Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

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If the American people were, as Tocqueville said, “that portion of the English people which is commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World,” it is the situation of literacy in England during the Reformation that is of most interest to us; and in England, it was the force of Puritan beliefs, not the more conservative Anglican, that was transforming the literacy rates. The social historian Lawrence Stone notes that England experienced an “educational boom” in the period from 1540 to 1640, and he attributes it primarily to “Puritan zeal.” A higher proportion of Englishmen was being systematically educated during this period than at any time until the late nineteenth century. The result was a dramatic increase in literacy from Medieval times, with perhaps 60 per cent of the adult males in London and its immediate environs being able to read and sign their names, while the average rate for the country as a whole stood at about 30 per cent.

The Puritans were no doubt literate at rates toward the higher end of this scale; and since it was the Puritans who emigrated to New England, that region was blessed with an especially high rate of literacy during the seventeenth century. Exactly how high is another question. Measurement of literacy rates for periods before the late nineteenth century, as noted earlier, has usually depended on the proportion of signatures to marks on wills; wills are practically the only written records (sometimes marriage registers are used when parish records have survived) covering broad enough segments of the population to be representative. The inference is that if someone could sign a will, he could probably also read. The problem is, however, that a sample derived from wills is inevitably biased. Not everyone makes a will, and those who do tend to be wealthier, more urbanized, and older than the rest of the population; and wealth, “urbanity,” and age are all factors known to affect literacy rates.

Some scholars think the bias is so great as to render the evidence useless. Others try to allow for it. Among the latter is Kenneth A. Lockridge, who has made his own analysis of literacy in colonial New England as statistically sophisticated as possible. Lockridge believes that the literacy of the adult male population of New England as a whole stood at about 60 per cent by the end of the seventeenth century. This is the same as the rate Lawrence Stone found for London during the same period, confirmation, says Lockridge, that New England did indeed draw from the most literate portions of the English population. While literacy rates in England, however, stagnated or even declined after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, in New England literacy increased. Lockridge traces a steady rise in both adult male and adult female literacy in New England during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. By the 1790s’, he says, 90 per cent of New England men were literate; the rate for women was about 50 per cent. On John Adams’ home ground, then, his remark about the rarity of illiterate Americans, while an exaggeration, did have some basis in fact. Lockridge agrees with Stone that the critical factor in this rise in literacy was, once again, Puritan zeal for education.

It was this zeal which led to the well-known Massachusetts school laws, the most important of which, the “old deluder, Satan” law of 1647 (“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures…”), specified that every town of fifty families or more must appoint a schoolmaster to teach the town’s children to read and write, while every town of one hundred families was supposed to establish a grammar school (devoted to Latin and the classics) as well. Connecticut enacted a similar law a few years later. It is not known how many towns actually complied with this law, or how vigorously it was enforced. Literate Puritans generally taught their own children to read and write in any case (servants’ indentures often specified that one of the master’s duties was to teach his servants to read and write, and to catechize them as well), and teaching methods were the same whether in the school or at home.

The child’s first “book” was usually a hornbook, a piece of wood shaped like a paddle with a sheet of paper tacked to one side; on the paper were printed the alphabet, a short syllabary, and perhaps the Lord’s Prayer—covered with a transparent sheet of horn to protect it. The child was expected to memorize the alphabet until he could repeat it backward and forward. The process was inevitably somewhat tedious; the alphabet and syllabary were not taught as the components of meaningful words but as lists that simply had to be memorized, come what may. Some attempts were made to ease the burden of memorization; there are surviving examples of hornbooks which doubled as battledores—a kind of paddle, used in the game of battledore and shuttlecock—and of cookie molds from which an edible hornbook might be made. Presumably the child was allowed to eat those portions of the alphabet he had gotten by heart. But these examples are rare. Making it worse for the child was the fact that teaching of the alphabet started very early; Samuel Sewall recorded in his diary sending his son Joseph to school, an older cousin accompanying him to carry his hornbook, at the age of two years and nine months.