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In Colonial America, particularly in New England, the first educational establishments were built for the purpose of teaching religion. After all, if kids couldn't read, they couldn't read the Bible. There was also a need for a trained ministry. Education was so important to the citizens of Colonial America that in 1647, the first law regulating education was inducted in Massachusetts. This law stated that if parents neglected to instruct their children, the state would take over the duty. Connecticut passed a similar law in 1650. New England was also at the forefront of the advancement of higher education, especially in regards to the founding of Harvard University in 1636. Although the college was never intended to be used solely as a seminary, there were many theological courses offered in addition to literature, arts and science. Harvard remained the only institution of higher learning in America for half a century, until the college of William and Mary was erected in 1963 in Williamsburg, Virginia. The founder of the William and Mary College, James Blair, intended the school to be a combined seminary and college to cater to the needs of Virginia planters. However due to internal dissension as well as a fire that destroyed part of the university in 1705, some planters continued to send their sons to England for their education, especially those studying law.

In smaller communities, female members of the church provided most teaching. Only the larger towns could afford a qualified master to run a grammar school, and these were restricted to boys. Outside New England, the diversity in religious attitudes created diversity in the schools. Most left the attainment of salvation to the guidance of the minister instead of personal study by the individual. These elitist views were especially obvious in the Anglican Church. The Baptists and the Quakers cared the least about education, however, because they relied on inspiration and spontaneity, for which neither formal training nor literacy was necessary.

In the middle and southern colonies, schooling was left to individual parishes and communities. Large towns like New York and Philadelphia had established schools by the close of the seventeenth century, however there was still a very strong focus on religion. As the eighteenth century progressed, the need for better schools was recognized by more than just churches and religious leaders. This growing awareness was partially related to an increased need for clerks and other literate working people. But the primary reason for the beginning of educational reform was "The Enlightenment" in which the wealthy decided that those who were educated were not only financially superior, but morally superior as well. These factors greatly contribute to the rising emphasis on education in America that occurred in the 1700's. Many towns set up free schools in which only the rich had to pay. The increase in schools, of course, led to an increase in those entering the teaching profession, which had by then become accepted as a separate vocation from the ministry.

The eighteenth century school system put a much stronger emphasis on science than ever before. Students were beginning to find the traditional religious explanations of their environment unconvincing. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was probably the most notable center of scientific study. It was the famous inventor, Benjamin Franklin who started "The Society of Friends", which through his leadership, were able to identify electricity's positive and negative properties.

The fine arts movement, conversely, was barely beginning to emerge during this time. No distinguished painters appeared until after 1760, although simple portraits had always remained quite popular. Classical music and theater arts were just beginning to grown in popularity and acceptance in the 1730's. Until the 1700's, going to a play was considered sinful and plays were actually banned in most American colonies. Even in the eighteenth century, many considered theater to be immoral, but the growing sophistication and secular attitudes of the upper class inspired a desire to see live stage performances. Previously, Americans had only read the plays of the great masters, but most had never seen or acted in one.

Historically, education was designed to meet the needs of religious, agricultural and industrial powers, yet in today's America, learning is based on a student becoming a successful person in any field he chooses. Women were also greatly ignored in regards to higher education throughout America’s history, which has completely changed in modern society. From a sociological perspective, schools had to change to meet the needs of modern Americans.

Efforts to improve education in America will in all likelihood continue throughout the new millennium. In the past, many of these reform efforts have been thwarted by myths and misinformation that propel opposition to enhancements in systems and methods of educating America’s youth. As the nation continues to debate the issues of education, and continues to plan programs of reform, it is important to remember that these movements are far more effective when they are based from knowledge derived from researching education’s function in society over time.