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The Earliest Periods Of Education

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This paper explores the Enlightenment theory which is discussed through describing the earliest periods of education and what it consisted of. Additionally, key figures of this theory are represented in detail. The various accounts and perspectives of Enlightenment thinkers regarding the subject are considered and analyzed on the ways in which they affected the Enlightenment. The relation of the Enlightenment to education today is debated using the evidence from different sources. Individual theories and opinions concerning education are compared and contrasted throughout, and the idea that there are endless points of view in history is indicated.


Although many historians would argue that the exact dates of when it began, and when, or even if, it has ended are unsure, Urban and Wagoner (2009) classify the period between 1776 and 1830, as the beginning of a major advance in education, culture and religion. This escalating time of change was known as the Enlightenment. Of course, as always, in history, there are many perspectives and viewpoints concerning this topic, depending on which side of the story is being discussed. However, this certain analysis will infer that American education was shaped and built greatly through the influence of this theory. Even though it may have been rethought, questioned and even terrified of, without this occurrence, the education system we have today, may be wildly different or perhaps may not even exist. The dictionary definition of Enlightenment is “a philosophical movement of the 18th century, characterized by belief in the power of human reason and by innovations in political, religious, and educational doctrine” (enlightenment). It was considered “philosophical” because it was not stimulated for one single cause, or problem. The Enlightenment was a step in making the world a better one. It took some serious time, and many influential people to trigger such a renowned theory. In light of their efforts and the effects of the Enlightenment, these people will always be remembered, as they had an enormous impact on the structure of not only America’s education system, but America itself today.

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Early Ideas of Education

The earliest education “focused on inculcating students with proper knowledge to first be good members of the church, and secondly be good members of their immediate community” (Owens, 2011, p. 530). This very limited educational foundation, primarily dealt with religion, and it was only for the little population in society who would become a government or church official. With this in mind, it is extremely clear that those who had control and power were a very small group of people, mostly with the same points of view and opinions on life because of the education that they had. Hampson (1968) explains that “[t]he one unquestionable voice of knowledge and duty was that of God himself” (p. 17). In this time of history, people knew nothing of the world before them, besides which of that was written in the Bible. According to Urban and Wagoner (2009), some of the world’s earliest known scientists began to discover new ideas of the solar system, the human body, and microorganisms which lead to questioning of religion and traditional values (p. 73). These discoveries are quite significant to the history of education. Before people were aware of these scientific studies, they only believed what they were forced or told to. There were no books to read, because many were not literate, so they accepted the things they were taught. To be aware of the earliest education and those whom had access to this education is very essential in the events leading to the Enlightenment. These key people had to rebel against their own society in order to better education and life, in general, for, not only the people of their time, but for generations to come as well.

John Locke’s Motivating Theories

One of the first Enlightenment thinkers known as John Locke, contributed, what some would call key factors in the Enlightenment theory. Hampson (1968) states that one of Locke’s major theories is that people act the way they do because of the experiences they had, they were not born evil, nor good. The declaration was audacious in this time period because in the Bible, with the story of Adam and Eve, it is implied that humans are naturally evil, or deceptive. These new ideas of education and society, speculate the conclusion that humans could all be equal to one another. He also emphasizes that Locke’s work “disclosed the scientific laws of the human mind, which would allow men to reconstruct society on happier and more rational lines (p. 39). There were many different feelings regarding Locke’s ideologies once society began to learn of them and realize what they could lead to. On another note, Urban and Wagoner (2009) discuss Jean Jacques Rousseau’s objection to Locke’s belief, saying that “man is not born merely neutral or malleable, but definitely ‘good’ […] It is our artificial, unnatural, and degenerative environment that corrupts and enslaves” (p. 75). This challenge explains why history is not all that clear and concise, because there are multiple opinions and accounts for every historical moment. Granting Locke’s major contributions to Enlightenment thought, he was only one of many to inspire the movement.

The Newtonian Revolution

Another heavily influential figure in the history of education, according to Hampson (1968) is Isaac Newton who greatly affected the “intellectual climate of Europe,” because although Newton’s discoveries were mainly dealing with physics, it lead people to question everything they had ever known (p. 37). Newton’s mathematical and scientific ideologies brought about what is known as the “Newtonian revolution” (p. 80). The Newtonian revolution was the next step in reaching a broader education; people could learn about things other than which of that was in the Bible. Despite this, the change took time, explaining why the term “revolution” is used. To elaborate, religion was not, at this moment, abandoned completely, for so long, education basically was defined by religion. Once Newton’s theories were circulating society began to understand and grasp the concept that there is more to education than just the Bible. The disclosure that Earth was not the center of the universe, but that the sun was, proved to society that the world had more to it than what was initially thought. This cosmogonal theory was “alarming still to those who sensed the crumbling of their tidy medieval world view” (p. 73). The reason Newton’s concepts are so important to the history of education is because before, given Locke’s belief’s, there was no proof, but with Newton’s scientific evidence people started to change their original thoughts on Enlightenment. Society began to think that maybe there was a brighter side, and possibly education is truly something that all people and the world itself could benefit from.

