Early Roots of Modern American Education Research Paper Starter

Early Roots of Modern American Education

(Research Starters)

The early roots of modern education stretch back to ancient Israel, where it was believed that education was a divine command, and to Greece and Rome, where learning was considered central to the formation of character and an essential motivator for responsible citizenship. During the middle ages, the clergy found itself preserving scholarship while also trying to spread Christianity. During the Renaissance, Greek humanist philosophy was rediscovered, and education began to be disassociated from the church. In colonial America, however, the Puritans continued to view education as a religious duty as they founded institutions like Harvard and Yale. As the country moved into the nineteenth century, however, economic prosperity began to shift education into the secular sphere as a way to increase prosperity and create equality among citizens. The Founding Fathers, influenced by the works of John Locke, furthered this secularization in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Keywords Colonies; Dark Ages; Education; Enlightenment; Humanists; In Loco Parentis; Middle Ages; New World; Protestantism; Renaissance

History of Education: The Early Roots of Modern American Education


The Greek and Roman ideas about education, which were largely neglected in the West as the Dark Ages descended over Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, were rediscovered as the works of classical antiquity. Dutifully preserved in the Muslim world, they were reintroduced to Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries, paving the way for what came to be called the Renaissance. At that time, the largely secular educational ideas of Cicero and others were blended with the prevailing Christian piety and spread abroad by the dissemination of books and pamphlets written by English humanists such as Erasmus. Some evangelical Protestants, such as William Bradford, ventured to the New World in the seventeenth century, bringing Jewish ideas of education with them, and hoping that they would form a bulwark against the barbarism of the as-yet untamed American frontier.

The history of modern education stretches back to ancient times, and is comprised of many different cultural and intellectual influences, such as:

• The spiritual inheritance from the ancient Jews.

• The classical inheritance from Greece and Rome, which was never completely snuffed out in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but glowed ever more brightly as more and more texts reentered Europe from the Islamic world during the Renaissance, beginning in the 13th and 14 centuries A.D.

• Over a millennium of Christian scholarship dating back to Justin Martyr in the 2nd century A.D., on through Augustine in the 5th century, Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, and Erasmus in the 16th century.

• The social, political, cultural and economic realities to which the first European Americans had to adapt themselves as colonization began during the great Age of Exploration.

All of these influences came together to lay the groundwork for the educational system Americans know today.

Ancient Education Concepts

Education, which one might loosely define as the effective transmission of important and useful information from one person to another, began before the invention of writing. We know this because the evolution of modern human beings from our hominid ancestors depended on the development of cooperation within social groups. As these social groups became more complex, and a division of labor became the norm, it became ever more important to share information and educate those of a new generation in the beliefs, stories, habits and - most importantly - the skills of the elders.

The ancient Jews, whose religion would become foundational to Western Civilization, believed in the presence of a personal god who gave commandments that his people should follow if they desired the greatest amount of joy in this life. The Jews, setting a precedent that was followed straight through the founding of the American colonies, established a link between education and religious duty (Shupak, 2003). According to the book of Deuteronomy, Jews were to become literate so that they could teach God's law to their children, thus retaining His favor. God tells the Jews, for example, to "Teach [my words] to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up" (Deut. 11:19, NIV). From the outset, the ancient Jews valued education as an act of worship, and this cultural value became an inheritance of Western Civilization through the spread of Christianity. It is also important to note the democratization of education in ancient Israel: all were to be educated in the ways of God.

Education in Ancient Greece

In the more secular civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, where talk of the gods was more of a parlor game, education was also prized, but for quite different reasons than it was in ancient Israel. In Greece the reasons were pragmatic: the male elite were to be educated so that they could rule their city-states and maintain proper order:

…[C]itizenship…was a degree to be attained to only after proper education… This not only made some form of education necessary, but confined educational advantages to male youths of proper birth. There was of course no purpose in educating any others….Education in Greece was essentially the education of the children of the ruling class to perpetuate the rule of that class (Cubberly, 2004, p. 24).

This elitism moderated somewhat as city-states such as Athens become more prosperous and the club of citizens expanded, and teachers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle took on eager philosophy students and founded schools. The true contribution of the Greeks to modern education was their emphasis on -- even their insistence that -- education was important in creating involved citizens who would enjoy basic human freedoms of speech, the press and religion. Rather than placing an emphasis on education as a religious duty, it inverted the Jewish equation somewhat by making education the bulwark against oppressive ideologies imposed from without. The Greeks believed that only when free could a person become truly human, and they could only be free if they were educated to become citizens who would make contributions to lives beyond their own.

The Romans, living on the cusp of the Christian era, sought to expand upon Greek ideas. Cicero wrote that oratory, a lucrative skill prized by many Roman males, presupposed a broad liberal arts background. Concerned that Roman education was making men too intellectually myopic, he helped to articulate the idea that the goal of education was a well-rounded person with a thirst for knowledge that remained with him for life. According to Pascal (1984),

Education to the Romans had a broader context, going beyond the Greek arete, a concern for academic excellence, to a Ciceronian humanitas, education as a way to train not just through systematic instruction, but also as a means of achieving an understanding of human dignity and worthiness. The moral perspective, the stress on values was, according to Cicero, the mark of an educated man (Pascal, 1984, pp. 351-352).

For Cicero, the noble, mind-expanding and civilizing possibilities of education come through, and these concepts were readily adopted by leading Americans of the Enlightenment such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Unlike the Jews, and later the Christians, the Romans and Greeks had little use for any education that indulged in supernatural speculations which would not help them live more virtuously in this life.

Influence of Early Christianity

From a far flung corner of the Roman Empire there emerged a new force: Christianity. The early Christians were initially a persecuted minority accused of atheism because they didn't worship the Roman gods. Soon well-read Christian converts like Justin the Martyr - and later Augustine of Hippo - claimed inheritance rights over the classical heritage from Greece and Rome, as well as the first books of the Bible, which they (somewhat disparagingly) referred to as the Old Testament. While it seems likely that Jesus himself and most of his early followers were barely literate, and Jesus left no writings of his own, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries A.D., it began to win converts like wealthy Romans living in the cities. These educated Romans became, in time, educated Christians, thus helping to create an intellectual synthesis between Greek and Roman ideas on one hand, and Judeo-Christian ideas on the other. Cicero might have been right that education had moral and ethical ends, but those ends were redefined using Christian categories of sanctification, justification and salvation.


(The entire section is 3939 words.)