In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Education in New Spain

  • Introduction
  • Overview of Education in New Spain, 1521–1821
  • Children in New Spain
  • Early Indian Education
  • Urban Primary Education
  • Rural Primary Education
  • Middle and Higher Education
  • Science and Technology
  • Digital Materials Related to Education and Culture of New Spain

Latin American Studies Education in New Spain
Dorothy Tanck de Estrada, Víctor Cid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0242


New Spain, also known as Colonial Mexico, existed for three hundred years, from 1521 to 1821. These dates mark the defeat of the Aztecs and the inauguration of the first independent government of Mexico at the end of the war of independence. Hernán Cortés in 1520 proposed calling the land the “New Spain of the Ocean Sea” because of its similarity to Spain in its fertility, size, and climate. New Spain extended from Chihuahua in the north to Oaxaca and Yucatán in the south. In 1810, the total population was 6,111,915 inhabitants, made up of Indians (60 percent), Mestizos (22 percent), and Spaniards and Creoles (18 percent). Twenty Spanish cities were spread over the territory, Mexico City having in 1793 a population of 112,926 inhabitants and Puebla, 52,717. Most of the Indian population lived in 4,468 towns where the natives headed their municipal governments. For all groups primary education was very important as the means of religious instruction. Girls and boys were educated separately. Private teachers and religious orders headed primary schools during the first two centuries, while important changes occurred in the 18th century with legislation ordering cities and Indian towns to establish schools funded by the municipal treasuries. The Jesuits also had primary schools, while girls could receive early education in religious houses called “beaterios” where the teachers (“beatas”) were women with temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The convents for nuns were all cloistered institutions without schools for girls, until the end of the 18th century when a newly established teaching order opened a large school. The Jesuit colleges located throughout New Spain offered the next level of education called “Artes,” which consisted of courses in Latin, rhetoric, logic, physics and metaphysics to prepare students for urban life or for university education. In the colonial period, the term “college” signified middle-level education between primary and university studies. The University of Mexico, founded in 1551, with degrees in medicine, civil law, canon law, and theology, was the only center of higher education in New Spain until the University of Guadalajara opened in 1792. New primary level textbooks written by local authors began to be used in schools late in the 18th century. The following sections present bibliographies related to the above topics.

Overview of Education in New Spain, 1521–1821

The bibliography of education in New Spain has generally centered on studies in three areas: pre-Hispanic Aztec education; the 16th-century missionary methods for the conversion of the Indians to the Catholic religion; and the 18th-century reforms in Indian and higher education. There are comparatively fewer works on education in the 17th century. The books and articles are selected in this overview because they cover the history of the three levels of education and all, or part of, the three centuries of New Spain, 1521 to 1821. A starting point for this overview of the history of colonial education is González González and Ramírez González 2003, the bibliography of works on this subject published from 1992 to 2002, while Galván Lafarga 2002 focuses on the historical development in the 1960s of the field of the social history of education in Europe, United States, and Mexico. The education of the Indians Gonzalbo Aizpuru 1990a and of the urban creoles Gonzalbo Aizpuru 1990b from the 16th through the 18th century are classic publications which have been frequently cited over the years. Gonzalbo Aizpuru 1997 and Tanck Jewel 2006 offer resumes in English of basic educational topics. The authors of the Seminario de Historia de la Educación en México 2011 provide an illustrated history of education during the three centuries of the colonial period. Castañeda 2012 focuses on the various levels of education in colonial Guadalajara while Luque Alcaide 1970 treats similar topics in central New Spain. Tanck de Estrada 2013 presents educational statistics on all levels of education during the 18th century.

  • Castañeda, Carmen. La educación en Guadalajara durante la Colonia, 1552–1821. 2d ed. Mexico City: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, 2012.

    First published in 1984, this is the first complete history of primary, middle, and university education in the city of Guadalajara during the colonial period. Includes illustrations, statistical charts, and maps.

