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Over 56 million children in the U.S attend school. Today, what that looks like might feel a little different thanks to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But while parents are trying to make decisions on what school will look like for their kids this year, it can be interesting to look back on what schools used to look like, and how far we’ve come.

The 18th century was actually an incredibly unique time for the education system in America. It went through a bit of reform, as students began to learn academic skills like math and science, rather than virtuous skills like family and religion. Different social classes, including women, the poor, and African Americans also began to have more rights when it came to receiving an education.

What are some of the other major differences between then and now? How far have we come with the educational system?

By taking a look back, it can be easier to appreciate some of the things that have changed, from teachers to the way school is structured. Let’s take a look at some of those differences.

A Tale of Teachers

Today, teaching is a passion for those who do it, and the world is always in need of more! People decide to become teachers for a variety of reasons, including:


●        Job security

●        The desire to make a difference

●        To share a love of learning

●        Working with kids


Most elementary and high-school level teachers receive a four-year degree and take a test for certification before they can step into a classroom. Requirements vary among states. Teachers today all tend to have their own styles when it comes to teaching, in order to engage their students in the best ways possible. That allows for some creativity in creating a curriculum.

That wasn’t the case in the 18th century.

First, well into the late 18th century, teachers were primarily men. They didn’t necessarily need years of schooling or training to become educators. According to a job posting in the 1772 Virginia Gazette, schoolmasters needed to be capable of “reading, writing, arithmetick, and the Latin tongue.”

Many teachers in the 18th century only taught for a few months, during their off-season from farming or other careers. It wasn’t uncommon to see farmers, surveyors, or innkeepers in the front of a classroom assuming the teaching role.

One thing that has certainly changed for teachers in the classroom is the importance of mental health. Teaching is, and always has been, a stressful career. So much so, that 61% of educators say that their job is “always” or “often” stressful. Today, however, many schools promote self-care and mental health days to teachers as needed to help them prevent burnout. In the 18th century, mental health simply wasn’t a focus or priority. Women who experienced symptoms of burnout or excessive stress were often called “hysterical.”

Did Things Look Different?

Most 18th-century schools were one-classroom buildings instead of the larger schools we see today with multiple rooms for different subjects. That is, perhaps, the major difference between what schools looked like then and now. But you have to consider that fewer people attended public school back then. Even for those who did, it wasn’t uncommon for them to miss days, or even weeks of school to work on the family farm during planting or harvest season.

Because the buildings were much smaller, the entire look and feel of a school was different from what most are used to in today’s world. For example, there weren’t hallways lined with metal lockers. Instead, students had to keep their belongings at their desks/tables throughout the day. Some may have been given small cubbies within the classroom as well to store things, which is still an option for some smaller classrooms today.

Another major difference was the construction of the buildings and the materials used. Because the classrooms were small and education wasn’t a huge priority, building safety codes for schools simply weren’t a major issue in the 18th century. Today, schools are held to a certain standard when it comes to safety. The buildings must be up to code, so they are regularly inspected for things like asbestos-based materials that could potentially cause health conditions.

Who Was Allowed to Learn?

We touched briefly on this subject earlier, but one of the most interesting things about the educational system in the 18th century is who was (and wasn’t) allowed to learn. Many women in the 18th century were educated at home instead of attending an actual school. Additionally, they weren’t typically taught things like math and science. Instead, the focus was on sewing, music, or languages. Many women did learn to read. However, they didn’t often learn to write.

In the early 18th century, slaves were not allowed to learn at all, especially in the Southern states. Exceptions to this included schools that were run by Quakers who wanted to give everyone an opportunity to learn.

When it comes to higher education, it was something reserved for wealthy men. Additionally, some of the most prestigious schools in the country started out very differently than they are perceived today. For example, Harvard University (then called Harvard College) was originally founded to train priests, who would educate others with their doctrine. Benjamin Franklin was the one to step away from this model when he opened the Philadelphia Academy and focused on teaching more practical subjects like math and accounting.

There are so many differences between school in the 18th century and where we are today, from what the teachers looked like to the curriculum being taught.  So no matter what school might look like for your children this year (and in the future), it’s important to remember how far we’ve come. And how lucky those of us living in this century are to have more open opportunities when it comes to receiving an education.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.