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Do We Care If Johnny Can Read?

July 2024
26min read

Americans first learned to read to save their souls, then to govern themselves. Now the need is not so clear.

In 1765 John Adams wrote that “A native of America who cannot read or write is as rare an appearance as a Jacobite or a Roman Catholic, that is, as rare as a comet or an earthquake.” He went on to say that “all candid foreigners who have passed through this country and conversed freely with all sorts of people here will allow that they have never seen so much knowledge and civility among the common people in any part of the world.” It is a broad claim. The question is, was it true? Were the colonists as literate as Adams said they were, or was this merely a piece of pre-Revolutionary propaganda?

If we refer the question to Adams’ “candid foreigners,” we find that they were indeed often surprised by the fact that most ordinary Americans were literate. Moreau de Saint-Méry, for example, while writing his account of his travels through the United States in the 1790’s, remembered that as a boy in Martinique, where he served as a clerk in the record office of the Admiralty, he could offer a pen to American sailors when they had to sign a document in full confidence that they could do so, “while the great part of the French sailors didn’t know how to write, which was always humiliating to my national pride.” Daniel Boorstin notes that by the early 1800’s the American working class was “known the world over for literacy and intelligence,” and in 1847 the Argentinian statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento wrote, in envy and admiration, that “United States statistics show a figure for adult males which would indicate a total population of twenty million inhabitants, all of whom are educated, know how to read and write, and enjoy political rights, with exceptions so few that they cannot even be said to qualify the generalization.” A year or two later an Englishman named Frank Marryat, describing Gold Rush San Francisco (“that then city of tents”), was amazed to find that even in the primitive conditions of 1848, when “selfishness, as is natural, reigned paramount,” a public school was founded. “Apparently,” he went on to say, “every Californian can read, and judging from the fact that the mails take an average of fifty thousand letters to the United States every fortnight, we may presume that there are few among them that cannot write.”

The evidence is indeed impressive; the “candid foreigners” all seem to be in agreement. But were Americans in fact as literate as these men made them out to be? Can this glowing testimony be taken at face value? The question is especially pertinent now, when literacy appears to be on the decline among Americans. Estimates of the number of “functional illiterates” in the adult population range up to 23,000,000. Scores on the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test are dropping every year, and it has become a familiar complaint among college teachers that incoming freshmen are more often than not unable to write coherent expository prose. A college education does not seem to correct the situation, for teachers at the graduate school level make similar complaints. There is evidence that the teachers themselves, for that matter, are frequently less than expert in the use of language. In one Maryland county half of the applicants for jobs as teachers of English failed a simple test in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It is not an exaggeration to speak of a literacy crisis.

A crisis mentality has developed, in fact, and one result has been a “back to basics” movement among critics of the school system, which generally is held to be responsible for the crisis. If Americans were once as literate as John Adams and all those other witnesses said they were, the argument runs, it must be because they all got a thorough education in reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. The legendary little red schoolhouse of the American past, with its legendary schoolmarm, may not have enjoyed the benefits of the modern school—its broad curriculum, its marvelous physical plant, its enlightened attitudes—but it got the job done; the schoolmarm’s graduates knew their ABCs, and they could spell as well as Noah Webster himself. A return to the emphases, if not the actual conditions, of an earlier time could, the critics claim, re-establish earlier levels of literacy.

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.

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.

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.

But Jarratt himself knew better about his scholarly abilities, and on his own, during noontime breaks in plowing or harvesting, he undertook to study arithmetic more thoroughly and soon became fairly expert at it. On the strength of this expertise he was asked, at the age of nineteen, to become a schoolmaster on a plantation near the frontier. He accepted the job, having little taste for manual labor, bought himself a wig and two new shirts—aside from his everyday clothes, these items constituted his entire personal property—and moved west. There he happened to come upon a book of sermons by the New-Light preacher George Whitefield, and, wanting to understand better the things he read in the Bible, he took it up and tried to read it. But he had to confess that “I was but a poor reader, and understood little of what I did read.” (At this time he was teaching other people to read.) Conscious of his inadequacy and wanting to improve, he cast about for ways to develop his reading ability, but, he says, “I had not a single book in the world, nor was I able to buy any books, had I known of any for sale.” When he was finally able to borrow a book, he had no candle to read by at night and was forced to read by firelight. Nevertheless his efforts bore fruit: “It pleased God mightily to improve my understanding, by these means—and I soon became, what was called a good reader, and my relish for books and reading greatly increased.” In his mid-twenties Jarratt learned Latin; eventually he became a minister.

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.

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.

Aunt Delight's method of teaching, as Goodrich recounts, remembering his first day at school, was wholly traditional; she called her pupils up one by one, waited until each made “his manners,” then asked each child to identify the letters of the alphabet as she pointed to them. Goodrich’s own reaction to the procedure is worth recording: “I looked upon these operations with intense curiosity and no small respect, until my own turn came. I went up to the school-mistress with some emotion, and when she said, rather spitefully, as I thought, ‘Make your obeisance!' my little intellects all fled away, and I did nothing. Having waited a second, gazing at me with indignation, she laid her hand on the top of my head, and gave it a jerk which made my teeth clash. I believe I bit my tongue a little; at all events, my sense of dignity was offended, and when she pointed to A, and asked what it was, it swam before me dim and hazy, and as big as a full moon. She repeated the question, but I was doggedly silent. Again, a third time, she said, ‘What’s that?’ I replied: ‘Why don’t you tell me what it is? I didn’t come here to learn you your letters!’”

