Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

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In 1765 John Adams wrote that “A native of America who cannot read or write is as rare an appearance as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, that is, as rare as a comet or an earthquake.” He went on to say that “all candid foreigners who have passed through this country and conversed freely with all sorts of people here will allow that they have never seen so much knowledge and civility among the common people in any part of the world.” It is a broad claim. The question is, was it true? Were the colonists as literate as Adams said they were, or was this merely a piece of pre-Revolutionary propaganda?

If we refer the question to Adams’ “candid foreigners,” we find that they were indeed often surprised by the fact that most ordinary Americans were literate. Moreau de Saint-Méry, for example, while writing his account of his travels through the United States in the 1790’s, remembered that as a boy in Martinique, where he served as a clerk in the record office of the Admiralty, he could offer a pen to American sailors when they had to sign a document in full confidence that they could do so, “while the great part of the French sailors didn’t know how to write, which was always humiliating to my national pride.” Daniel Boorstin notes that by the early 1800’s the American working class was “known the world over for literacy and intelligence,” and in 1847 the Argentinian statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento wrote, in envy and admiration, that “United States statistics show a figure for adult males which would indicate a total population of twenty million inhabitants, all of whom are educated, know how to read and write, and enjoy political rights, with exceptions so few that they cannot even be said to qualify the generalization.” A year or two later an Englishman named Frank Marryat, describing Gold Rush San Francisco (“that then city of tents”), was amazed to find that even in the primitive conditions of 1848, when “selfishness, as is natural, reigned paramount,” a public school was founded. “Apparently,” he went on to say, “every Californian can read, and judging from the fact that the mails take an average of fifty thousand letters to the United States every fortnight, we may presume that there are few among them that cannot write.”

The evidence is indeed impressive; the “candid foreigners” all seem to be in agreement. But were Americans in fact as literate as these men made them out to be? Can this glowing testimony be taken at face value? The question is especially pertinent now, when literacy appears to be on the decline among Americans. Estimates of the number of “functional illiterates” in the adult population range up to 23,000,000. Scores on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test are dropping every year, and it has become a familiar complaint among college teachers that incoming freshmen are more often than not unable to write coherent expository prose. A college education does not seem to correct the situation, for teachers at the graduate school level make similar complaints. There is evidence that the teachers themselves, for that matter, are frequently less than expert in the use of language. In one Maryland county half of the applicants for jobs as teachers of English failed a simple test in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It is not an exaggeration to speak of a literacy crisis.

A crisis mentality has developed, in fact, and one result has been a “back to basics” movement among critics of the school system, which generally is held to be responsible for the crisis. If Americans were once as literate as John Adams and all those other witnesses said they were, the argument runs, it must be because they all got a thorough education in reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. The legendary little red schoolhouse of the American past, with its legendary schoolmarm, may not have enjoyed the benefits of the modern school—its broad curriculum, its marvelous physical plant, its enlightened attitudes—but it got the job done; the schoolmarm’s graduates knew their ABCs, and they could spell as well as Noah Webster himself. A return to the emphases, if not the actual conditions, of an earlier time could, the critics claim, re-establish earlier levels of literacy.