What Was Education Like in Colonial Rhode Island?

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In general the New England colonies were strongly Puritan and valued the education of children. Although Rhode Island practiced religious tolerance, they were no different in this regard. Children learned to read using the Bible and the “New England Primer” under the tutelage of divinity students, ministers or even innkeepers. The school year lasted only four months.

The educational system set up in Massachusetts in 1647 is the foundation of America’s public school system. Of all the New England colonies, however, Rhode Island was the only colony not to provide compulsory elementary education.

In the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the wealthy hired tutors for their children. A few limp efforts were made to provide for the rest, but until the mid-18th century, there were very few educational resources available for most children. However, Quaker communities in Pennsylvania did provide rudimentary elementary schools that taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Wealthy Philadelphia daughters received education in music, dancing, painting, singing, grammar and bookkeeping.

In the South, plantations and farms were so spread apart that community public schools were impossible. Instead, planters hired tutors to teach their children or sent them to England for their education. Poorer families taught their children the basics at home.