  • Galván Lafarga, Luz Elena. “Historia de la educación.” Revista Mexicana de Investigación Educativa 7.15 (May-August 2002): 217–221.

    This article reviews the historical development in Spain, the United States, England, and France of the field related to the history of education. In the mid-20th century attention began to include the social history of education, considering the daily life of the students, educational practices, and political information related to education.

  • Gonzalbo Aizpuru, Pilar. Historia de la educación en la época colonial. El mundo indígena. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1990a.

    Based on impressive research in Spain and Mexico, this ground-breaking study focuses on Indian education from 1523 to 1750, examining the methods of evangelization in the native languages, conventual schools for Indians in all parts of New Spain, and the development of the colleges of Tlatelolco and San Gregorio for Indian youth. All in the atmosphere of the imposition of Catholic norms and, at the same time, the persistence of Indian traditions.

  • Gonzalbo Aizpuru, Pilar. Historia de la educación en la época colonial. La educación de los criollos y la vida urbana. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 1990b.

    This volume covers all levels of education in urban areas and examines with special attention the history of the University of Mexico. Detailed attention is given to the twenty-two Jesuit colleges established in all areas of New Spain in the 18th century; they offered the following levels of education: ten primary schools, fifteen schools of Latin grammar, eleven with liberal arts, and ten faculties of theology.

  • Gonzalbo Aizpuru, Pilar. “Education: Colonial.” In Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture. Edited by Michael S. Werner, 434–438. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.

    The author presents positive and negative evaluations of the friars’ efforts to educate the Indians in their own languages. Covers the university, Jesuit colleges, and the specialized schools for surgery, fine arts, botanical research, and mining, as well as primary schools mainly for the Spanish-speaking population.

  • González González, Enrique, and Clara Inés Ramírez González. “Historiografía de la educación colonial en México.” In Historiografía de la Educación en México. Vol. 10. Edited by Luz Elena Galván Lafarga, Susana Quintanilla Osorio, and Clara Inés Ramírez González, 27–82. Mexico City: Consejo Mexicano de Investigación Educativa, 2003.

    This article presents the longest bibliography of education in New Spain published so far, presenting four hundred books and articles printed from 1992 to 2002. It concentrates on university education but also provides a guide to other educational levels and topics, calling attention to the need for research in regions outside of Mexico City and Guadalajara.

  • Luque Alcaide, Elisa. La educación en Nueva España en el siglo XVIII. Seville, Spain: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos de Sevilla, 1970.

    Focusing on the 18th century, the author presents the educational ideas of Mexican intellectuals and the history of schools, middle-level colleges, and universities in New Spain. Information is provided about the primary schools for girls established in five of the seven dioceses of New Spain: México, Puebla, Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Guadalajara.

  • Seminario de Historia de la Educación en México. Historia mínima ilustrada. La educación en México. Edited by Dorothy Tanck de Estrada, 18–147. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2011.

    The first three chapters of this illustrated history cover the entire period of education in New Spain: “The Indian Period,” “The Viceroyalty,” and “The Age of Enlightenment.” Presents maps, portraits, statistical charts, and photos of textbooks.

  • Tanck de Estrada, Dorothy. “Estadísticas educativas y poblacionales, 1750–1840.” In Independencia y educación: Cultura cívica, educación indígena y literatura infantil. By Dorothy Tanck de Estrada, 229–248. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2013.

    Based on archival data and historical publications, this work presents ten charts with demographic statistics and information on the schools in Indian and Spanish settlements in the 234 regions of New Spain and Chiapas during the 18th century. Also includes statistics of the Jesuit colleges and degrees granted in the University of México. Available online by subscription.

  • Tanck Jewel, Dorothy. “Education: Colonial Spanish America.” In Iberia and the Americas. Culture, Politics and History. Vol. 2. Edited by J. Michael Francis, 431–435. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC CLIO, 2006.

    A concise study of all levels of the educational institutions in New Spain and Peru during the colonial period.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.