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Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?
Americans first learned to read to save their souls, then to govern themselves. Now the need is not so clear.
August/September 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 5
It would be a mistake to generalize too broadly from this particular account, but we do get a sense from Jarratt of how tenuous an acquisition literacy could be in the American colonies, particularly among the poor and those isolated on the frontier. Jarratt had to make what amounted to heroic efforts to improve his reading abilities; for those not willing to make such efforts, literacy probably extended no further than the ability to read, without much understanding, portions of the Bible, and to sign one’s name. People in towns, and the wealthier sort generally, had a much better chance than someone like Jarratt to become fully literate, but even wealth did not guarantee it. Lockridge estimates that by 1800 male literacy in Virginia among those with personal estates of £200 or more was no higher than 80 per cent, while for those with estates under that amount it was only 50 per cent. The situation in Pennsylvania was not materially better; in states like South Carolina, which made no efforts whatsoever to provide schools for any but the rich, it was probably worse. Only in New England, then, were the literacy rates in colonial times high, and they were high there only because the Puritans believed so strongly that everyone should read the Word for himself.
By the Revolution, of course, the strength of Puritan beliefs had greatly waned. The heritage of public schooling in New England was as honored in the breach as in the practice, and elsewhere in the colonies it hardly existed at all. Revolutionary leaders saw clearly the need for a new educational ideology. They found it in the need to secure the Revolution; if the people were to govern themselves, they had to be educated well enough to be able to understand and avoid the dangers attendant on the exercise of power. This was a particular concern of Jefferson’s, who wrote to Washington that “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction.” An illiterate electorate, Jefferson felt, obviously could not protect itself from demagoguery, or from the designs of a would-be aristocracy. The only solution was to make sure the people were literate. His famous Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, proposed to the Virginia legislature in 1779, envisioned, among other things, a system of free elementary schools, to be established in every ward of every county, to meet the need. A similar interest in education was evident in Congress, which, in the Ordinance of 1785, set aside one out of the thirty-six lots in every township in the Western Territory for the maintenance of free public schools.
Universal schooling was not to be obtained so easily, however. Neither in Virginia nor elsewhere was the idea of free, tax-supported public schooling quickly accepted; Jefferson’s bill never passed the Virginia legislature, and the school lands in the Western Territory were used as often for land speculation as for the establishment of public shcools.