Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

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If a child did learn to read at school rather than at home, it was normally at what was called a “dame school” or “petty school,” the sole function of which was to teach basic literacy in one’s native tongue, with perhaps a little arithmetic thrown in. The schoolmaster or, much more commonly, schoolmistress used a hornbook or primer, just as the child’s parents might, and taught pupils not collectively but one by one, the rest of the class being required to sit quietly and wait their turn. This method of teaching, by rote memorization, was very old; children in classical Greece were taught to read in precisely the same way, and the job required so little imagination and was so despised that it was usually assigned to a slave. In colonial America the job often fell to widows or spinsters, who taught to supplement a meager income.

Hornbooks were in use in America until well into the nineteenth century, but so were the early primers, especially the New England Primer, of which one scholar estimates some three million copies were eventually printed. Very few survive; these books were used to death. Of thirty-seven thousand copies of the New England Primer printed by Franklin and Hall over a seventeen-year period, only one is known to exist. The primers contained an alphabet, a much more extensive syllabary than the hornbooks, the Lord’s Prayer, and any number of other things. The earliest known copy of the New England Primer, for example, prints the entire “Shorter Catechism” used in New England churches; it consisted of 107 questions, the answers to which—some of them ran to a hundred words—had to be learned by heart. To help memorize the alphabet, the Primer contained a series of rhymes for each letter; for A the verse ran, “In Adam’s Fall / We sinned all.” Some of the others were equally severe: “As runs the Glass / Man’s life doth pass”; “The idle Fool / Is whipt at School.” There was “An Alphabet of Lessons for Youth,” consisting of sentences such as “Except a Man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God"; “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a Child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him”; “Liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone.” The book also contained lists of words; the whole numbers from one to one hundred; and the names and order of the books of the Bible. This was the standard first reading fare of young children in the American colonies. Indeed, it was frequently their only reading outside the Bible and the ubiquitous almanacs. Most households were innocent of other books, while newspapers were not widely distributed in America before the middle of the eighteenth century.

Statistics on the literacy of populations in other colonies are scarcer than those for New England. Puritan zeal, of course, was not a factor in the Middle Colonies or the South (it also failed to operate in Rhode Island), and what evidence is available indicates that literacy rates varied fairly widely, depending on the availability of schools, the wealth and density of the population, prevailing religious beliefs, and so on. Along the frontier, and in areas like Virginia where there were no towns to speak of and people lived on widely scattered plantations, schools were rare. In 1689, for example, Virginia had just six, serving a much larger population than Massachusetts, which had twenty-three. (These figures may not be entirely accurate, but they are indicative.) Virginia made no attempt to organize an educational system, as Massachusetts did. The literacy of Virginians was therefore appreciably lower than that of the Massachusetts Puritans.

Some sense of what literacy entailed in a colony with few schools can be gathered from the autobiography of Devereaux Jarratt, who was born in the county of New Kent, Virginia, in 1733. The son of poor but pious farmers whose highest ambition, he says, “was to teach their children to read, write, and understand the fundamental rules of arithmetic,” Jarratt had the good fortune to be born with a remarkable memory; “Before I knew the letters of the alphabet, I could repeat a whole chapter in the Bible, at a few times hearing it read, especially if the subject of it struck my fancy.” This memory no doubt stood him in good stead when, at the age of eight or nine, he was sent to an “English” (i.e., petty) school in his neighborhood. Schooling for Jarratt, however, and probably for most of his contemporaries, was a hit or miss affair; he attended one master or another until he was twelve or thirteen, “though not without great interruptions,” probably for work on the farm. By the time he left school he had learned to “read in the Bible (though but indifferently), and to write a sorry scrawl, and acquired some knowledge of Arithmetic.” At this time his mother died and he went to live with his older brother, whose chief occupation, he says, was horse racing, cockfighting, card playing, and general rowdyism. Because Jarratt had been to school at all, he had the reputation of being a scholar.