Virginia: First in Education

William and Mary College
This article is the seventh in a series commemorating the American Evolution – Virginia to America 1619-2019 . See articles one, two, three, four, five ,and six here.

Many of the early settlers in Virginia were well educated. While it became commonplace for the highest placed colonists to send their sons back home to England for a “proper” (that is Oxford or Cambridge) education, from early on the Virginia colonists recognized that the long-term success of the colony depended on a widely educated populace.

This urge to educate its citizenry prompted leaders in Hampton to establish America’s first public school in 1634. Founded as Syms School, the institution was established to provide free education to local children. Twenty-five years later, the success of Syms School encouraged the subsequent founding of Eaton Charity School to educate the poor students of Elizabeth City County (now defunct, the county merged with Hampton in 1952). The two schools combined in 1805, and still exist as Hampton High School since it was re-formed in 1875.

So through the centuries, Virginia has made notable strides towards and established national precedents for improving education, furthering the Commonwealth’s goals of promoting democracy and opportunity for its citizens.

Four travel-worthy educational sites across the state provide a sense of Virginia’s rich tradition of furthering the innovation and evolution of education in the New World.


Founded in Williamsburg in 1693 as a “place to provide universal study” for Indians and young male colonists, the College of William & Mary was the second institution of higher education established in America (after Harvard). Its architecturally significant Wren Building, built in 1695, is the oldest surviving academic building in the U.S. The college, named after its founders, King William and Queen Mary, gained additional prominence due to its location in the colonial capital.

William & Mary is credited as having America’s first law school, and because of its influence on so many of Virginia’s Founding Fathers, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall, the university gained the nickname “the Alma Mater of a Nation.” The college also marked other significant “firsts” for American education – the first honor code and the first Greek letter fraternity.

Although the college remains one of the most highly competitive in the nation, a tour of William & Mary and its Wren Building in the heart of the perfectly restored and preserved Colonial Williamsburg still instills a sense of awe and wonder for the influence it has wielded in the life of the state and nation.


The first colleges in America were founded by religious denominations with a primary focus of educating young men for ordained ministry. An alumnus of William & Mary, the progressive-thinking Thomas Jefferson entertained a vision for a new type of public university divorced from the sectarian influences of America’s existing colleges.

Unlike earlier colleges whose campuses were presided over by a central chapel, Jefferson’ revolutionary architectural plan for …read more

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