A Look Back at Schooling in the 13 Colonies


| LAST UPDATE 09/08/2022

By Sharon Renee
American Colonial Classroom Teacher
Campwillowlake via Getty Images

It is time to go back to school: while initial educational institutions have been in place for centuries and have similarities to schooling today, they looked pretty different then - and even from one other. At the time, standards varied depending on the region, race, wealth status, and physical location of a student. Here's a closer look at how the education system in the 13 American Colonies worked...

Attending school was not compulsory everywhere. Instead, attendance was usually based on where a family lived and what they could afford. If a family could not pay the fee with money, like in most rural areas, produce was accepted as tuition. Colonies had different approaches to education. Due to the heavy emphasis placed on religion, Massachusetts made education mandatory so that children could read the Bible. Southern colonies were impacted by how dispersed their population was, so formal schools did not exist. If a family could afford the tuition, they would send the boys to grammar schools, which prepared them to attend Harvard University, like President Abraham Lincoln's firstborn, Robert. 

13 colonies school children
Interim Archives / Contributor via Getty Images
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Similar to today, students would learn from a book. Except in colonial times, this book was less of a book and more of a wooden board called the hornbook. It had a piece of paper with the alphabet, in upper and lowercase, and the Lord's Prayer inscribed onto it, which was then secured onto the board and protected by a thin sheet. Students would learn to read and write using the hornbook. Additionally, the harvest would typically determine the school's schedule. Students would attend for a few weeks and then stop coming to school when they needed to be home to assist on the farm. If a student misbehaved in class, there was no after-school detention. Schoolteachers would choose from a variety of methods to correct misbehavior, like using a cane or caging kids outside the school.

Returning to school looks a lot different now than it did back then. From the material taught to the uses of punishment, it is an entirely different way of doing things. Yet the principle of having an education is still held in high regard today, just as it was then…

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