Published: 30-06-2011, 06:48

Household - American Education

The basic unit of social organization and education in the American colonies and in the United States until the Civil War. To the arriving Puritans, the household had been “the basic unit of church and commonwealth and, ultimately, the nursery of sainthood” from Elizabethan times. Although churches, schools, colleges and other institutions had emerged to share the educative task in metropolitan areas of England, the threat of barbarism in the isolation of the American wilderness once again made the household responsible for almost all education. In 1642, Massachusetts codified that responsibility, giving every town the power and obligation “to take account from time to time of all parents and masters, and of their children, concerning their calling and employment of their children, especially of their ability to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of this country.” Failure to teach their children to read and write, to read Scripture and to ply a useful trade by the time their children were 12 subjected parents to the loss of their children, whom the government would then place into enforced apprenticeships. Connecticut passed a similar law in 1650, New Haven in 1655, New York in 1665, Plymouth in 1671 and Pennsylvania in 1683. The net result was that most households were scenes of daily formal and informal education. Individual reading, responsive reading and communal readings were daily activities of most colonial households, and youngsters were taught to read by parents, other elders or older siblings. Youngsters in homes where no one knew how to read simply went to a neighboring home or so-called dame school, where, for a fee, a mother or older sister taught reading on a regular basis.
The colonial household remained the principal agency of popular education until communities grew large and wealthy enough to afford a church, whose pastor, as perhaps the only formally educated member of the community, then assumed the obligation of educating the community’s children. The emergence of public schools during the second half of the 19th century eventually stripped the church of its educative functions.