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The United States underwent an educational reform in the 18th century. It was during this time that schools started emphasizing academics to students, like math and science, instead of virtues of family, religion, and community.

Women and African American children were even getting a glimpse into the possibility of an education. To fully understand the development and curriculum of American schooling today, it’s essential to understand the conceptual shift in academics during the 1700s.  

Curriculum Comparison

At the beginning of the 18th century, the changes in education reflected the change in American society. Religious propaganda was being questioned, which brought a slow shift to emphasize science-based curriculums. The theater arts were at one point “sinful” in the years prior to the 1730s. This is mostly due to the Catholic church, who, ironically, became the main contributor to the rebirth of the theatrical arts during the later Middle Ages. But as society developed in sophistication, so did their taste for entertainment and the demand for live stage performances, including classical music — gaining a newfound respect for the fine arts during this period and encouraged theater.


Learning business-related subjects didn’t come about until 1832. According to Imagine America, Benjamin Franklin established the first school that focused in commerce training. By the mid-1830s, 15 to 20 private career schools were teaching business-related subjects.


Today, including new subjects within the curriculum is still reflected by the changes that society undergoes, and the collaboration among educators to identify what subjects students will benefit from. There is debate on adding courses on financial literacy and cooking in secondary schools, also the possibility of a new college course called Fat Studies, a class entirely devoted to the overweight and obese, where students compare weight and society.  

Who Recieved Education

Education, up until the late 17th century, was only available to those in the upper class. When education was offered to more social classes, the literacy rate increased. In England specifically, the literacy rate during the 1640s was about 30 percent for males, and by the mid-18th century it rose to 60 percent.


However the definition of “literacy” back then mostly determined their ability to sign their name and their ability to read. Writing wasn’t counted as a factor. In today’s educational system, all American children are required by law to receive an education in some form, and many are learning to read and write at the ages of four and five. The literacy rates in America are now weighed on a completely different scale. With statistics that compare lifestyle choices and achievements based on literacy background and education.


African Americans in the 18th century didn’t have much of an education opportunity, especially in the deep south. In fact, there was a law that passed in South Carolina in 1740 that made it unlawful to teach a “slave,” and those that were caught would be prosecuted and fined. There were, however, some heroic teachers that held secret night classes. Teachers that were caught  were ran out of town or sent to prison. The situation was better in the North, and the first African Free School was opened in New York City in 1787. The school's mission was to educate black children to take their place as equals to white American citizens.


The education of girls in the early 18th century varied on social class and their geographic location. If families had a son and a daughter, they’d typically make their son’s education more of a priority. Some people believed back then that if women were well educated, it would confuse them of their “place in society,” ruin their marriage prospects, and be harmful to their mind. As far as those people were concerned, the only education that was needed for a woman was that in the Bible. In today’s educational world, according to TIME Magazine, women are more likely to have a college degree than men.


The 1700s proved to be a dramatic shift for education, developing a curriculum for the fine arts as well as showing signs of educational reform for women and African Americans. The profile of today’s college student has changed dramatically. People are now able to tend to a family while pursuing a degree online. According to Arizona State University, 62 percent of students work either full- or part-time, and 29 percent have at least one dependent. Needing the flexibility and variety of course offerings, more students are turning to online learning to design a path that fits their lifestyle — on their terms. This growing number of students is no longer considered nontraditional; they are the new traditional.


About The Author

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.