An Encouraging Criticism

As the Enlightenment progressed, criticisms got more specific. America’s earliest leaders began to collaborate “educational theory with political theory” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 79). Benjamin Franklin is said to think that education should benefit a community, and that it should be “‘useful’ to Americans” (p. 80). As certain policies were put in place, and schools were being developed, slowly, a higher population was allowed access to education. Owens (2011) refers to Benjamin Franklin’s metaphorical criticism of Harvard College in one of his Silence Dogood letters (p. 534). His purposely obvious meaning in his letters was a key in notifying his society on the importance of education. Franklin’s intent was a significant element in the “attempts to design arrangements that would serve political ends and the social good […] to determine the type of education most appropriate for the individual good of the enterprising American people” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 80). With notice of Franklin’s interest in improving the educational community, and the people who were members of it, created a domino effect, influencing more to make the system better.

Purposes of the Enlightenment

While many people may have felt attacked at the first suggestion of Enlightenment thought, its purpose was all in good intentions. While the earliest thinkers just prepared a foundation for what later educational theorists would develop, each important criticism and opinion matters. Chambliss (1971) quotes Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet describing three conditions of the Enlightenment; “the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind” (p. 7). These three conditions are what motivated these thinkers to embrace the movement and challenge their own societies. For too long before then, people did not think outside the box, or have any diverse opinions or meaningful individual thought. So this Enlightenment thought, excited the world, in many ways, even if not at first positively. Without the negative realizations, the positive outcomes would never have been discovered.

Thomas Jefferson’s Great Involvement

Thomas Jefferson was one of the many people involved with the Enlightenment during the start of the new world. First, Jefferson was involved in the government in a variety of ways. In 1776, Jefferson headed to Virginia after leaving Philadelphia in order to fulfill his new leading position. He then took his seat as a member of the House of Delegates, revising the laws of Virginia (Libertarianism). Jefferson later became president in 1801 and remained president for the next eight years. He was not only the president of America, but the president of the American Philosophical Society headquarters in Philadelphia. Jefferson continued to accomplish other endeavors; he founded the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802; moreover he took on the role as president of the Washington D.C school board (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 84). This makes sense to consider how significant education was to Jefferson and how important he felt it was for America as a new nation.

Jefferson was very passionate about having the proper education for citizens, and how this was vital for the new world. His Education plan, commonly known as the Bill for More General Diffusion of Knowledge, called for the division of counties into hundreds, he would call each section a little republic, local citizens would provide for an elementary school, and all free boys and girls would attend free of charge (Libertarianism). Jefferson felt strongly that the parents of the children should have complete control of the school districts. He believed a government could not manage schools. He felt the schools should be community controlled, like their farms, mills and merchants, not controlled by the federal or state government (Libertarianism). The students at these schools would study the usual, accent and modern history, reading, writing and arithmetic. He wanted to teach these children the literacy and computational skills they would need to function in society (Urban and Wagoner, 2009). To Jefferson, History was the most important subject for students to learn. He thought it was the most important field for free people (Libertarianism). If the citizens were ignorant of their history, this would have posed the threat of history repeating itself. Furthermore, the study of history would teach citizens to “exercise their rights and duties” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 82). Knowledge was important for Jefferson’s idea of liberty, and a government run by the people. Jefferson believed that education as a whole would lead America in a positive direction. According to Jefferson, education would lead to liberty, government and individual happiness. Without education, the citizens would not be able to protect themselves from tyranny. Jefferson once said in a letter to James Madison, “the people are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 83).

Education at this time was confined to the “Aristocracy,” the parents who could afford to send their children to school did so for as long as they felt appropriate. Jefferson’s bill, to send all free children to school for free, was drafted in 1778 and brought to the legislature in 1779. After about three years, education ended for most of the boys and girls. The elite, wealthy families, were the exception (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 82). In return, Jefferson’s bill called for 20 boarding schools to be places throughout the state. These schools were to accept, free of charge the most intelligent boy from each of the lower schools. Then, only one student, the most promising, and whose parents could not afford their education, would receive a scholarship for four additional years of schooling. Half of the students, living south and west of the James River on odd numbered years and those north and east, during the even numbered years would receive public support to attend the College of William and Mary (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 83). This gave the “under dogs” a chance to achieve academic excellence. Jefferson felt this would give the less wealthy a chance against the “artificial aristocracy,” giving them an opportunity to prove who was the most capable of leadership and worthy of the trust from their public, based on knowledge and talent, not on their place in society. Jefferson, unfortunately, did not live to see his dream of publicly supported education. He would have to live another forty years to do so, thankfully other people felt similarly to Jefferson and agreed with some of his ideas on education. Benjamin Rush was one of those people.

Benjamin Rush’s Views on Education

Benjamin Rush had ideas fairly similar to Jefferson’s, though their ideas did differ in certain ways. Unlike Jefferson, Rush was a big believer of religious involvement in education. He believed education must be grounded by religion. He thought that without religion, there could be no virtue and therefore, no liberty (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 87). He definitely believed that Christianity was the best religion to bring happiness to society and well-being to the government, though he did not try to force this particular religion on the people, he made it clear this was how he felt. He felt it important to impose upon children the discipline of religion, the religion itself would be left to the parent’s choice. Rush wanted public support for religious schools, unlike Jefferson, Rush did not believe religion was harmful. He thought the best way to make sure education was universal was to allow parents to educate their children in their chosen religion. He also believed the Bible would work well as a school book, some people disagreed and thought that reading of the Bible in school was too lax, and disrespectful.

Another way Rush and Jefferson differed, was that Rush, unlike Jefferson expressed his personal opinion of education for women. He felt they had to be educated for they would be in charge of caring for the children and for some years educating them. Rush said, “our ladies should be qualified to a certain degree, by a peculiar and suitable education, to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government…A knowledge of the English language. She should not only read but speak and spell it correctly, And to enable her to do this, she should be taught the English grammar and be frequently examined in applying its rules in common conversation” (Benjamin). Education for women was not to better themselves; it was solely to be sure they could properly teach their children, or “sons” as Rush put it. Jefferson never made a point to give his opinion on women’s education in particular, he more looked at education as a whole, though his proposals would have granted only limited access to women (Malott, 2014). Rush was not completely different from Jefferson in his ideas for education; he did believe it was vital for the success of America and worked hard to defend his ideas.

In 1786, Rush called for a system of education in Pennsylvania, much like Jefferson’s. He believed that a new form of government called for a new education system. People argued that the taxes would be too much of a burden. Rush quickly replied saying that taxes would for sure go down due to education of the citizens. Education could increase their knowledge in finance, agriculture and manufacturing. Education would also make for a better society for loss of ignorance would create less crime. The amount of money it costs to incriminate and try criminals exceeds the expenses for public education (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 87). Rush also had a dream of homogeneity; he believed that education would bring people together, bringing patriotism. He believed in one form of education connecting their one nation in a personal way. He believed that in order for freedom to exist there had to be a kind of ordered liberty, if the citizens felt united it would keep them from tyranny. If the people were controlled by education and homogeneity, they could be counted on to play their role in the “great machine of the government of the state” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 87). There had to be one common education, in order to have unison within the government.

In October 1788, he proposed that one of the first acts of the new Congress should be to create a federal university. This university would bring federal establishment. He felt that people who wanted a position in the new nation should be educated to do so. He continued that within 30 years after the school opened, it would be mandatory to have a degree at the university. He believed that the United States could not possibly survive without an education group of leaders, with common understandings and principals. Rush said, “a national university would enlighten the opinions, expand the patriotism, and harmonize the principals of those who attended it, thereby strengthening the foundations of our free and happy system of government” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 90). Though there was presidential support for the university, the idea remained at the local state, and not the federal level. Jefferson and Rush had similarities and differences, Noah Webster, another man that affected the education system a great deal, compares with Rush and Jefferson differently.

The American Spelling Book

Noah Webster created The American Spelling Book, what we, at present, call the dictionary. The name Webster is commonly correlated with the dictionary, even now with spell check on every electronic device. Webster was passionate about language in general but felt it extremely important to create a new and refined language for America. He thought that the new world should not adopt the old and dead language of England, for it will defeat the purpose of the new nation. Webster agreed completely with Rush and Jefferson regarding the need for education. He felt education was so important to the success of a free government that he said it to be the “most important business in civil society” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 90). In 1783, Webster published the first volume of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, by hand. Webster felt that in order to unite, the country needed its own textbooks and language. He wrote, “Now is the time and this the country in which we may expect success in attempting changes to language, science, and government” (ConnecticutHistory). Webster used his school books to share his views on education.

Webster was like Rush, in how he felt education would shape the young minds of America in a positive way but teaching them of virtue and liberty and would create a connection to their country. He believed in order to shape these young minds properly, they had to pay less attention to dead languages and more attention to their own. Like Rush, Webster thought highly of Christian morality being taught, basics of language, mathematics, and most importantly American history. History was very necessary to Webster; he felt that as soon as a child “can open their lips he should rehearse the history of his own country” (Urban and Wagoner, 2009, p. 91). Webster agreed mostly with Rush and Jefferson, but as a federalist, he feared a Republican government could bring too much freedom and lead to anarchy. He wanted America to be composed of Christians, and citizens educated and submissive to legitimate authority. He wanted to promote order in America, unlike Jefferson, who wanted liberty for all.


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