Colonial-era Education, 1521-1821

Education of the Indigenous in Central Mexico
The Spanish Crown made a significant commitment to education in colonial New Spain. The first efforts of schooling in Mexico were friars' evangelization of indigenous populations. "Educating the native population was a crucial justification of the colonizing enterprise, and that criollo (Spanish American) culture was encouraged as a vehicle for integrating" the indigenous. Fray Pedro de Gante established schools for indigenous in the immediate post-conquest years and produced pictorial texts to teach Catholic doctrine. All the mendicant orders in Mexico, the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians, built churches in large indigenous communities as places of worship and to teach the catechism, so that large outdoor atriums functioned as classrooms. Elite indigenous lads were tapped for training as catechists and helpers to the priests, whose small numbers could in no way minister to large numbers of ordinary indigenous.

In 1536, the Franciscans and the Spanish crown established a school to train an indigenous Catholic priesthood, the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, which was deemed a failure in its goal of training priests, but did create a small cohort of indigenous men who were literate in their native language of Nahuatl, as well as Spanish and Latin. The Franciscans also founded the school of San José de los Naturales in Mexico City, which taught trades and crafts to boys. The Colegio de San Gregorio was also founded for the education of indigenous elites, the most famous of whom was Chimalpahin, (also known as Don Domingo Francisco de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin).

Religious orders, particularly the Franciscans, taught indigenous scribes in central Mexico to be literate in their own languages, allowing the creation of documents at the local level for colonial officials and communities to enable crown administration as well as production of last will and testaments, petitions to the crown, bills of sale, censuses and other types of legal record to be produced at the local level. The large number of indigenous language documents found in the archives in Mexico and elsewhere have enabled scholars of the New Philology to analyze life of Mexico's colonial-era indigenous from indigenous perspectives.

Education of Elite Creole Men
The Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico was founded in September 1551 at the request by Mexico's first viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza to the Spanish crown. The university was located in the central core (traza) of History of Mexico City. Its first rector, Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, wrote an account of the university. The institution initially trained in priests, lawyers, and starting in 1579, medical doctors. These were the traditional disciplines of the medieval and early modern eras. The Royal and Pontifical University was the sole institution that could confer academic degrees. With the title of royal and pontifical university, its degrees were titled the same as European degrees. The Jesuits arrived in Mexico in 1571 and rapidly founded schools and colegios, and sought to confer degrees; however, the Council of the Indies, the royal entity overseeing the Spanish overseas empire, decided against them.

The university retained its premier position. One of its best known graduates was Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, a Mexican savant of the seventeenth century, who was a friend of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a cloistered nun and intellectual, famous in her lifetime as the "Tenth Muse." Sor Juana was barred from attending the university due to her gender.

In general, educational institutions were urban-based, with the capital Mexico City having the largest concentration. However, there were seminaries to train priests in provincial cities, such as the Colegio de San Nicolás, founded by Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in the city now called Morelia. Insurgent leader Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla served as rector there until he was relieved of his position. One of his students was insurgent leader Father José María Morelos. Educated priests were prominent in the movement toward independence from Spain.

Education of Girls and Mixed-Race Children
Most of the Mexican population was illiterate and entirely unschooled, and there was no priority for education of girls. A few girls in cities attended schools run by cloistered nuns. Some entered convent schools at around age eight, "to remain cloistered for the rest of their lives." There were some schools connected to orphanages or confraternities. Private tutors educated girls from wealthy families, but only enough so that they could oversee a household. There were few opportunities for mixed race boys or girls. "Education was, in short, highly selective as befits a stratified society, and the possibilities of self-realization were a lottery of birth rather than talent."