History of the Classroom: The First Schools of America

Even though the roots of a modern classroom can be found way back in classical antiquity, what we know as “school” today is a very recent model. The history of the classroom is closely tied with social changes and is even changing at this very moment.

Public schools are a new invention and only came after the revolution against British rule. Also, regretfully, fully integrated schools without regard to gender and race are a fairly recent development.

Those who have lived through segregation are still around, and might not even be of retiring age yet.

Many of the remnants of history when it comes to education still pain modern pupils and students. The inability of schools to adapt quickly and offer their protégés useful and engaging knowledge is something every teacher is fighting against to this day.

Roots in European Antiquity

The word ‘’school’’ comes from Greek and at the time meant a leisurely activity and lecture. For the upper class of the Greek population, going to school was more akin to a club where an experienced teacher would tell you about his ideas of the world.

But the history of the classroom as we see it today didn’t come from this type of education for children. Rather, it came from Roman philosophy schools that were more like monasteries and were meant for older students, usually unmarried men.

Christian monasteries later overtook this role and were the center of learning.

Almost all modern schools in the USA take roots in those religious learning centers. This is why discipline and obedience was such a huge factor in schooling. Even today, there are ideas that students must be obedient to their teachers. Otherwise, they are punished.

Reperitio est Mater Studiorum

“Repetition is the mother of all learning.” For most teachers, it is an eye-opening moment when we find out why schools focus on repetition. The reason is not that repeating is the only way to learn today; it is because it was the best way more than 500 years ago.

Books initially weren’t printed in high numbers and accessible to anyone. A whole classroom often had only a single textbook. Thus, there was little chance for you to reference something you have forgotten. This is why most students were forced to copy whole textbooks in their notebooks and learn them by heart.


History of the Classroom in Colonial America

Colonial America was special in many ways. While the life of an average person was very hard, the New World was interesting for many high-ranking individuals and organizations. For imperial powers of the time – England, Spain, and France – the continent was a chance for a land grab.

But more interesting were the Churches. Multiple Protestant branches from both England and the Netherlands have opened their doors to some sort of education inside the 13 colonies.

Each branch of the Christian Church wanted to make their community. This would show to the world that their teachings were correct as they would prosper under them. In many ways, this opened the doors for the 13 colonies to become a place where most of the protestant children could read.

This gave the basis of what we consider a classroom today. It was a dedicated room with front-facing desks and benches. The lecturer, usually a member of the clergy at the time, would stand in the front and present a class with the curriculum.

Tool for Socialization

In many ways, classrooms in colonial America weren’t as much for learning as they were for socialization. In truth, most teachers knew only to read and write and spoke little to no Latin.

There were professional lecturers and professors, but they were usually only teaching at places of higher education. The first such place in the US was The New University in Massachusetts, which is now Harvard.

However, most primary schools were used mostly for socialization and not extensive education. Strict teachers were used to forcing children into obedience. The idea was that they should listen to their teachers, parents, and God.

After the Revolution

After the liberation from British rule, the new Federal Government made huge strides to promote and modernize the education system. New schools opened their doors using subsidies, especially in rural areas.

Between 1771 and 1804, attendance in schools for children rose from 33% to 69%. The North was significantly better in that regard. The main reason why literacy ratings were much lower in the South was due to the prohibition for black children to attend.

Bound by Religion

Ironically, the push to prevent parochial schools to receive government funds, which is in most states still the case, wasn’t due to secular tendencies. Rather, the 1840s saw a steep rise in Catholic migrants from Ireland and Italy.

This rise in nativist sentiment didn’t produce open hostilities. Rather, the Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant communities started funding more private schools and seminaries to educate their teachers.

In the end, dozens of high schools and colleges opened their doors. Additionally, primary schools started receiving a wider education. Natural and social sciences were introduced into the curriculum and the teachers were expected to have expertise in their field.

In some schools in the North-East, you wouldn’t be able to see anything strange compared to the modern classroom. Provided you came during the day and haven’t met the students.

Slow Inclusion

After the revolution, the Federal government decided that every child should go to school. But the definition of ‘every child’ was understood differently depending on the state.

The first schools for native American children opened back in the 17th century. And there were already seminaries for girls in almost every state.

But there was a huge opposition for making mixed schools. Additionally, many Southern states had legal preventions for black children to receive an education.

The first school to allow mixed-gendered classrooms was Oberlin College in 1837. Oberlin also allowed co-educational schools, the equal of today’s high school, in 1833.

Racial inclusion technically started right after the Civil War. But most American states introduced strict segregation laws that prevented Black and White children from going to the same school, even if they lived in the same district.

This was only overturned in 1954, almost a century after the Civil War, when the US Supreme Court declared in Brown vs. Board of Education that such segregation is unconstitutional.

Still in Development

History of the classroom is not in the past, it is a living thing that is still in development. By all accounts, even if we find ways to download information directly to the brain, you could argue that we would still need teachers to explain how to use it.

Teachers working today are a part of this living history. What the future generations will say about us depends on the results produced. And the only thing we can do is our best.

Modern teachers have many of the social and technological issues that were there before. History of the classroom is stricken with the social plight of the people learning. But there are always those who want to make it better.

Currently, everyone is trying to adapt to what the internet has to offer and try to use this technology to make our lives, and those of our students, easier, better, and happier.