Stories from PA History
"The Surest Foundation of Happiness": Education in Pennsylvania
"The Surest Foundation of Happiness": Education in Pennsylvania
Overview: "The Surest Foundation of Happiness ”: Education in Pennsylvania

"Men of wisdom and virtue, qualities that because they descend not with worldly inheritances, must be carefully propagated by the virtuous education of youth, for which after ages will owe more to the care and prudence of founders, and the successive magistracy, than to their parents marker for private patrimonies."

William Penn, from his Preface to "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania,” 1682.

A portrait sketch of William Penn.
The only known life drawing of William Penn, circa 1695.
Even before he landed on the banks of the Delaware River in October 1682, proprietor William Penn imagined a vital role for education in the development of Pennsylvania. An Englishman by birth and a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers) by conviction, Penn believed education was essential to the development of individual conscience and enlightened citizenship. His self-described "Holy Experiment” promised toleration and participatory government founded on the pillars of piety and practical knowledge, two essential ingredients in the maintenance of a civil society. As Penn said in his "Frame of Government” (1682), schools "encourage and reward the authors of useful sciences and inventions” and moderate "all wicked and scandalous living” that interferes with "virtue and useful knowledge and the arts”.

Exterior, front
The Gemeinhaus building in Bethlehem, PA, circa 2003.
The prevailing religious traditions of the colonists shaped formal education in early Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia and the outlying regions, exclusive private academies and seminaries to train clergy reinforced the social status and cultural values of their privileged clientele. Institutions like the Friends" Public School (1697), one of the oldest institutions of its kind in America, were public in name only. Administered by Quaker overseers for the children of the commercial elite, Philadelphia's Friends" School and its counterparts combined the spiritual piety and classical training thought necessary for human progress. Not until 1712 did the Penn family permit Philadelphia's other Protestant denominations to purchase land and erect schools, hospitals, and other benevolent institutions.

Dickinson College, 1810.
The expanding network of private schools and seminaries that emerged through the era of the American Revolution reflected the growing ethnic and religious diversity of the colony's expansive frontier. German, Welsh, Scots-Irish, and other migrants poured into Pennsylvania in the first half of the 1700s with their cultural and religious traditions in tow. Not surprisingly, Lutheran, Evangelical, Calvinist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist schools sprang up across the hinterlands north and west to the Allegheny Mountains.

In rural Chester, Berks, and especially Lancaster Counties, the tight-knit Anabaptist communities of Amish and Mennonite farmers offered a more utilitarian style of instruction suited to their agrarian lifestyle. At the same time, Moravian Pietists established schools in Bethlehem, Oley, and Lititz. Fledgling denominational seminaries and academies, usually off the beaten path, embraced the new religious enthusiasm that swept across Pennsylvania and the other American colonies during the mid-century Great Awakening.

Image of citizens and soldiers fighting in the street
Lithograph of the July 7, 1844 Southwark "Bible Riot," Philadelphia County,...
Almost simultaneously, new ideas about nature, science, and political rights and institutions–in a phrase the Enlightenment–transformed education and public life. As Philadelphia became the philosophical seedbed of American independence, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and other leaders championed a more cosmopolitan and less sectarian attitude toward education. Both accepted the public benefit of scientific inquiry and practical knowledge, as well as a more egalitarian approach to learning in the new nation.

Ever the apostle of self-education, Franklin exerted an unparalleled public influence through civic institutions like the Library Company (1731), the American Philosophical Society (1745), and the Academy and Charitable School (1740), which became part of the University of Pennsylvania in 1750. Rush offered an ambitious plan for publicly supported liberal arts colleges throughout the Commonwealth. Pennsylvania's 1776 state constitution embraced this new spirit in its call for county-based "schools for the convenient instruction of youth” and "one or more Universities”.

