Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

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The trouble with this appeal to the past is that the past was much more complicated and is much less well understood than the critics have imagined. The history of literacy in America, which historians only recently have begun trying to untangle, has turned out to be exceptionally problematic, mostly because reliable data about literacy rates are very hard to develop and even harder to interpret. Eric Havelock writes: “Of all the activities of mankind which we now take to be ordinary, reading is historically the one which is most sparsely recorded.” Further complicating the problem is the fact that definitions of literacy differ for different historical periods. The United States government defines “functional literacy” not according to some standardized test, but by levels of schooling; if a child has successfully completed the fifth grade, the government considers him literate, at least for statistical purposes. John Adams probably wouldn’t have considered that to be at all adequate as a definition, yet for estimates of literacy rates in Adams’ time, and for all other periods before the government began collecting this kind of statistical information, historians have to rely on even less adequate data, usually the proportion of signatures to marks on wills. Neither of these measures, of course, indicates how literate someone is, whether he stands at the bottom end of the scale and can barely read, or at the top, completely at ease with the intricacies of The Federalist Papers.

Because of these difficulties, historians have not made a great deal of progress yet in the study of literacy.

From what they have learned so far, indeed only one thing is clear: no blanket claims such as John Adams made about the literacy of the American people are likely to be valid. In some areas, among some classes, at certain times, probably nearly everyone could read and write; but such has never been the case everywhere and at all times. It is not the case now. An appeal to the past based on evidence like the statements of Adams and Sarmiento, then, cannot bear the weight. The past was no lost paradise of literacy.

The critics are right about one thing, nevertheless: a crisis is indeed an appropriate time to look to the past, if only to see where our current problems came from, what their roots are.

At the time of the discovery and settlement of America, European culture was emerging from a long period of domination by the Church, a domination that included a virtual monopoly of the ability to read and write. Of the three estates—warriors, workers, and clergy—only the clergy was literate. Literacy among the nobility was so rare that literate nobles were often nicknamed “the Clerk,” and for the first five hundred years of English history, from about the sixth to the eleventh centuries, only three kings were able to sign their names. By the fourteenth century, however, the situation was changing rapidly. Edward III was literate, and so were all English kings after him. In the thirteenth century the wealthy burghers of Ypres founded a lay school for their young; the Church excommunicated them for contesting its monopoly of education, but a trend had been established and more such institutions began to come into being. Culture was still oral—Chaucer had to read his poems aloud to his courtly audience—but the gradual development of urban centers and the growing need to keep commercial records wore steadily away at the Church’s monopoly. In Genoa, Venice, and other commercial centers, schooling specifically designed for commercial purposes, and thus literacy of a sort, became almost common.

The most influential source of change, however, was not commerce but religion. It was the Protestant Reformation, and the Protestant insistence that every man have free access to the Word, without priestly interference, that finally broke the Church’s monopoly on literacy. The invention of printing, which made possible the widespread diffusion of books, was also an important factor, but printed books, although cheaper than manuscripts, were still too expensive for the common people, and it is unlikely that printing would have had the impact it did if the Reformation had died aborning. Another important factor was the triumph of the vernaculars; as long as Latin remained the principal means of written communication, not only among the learned but in government and commerce as well, literacy could not extend very far into the populace. Here again, however, the main source of change was Protestant religious feeling. Free access to the Word meant translation of the Bible into the vernacular, and not until that victory had been won was the triumph of the vernaculars assured.