Daniela Quintanilla – Protestantism in American Education

According to the first lecture, colleges perform two basic functions in a socioeconomic context: to confirm/reinforce a student’s status, or to change/improve that status. This development in the American collegiate system distinguishes American universities from their higher educational institutional predecessors in Europe, notably in Germany and in England. This linkage is primarily due to the Protestant roots of the foundation of the American colonies and later the United States, a relationship evident in the story of Harvard College.

Hugh Peters writes in New England’s First Fruits from 1643 that among the first things the Puritans did upon their arrival in New England – after building homes, churches, and a government – was to “advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity” (Peters).  Indeed, the entire basis of the Protestant movement was to disavow the Catholic church, its practices, and the ecclesiastical system of education. While many of the early colonial colleges were founded to continue educating the clergy, they also served as new institutions to foster the promise of hope and change in what would become a uniquely American spirit to this day.

Harvard was one of the first nine colonial colleges founded, among seven other Ivy League schools, the College of William and Mary, and Rutgers University. Upon its founding as the first American college, Harvard was affiliated as Puritan-Congregationalist and was originally called New College until receiving its name from benefactor John Harvard, who also bequeathed his  library to the school. Harvard was founded in Cambridge (previously Newtone) outside Boston in order to preserve an academic culture for the town.

Massachusetts Commonwealth
Massachusetts Commonwealth

Although all of the schools founded in the colonial period were intended to be rigorous institutions to replace the old schools of Oxford and Cambridge in the intentional rejection of English and Catholic politics and religion, not all of them were specifically ecclesiastical in personality. The University of Pennsylvania was founded in Philadelphia, at that time the most economically viable city in the northern colonies, by Quakers. Although the Quakers did not necessarily require their ministers to receive higher degrees as the Protestants did, they believed in communal activity. The school was founded by Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father, to focus on practical education in addition to classical or ecclesiastical education. Thus, personalities among the schools were already growing and developing in conversation with one another. The same would be true with the founding of King’s College and Queen’s College, intended for loyalists to the Crown. Although an advertisement for King’s College in 1754 writes that the “chief thing” aimed by the faculty is to “teach and engage the children in knowing God”, the advertisement also specifies that “there is no intention to impose on the scholars, the peculiar tenets of any particular sect of Christians” but simply Christian morality and principles. This dichotomy is interesting because although only Protestants would have been allowed to enroll (it would have been very difficult for Catholics to be admitted, but no information on Jewish students is available) but the school specifically did not intend to impose Christianity.  It would be a Christian school for Christians that taught “the learned languages”, “arts of reasoning”, “writing correctly”, as well as geography, history, commerce, government, the sciences, and more (Johnson).

Despite these differences, the Protestant values remained: anyone (who could afford to) could get an education. Class was not an issue, although racial, religious, and ethnic diversity would still lack until far into the twentieth century.

When the next batch of institutions were founded (sixteen in the second half of the eighteenth century), one among them was the Indian School, founded in 1740 by Elias Weelark as a commitment to missionary activity among Indians. The commitment to the Indian population, rather than the English-American colonist population, is unique among schools of that time. But like many other colleges, including Log College in Pennsylvania, the Indian School would not last; funding was a major issue in keeping these colleges growing. King’s College was the only college of its time that had no serious problems with funding. Indeed, one of the original colonial colleges, Henricus College, was defunct only six years after its founding in 1618. Yale originally received state funds, then had to rely on donations and endowment. King’s College was supposed to be the New York City branch of New York’s state university system; after the Revolutionary War, when the college was completely shut down for the duration, it renamed itself Columbia with a half dozen revolutionary leaders in its leadership.

Gutenburg Library

Gutenburg Library

The institutions were also adaptable. Harvard founded a natural history department in 1821 when William Peck published a study of a worm and became notorious as an economic entomologist (McCaughey). The Protestant-based American spirit would lend itself to these American institutions as they were able to adapt and change with the course of history. They also served as havens for those who needed to escape intellectual discrimination from elsewhere; Jared Sparks went to Harvard also in “flight from the larger world” to fully devote himself to the study of history after previously serving as a minister, having graduated from Harvard Divinity School.

Indeed, the Protestant spirit is perfectly embodied in the fact that like the Puritans who left England to pursue religious freedom, their descendants continued to pursue new fields, studies, and means of pursuing life, liberty, and happiness away from persecution. The Protestant Reformation led to the birth of a new country and a new educational system that would not yet be for all, but would be for more than the original system that it emerged from. 


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply