11 May 2009

Literature & Education: The American Colonies

By Isabel Roman

Education in the thirteen colonies varied as much as the colonies themselves. However, over all it did include reading, writing, simple math, poems, and prayers. Paper and textbooks were scarce so they recited their lessons until they memorized them. The three most commonly used books were the Bible, a primer, and a hornbook--which I had to look up.

The hornbook, a form of ABC book, was common by Shakespeare's day (Love's Labour's Lost, Act V. i.). It consisted of a piece parchment or paper pasted onto (most commonly) a wooden board and protected by a leaf of horn. The text usually started with a cross in the top left-hand corner, followed by an alphabet, vowels, a syllabary, and the invocation to the Trinity, after which the Lord's prayer was printed. The horn-book was often known as the "Crisscross-row" or "Crisscross," which is probably a reference to the Christ's cross at the top of it, or perhaps the way in which the text itself is set up to be read. At any rate the text of the hornbook shows clearly how much religion dominated instruction and literacy in these early times. The compact text did not allow room for illustration. However, on the other side might be engraved some splendid figure, such as St. George, or the reigning monarch, or even a mermaid. According to Mahoney, in the invention of the hornbook, "provision was made, for the first time, for children to handle their own books" (p.8).
In New England, they valued education, for both religious study and economic success. A 1647 Massachusetts law mandated every town of 50+ families have an elementary school and every town of 100+ families have a grammar school, where boys could learn Latin in preparation for college. In practice, it was difficult to keep schools open and staffed (I'm thinking Ichabod Crane here!) but all towns made an effort. Both boys and girls attended the elementary schools, and learned to read, write, and cipher.

In the more diverse population of the mid-Atlantic colonies were heavily influenced by the Age of Enlightenment, and Philadelphia became the center of the Enlightenment in America partly because of the presence of Benjamin Franklin, who championed many Enlightenment ideas. Franklin popularized the Enlightenment in annual editions of Poor Richard's Almanack. In 1743 Franklin was among the founders of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, which sought to promote useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through scholarly research and community service. Enlightenment culture, in combination with merchant wealth, gave a major boost to the production of high art as opposed to popular or folk art. Serious artistic work had previously found little support in the colonies.

The rural South had few schools of any sort until the Revolutionary War. Wealthy children studied with private tutors; middle-class children might learn to read from literate parents or older siblings. However, most poor and middle-class white children, as well as virtually all black children, went unschooled. Literacy rates were significantly lower in the South than the north.

Secondary schools were rare outside major towns, and emphasized Latin grammar and advanced arithmetic, with the goal of preparing boys to enter college. Some secondary schools also taught practical subjects, such as accounting, navigation, surveying, and modern languages. In poorer families, many households sent their children to apprentice and learn a trade.