Academic journal article International Social Science Review

The State of Education in Colonial Virginia

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

The State of Education in Colonial Virginia

Article excerpt

Not all of those living in the South during the colonial and antebellum periods regarded education as an institution in which the North held a monopoly or as an institution that served the needs only of the wealthy. In fact, throughout this period many Virginians of average means expressed not only an interest, but had the resources to ensure that their children received an education that would enable them to function well in an agrarian society that embraced republican principles.

What exactly constituted a proper education depended upon who did the defining. A number of colonial Virginians regarded a child's education as adequate if he learned some sort of trade, the rudiments of the Anglican faith, and perhaps how to write his name. Parents addressed the trade issue by instructing their children themselves, or apprenticing the youngster to a master craftsman. Religion had a role in education as well, and often a child acquired that religious component through attending Sunday services at the local Anglican Church. Writing one's name might prove more difficult, but the skill could be passed on from parents--provided they possessed the ability themselves--or brief instruction from a tutor or Anglican minister.

Those colonial Virginians who had the financial means could seek a more traditional English education for their children, one that included instruction in reading, writing, Greek, and Latin. But furnishing a child with that level of education proved more difficult. It would require a teacher skilled in those subjects--and such individuals did not always find the frontier colony that enticing. And to support a teacher required money, shelter, food, etc. Very few families living in 17th and 18th century Virginia could afford to hire a teacher on their own, which meant that parents or guardians would have to pool their funds in order to have enough to hire someone. But the widely dispersed population and few compact settlements in colonial Virginia made it difficult to gather children into a' school. The dispersed population problem was indeed daunting. In the seventeenth century, for example, Jamestown served as the colony's capital from its founding in 1607 until the seat of government moved to Williamsburg in 1699. During that period the colony's population grew from an estimated 350 in 1610 to approximately 58,560 by 1700 (1). As the seventeenth century progressed, a growing number of the population lived outside of either colonial capital, which naturally meant that most Virginians lived on plantations and small farms dispersed across the countryside. As Philip Alexander Bruce, the authority on that period of Virginia history, has stated, prior to 1650 the average patent granted in the colony was less than 500 acres, and after 1650 the average was over 600 acres. Families scattered throughout the countryside on such large tracts inhibited the formation of communities necessary to draw enough students to support schools. (2) By comparison, New England developed numerous towns in the seventeenth century, which made it easier to create and support public schools. (3)

Despite such obstacles, some colonial Virginians pushed ahead with efforts to educate their youngsters as best they knew how. Even the Virginia Company of London expressed an interest in educating the children of Native Americans living in the colony. In 1618, the Company informed newly appointed governor Sir George Yeardly that it intended to create "a college for the training up of the Children of those Infidels in true Religion[,] moral virtue and Civility[,] and for other godly uses." (4) Had not the Indian uprising of 1622 occurred, killing over three hundred settlers along the James River, the college probably would have come into existence, and thus would have edged out Harvard as the oldest college in colonial North America.

It is appropriate to begin the discussion of education in Virginia with the college, because it shows that religious instruction played a part in education. …

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