- Historic Sites
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
Indeed, it took a good part of the nineteenth century, and an enormous amount of acrimonious debate, to establish free public school systems across the United States. There were plenty of schools, to be sure, some of them private, some supported by tax revenues; still others charged tuition to those parents who could afford it and provided the rudiments of an education free to those who could not. Owners of large plantations in the South continued to hire private tutors for their children. But in spite of these many systems of education, the education of children could not be called systematic in any general sense. The idea of compulsory education had yet to be conceived; not every child, therefore, attended school. Even if a child did attend, he might be taken out at his parents’ will, to help plow or harvest, to work in the mills, perhaps to move farther west. School enrollment in 1860 for children from five to nineteen years of age stood at 66 per cent in the North, 44 per cent in the South. More than a third of the school-age children in the United States, in other words, were not attending school.
Universal literacy, however, was practically a reality by 1860, in spite of the spotty school attendance. By the census of 1850, in fact, the adult literacy rate for both males and females had reached 90 per cent, which was far ahead of every European country except Sweden. There were regional variations, of course; in the South, where fewer than half the white children attended school (blacks were denied any sort of education), literacy rates were lower than the national average; in North Carolina, for example, the rate for adult males in 1850 was 80 per cent, for females 67 per cent. Here again, however, the rates are higher than the school attendance rates. Apparently children were attending school long enough to acquire basic literacy, then dropping out, or else they were learning to read and write outside school, perhaps from a parent or other relative. Such was the case, for example, with Abraham Lincoln, of whom it was reported: “While living in Ind. his cousin D. F. Hanks learned him to spell, Read & write.” Hanks himself, however, said it was Lincoln’s mother who taught Lincoln his ABCs, even though, as still another source reported, she was “absolutely illiterate.” Whoever taught him, evidently Lincoln knew how to read before he went to school.
The method of teaching children to read and write remained the same throughout most of the nineteenth century, and the occupation remained the province of young men and women unable to find anything better paid to do, or of older women, usually poor, sometimes not too well educated themselves. S. G. Goodrich, better known as Peter Parley, author of innumerable children’s books, gives us what is probably a fairly accurate picture of the typical dame school as it was run in the early 1800's. Goodrich grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and his particular “dame” was a spinster of fifty named Aunt Delight. Her school consisted of a rough, unpainted clapboard building of one large room and a small anteroom or foyer; the building was located on land owned by the town. Money was seldom wasted on amenities in these schools, inside or out. The traditional little red schoolhouse was red only because red paint was the cheapest available; no paint at all, of course, was cheaper still. The benches in Aunt Delight’s school were made with what were called slabs, boards with the rounded part of the log on the bottom side; they were useless for other purposes. The benches, of course, had no backs. The only source of heat was a large fireplace; in the winter those close to the fire roasted, those far away froze. When the school ran out of firewood—providing the wood was usually the responsibility of the parents—it closed.