to see all children have equal access to education. This is noble, and something I don’t disagree with. But there were other players involved who saw education as a means to control a society. Just a sample of their ideologies will turn your stomach:

“In our dreams…people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple…we will organize children…and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.” (From the first mission statement of Rockefeller’s General Education Board in a document called Occasional Letter Number One, 1906)

“Education is thus a most powerful ally of humanism, and every American school is a school of humanism. What can a theistic Sunday school’s meeting for an hour once a week and teaching only a fraction of the children do to stem the tide of the five-day program of humanistic teaching?” (Charles F. Potter, “Humanism: A New Religion,” 1930)

John J. Dunphy, in his award winning essay, The Humanist (1983), illustrates this strategic focus, “The battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as the proselytizers of a new faith: A religion of humanity — utilizing a classroom instead of a pulpit to carry humanist values into wherever they teach. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new — the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.”

Horace Mann, an early secretary of education in Massachusetts, designed a system based on the Prussian model of public schools. (Newsflash: not much good came out of Prussia, aka Germany, over that 100-year period.) Accordingly, in the history of education timeline, it was this model that introduced grade level by age, instead of the large groups of children of the one-room-school.

During the early decades of the 20th century, compulsory attendance spread across America. Then two world wars happened, feminism was on the upswing, women went to work in offices and factories, and children needed a place to be all day. It was the perfect storm. This era was known as the Progressive Era in education (as in many other areas). Marxism, humanism, feminism — all the -isms that are contrary to God and family — were on the rise, and the best way to make the most massive change was by influencing children through 12 years of mandatory attendance in school.

How did it go?

I think you already know. 100 years in, and most people you talk to will lament one problem or another with public schools. Some will just wish prayer back in school, while others are on the forefront of fighting against the early sexualization of children, the radical revision of history, and retro-racism known as critical race theory.

My point is this: inroducing K-12 in the school system was not for the benefit of education, and it certainly hasn’t produced the imaginary results that some people think it should have. While some goodhearted people genuinely wanted a better education for America’s children, more wealthy and influential people saw a means of splitting the family apart to change a nation.

And it has worked.

The History of Education In America (Timeline) and How It Compares to Today

So, back to the point of this post: it doesn’t take twelve years to educate a child. The proof is in the pudding. Over the course the timeline, and through the first three centuries of this country’s massive growth, children educated in the home and in various tutoring situations, haphazard or not, created a nation that succeeded far beyond the wildest dreams of any revolutionary…for a time. Free markets were allowed to flourish, Christianity was valued in the home and in the community, the principles of freedom were tested and passed, and the age of progress was explosive. America gave the world some of its most lasting inventions, including the ability to fly. Think about it. Fly! Only in the last century was that possible for humans, and it happened because of two brothers who were schooled in that haphazard manner described above.

Parents, don’t try to copy a system that was artificially created to produce servants to society. Don’t stress out about starting Kindergarten at 5, or filling up 12 years of school subjects. It doesn’t take 12 years to provide your children with a high-quality education. K-12 did not make America great. It was literally parents who understood that education is discipleship and that the family is the nursery of the nation.

Anyone Can Homeschool

Understanding this concept is key to homeschooling. When you abandon the scary timeline and the need to match up your children to a state’s arbitrary grade-system, you realize that truly Anyone Can Homeschool. The first two chapters of my book explain this further. Get your copy here or on Amazon.

Anyone Can Homeschool by Nicki Truesdell

Source: The History of Education In America (Timeline) and How It Compares to Today (nickitruesdell.com)

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