Exterior of five buildings and the grounds.
Lincoln University, Lower Oxford, PA, circa 1890.
Both the new democratizing spirit and the older religious culture encouraged an expansion of educational opportunity well into the 1800s. Beginning in Philadelphia, Quakers and others used education as a tool to ameliorate problems associated with the poor and the burgeoning free black population. As Pennsylvania's population pushed across the Allegheny Mountains, church-affiliated institutions like Dickinson College in Carlisle and Washington and Jefferson College in western Washington County (both Presbyterian) offered the opportunity for formal classical instruction on the frontier. The trend continued in Lancaster, Juniata, Lycoming, Mercersburg, and elsewhere, as new denominational academies and colleges provided theological and classical training for the growing professional classes.

The era of universal public education arrived in Pennsylvania in 1834 with the enactment of the Free Schools Act. Part of the budding social reform impulse in antebellum America, the creation of common schools ushered in a new era of educational policy and state government regulation of curriculum, standards, and finances. By the eve of the Civil War, most of Pennsylvania's 1,000 local school districts had accepted the reality of government oversight, and state normal schools for teacher training.

Exterior and grounds
Central High School, Juniper Street south of Market Street, Philadelphia, PA,...
Though nonsectarian in purpose, public schools continued to reflect the deep religious culture that held sway in the 1800s. The growing immigrant Catholic presence in Philadelphia and other urban centers, and nativist control of the public schools, gave rise to a separate parochial school system that provided the foundation for numerous Catholic colleges later in the century.

State supported grammar and high schools also coincided with the growth of professional associations and more specialized schools to train physicians, lawyers, nurses, secretaries, and business managers. Unlike the coeducational state teacher institutes, professional schools like the University of Pennsylvania Medical College and the nearby Female Medical College reflected the traditional private colleges" commitment to separate, single-sex instruction. The new industrial elite funded a growing array of cultural institutions, including Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum, the Philadelphia Academy of Art, and Lehigh University in Bethlehem. To provide educational opportunities for the nation's embattled African Americans and Native Americans, Pennsylvanians also founded and supported institutions like the Institute for Colored Youth (today's Cheyney University), the Ashmun Institute (Lincoln University) , and Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

A ladies basketball game in progress
Women's Basketball, Cheyney College, Cheyney, PA, circa 1925.
By the early 1900s, educational reformers were offering new curricula as school psychologists puzzled over new approaches to childhood and adult learning. As the children of immigrants made their way through the public and parochial school systems to enter college and professions, some old stereotypes began to dissolve. The expanding middle-class consumer culture that emerged in the 1920s embraced education as an essential ingredient in social and economic mobility.

At the same time, an enlarged state educational bureaucracy wrested even more control from local school districts and their taxpayer base, and the now state-owned normal schools became four-year teachers colleges. With the onset of the Great Depression, however, a new fiscal crisis forced the state to slash educational appropriations to public schools, and threatened to close the public teachers colleges.

After World War II, two factors altered the landscape of public and private education in Pennsylvania and the nation. The educational benefits of the G.I. Bill opened up the possibilities of higher education to millions who had never thought of going to college. The onset of the post-war baby boom, which lasted twenty years, created an unprecedented demand for public elementary and secondary schools.

Aerial view of the University of Pittsburgh Campus, circa 1955.
Aerial view of the University of Pittsburgh Campus, circa 1955.
In the last half-century, Pennsylvania's schools again became a battleground over larger social issues. Struggles to end racial discrimination in public and private schools and colleges found new inspiration in the national civil-rights movement in the 1960s. Similarly, gender stereotypes that once had created barriers for women began to collapse. Today, single-sex educational institutions are the exception rather than the rule, and Title IX requirements have encouraged greater parity in men's and women's athletic programs.

More recently, Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of legal struggles for equal educational opportunities for children and adults with disabilities. Changing societal attitudes and improved diagnostic tools have combined with legislation like the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act to dramatically expand special education services for at-risk students. In 2005, Pennsylvania education again entered the national spotlight when the Dover School District mandated the teaching of "intelligent design." A federal judge's ruling against the practice provoked both praise and condemnation, thus reminding Pennsylvanians that education always reflects societal interests.

Back to Top