Aunt Delight visited the little boy’s parents that evening and he was properly rebuked for his impudence. Goodrich says that he “achieved the alphabet” that summer and attended the school for the next few years, learning to write and making “a little progress” in arithmetic. His teacher in those years was a man, and he adds, “There was not a grammar, a geography, or a history of any kind in the school. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the only things taught, and these very indifferently—not wholly from the stupidity of the teacher, but because he had forty scholars, and the Standards of the age required no more than he performed.” This, by the way, was the only formal education Goodrich received.

The deficiencies of such schools as Aunt Delight’s became increasingly troubling to educators as the nineteenth century progressed. Education itself was gradually becoming professionalized as state governments began to exert more control over local educational systems, as state “normal” schools were established to train teachers, and as the graded school, in which children were divided into grades according to their age, became standard. These changes were largely the work of educational reformers such as Horace Mann; the irony is that their reforms eventually solidified in highly bureaucratic school systems, which in turn inspired new waves of reform, creating a cycle of bureaucratization and reform that is still with us.

The teaching of reading was an early target of the reformers, who were appalled by the deadening effects of long hours of rote memorization on a child’s enthusiasm for learning. The influential reformer Thomas Palmer described the problem well in his Teacher’s Manual, published in 1840:

“The first branch of knowledge, to which the attention of the child is directed on entering school, is Reading. Hitherto his studies have been altogether delightful. His progress has been constant and rapid; for, as yet, he has dealt with nothing but real knowledge. No barren sounds, no unintelligible words have occurred, to embarrass and impede him. But now, very different becomes his situation. A book is placed in his hands, which he is told he must learn to read, that he may know how to become wise and good, and he is delighted with the prospect. But, alas! how grievous the disappointment! For months, nay, sometimes for years, his studies consist of nothing but mere sounds, to which it is impossible he can annex any idea whatever. His school-hours are solely occupied with As and Bs, abs, ebs, and ibs. Now, what must be the effect of all this, upon an intelligent child?”

The answer, said Palmer, was woolgathering. All this memorization led to “the habit of mental wandering.” Horace Mann pointed out that not only was rote memorization stultifying, it was irrational as well, for the sounds of the letters—that is, the sounds of their names—did not correspond to the way they actually sounded when combined into words: “When a child is taught the three alphabetic sounds l e g, and then is told that these three sounds, when combined, make the sound leg, he is untaught in the latter case what he was mistaught in the former. L e g does not spell leg, but if pronounced quickly, it spells elegy.” As a solution to the problem, Palmer, Mann, and other reformers advocated a method derived from French and German educators—the Prussians were especially inventive in the field of primary education—in which the student was first taught whole words, learning the alphabet only after he had mastered a small vocabulary. The idea was to arouse the child’s interest by letting him see how letters were arranged in meaningful combinations before requiring him to learn the letters.

This method, however, called the words-to-letters method, was really just a modification of the traditional method of teaching children to read; only about fifty words were taught before the child’s attention was directed to the alphabet, which still had to be memorized. Radical change had to wait for the development of the words-to-reading method, most forcefully advocated by the controversial Francis Wayland Parker, who was superintendent of schools in the town of Quincy, Massachusetts, in the 1870’s. Parker abandoned the teaching of the alphabet altogether; children were “learning how to read, “wrote Charles Francis Adams, Jr., ”…exactly as they had before learned how to speak, not by rule and rote and by piecemeal, but altogether and by practice.…” Parker was never entirely clear about exactly how this was done, but apparently it involved sounding out words and sentences as the child read them, a method which is now called the “look-and-say” method. Parker moved to Chicago after his stay in Quincy and there founded the Chicago Institute, which eventually became part of the School of Education at the University of Chicago. John Dewey came under the influence of his ideas there; Dewey called Parker the father of progressive education. The subsequent triumph of progressive education in twentieth-century America also meant the triumph of the look-and-say method of teaching children to read.

It was by no means an easy victory; the old method of teaching children to read died very hard. Webster’s elementary spelling book (Ole Blueback, as it was called), the principal “text” of the traditional ABC method, sold throughout the nineteenth century in numbers which one scholar claims “must have approached the hundred million mark.” Even more popular were the McGuffey readers, also based on the old method; sales of those reached 122,000,000. The public had been raised on this standard fare and was familiar with it, so reformers had to contend with this public conservatism as well as the entrenched skepticism of teachers who had been using the old method all their lives. Even the relatively modest reform involved in the words-to-letters method was stoutly resisted; Horace Mann, who campaigned for it throughout his tenure as secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in the 1840’s, was never able to get it adopted in the Massachusetts school system. One critic said of the words-to-letters method, “The letters … have to be learned eventually. If any success attends the child’s learning of words, the teacher may be sure of encountering added resistance when she endeavors to teach letters to a child who is succeeding already without knowing them.”

The critic also complained that the new method, by, in effect, eliminating the alphabet, reduced English to the status of Chinese, and, most important, that it made “spelling, a grievous burden at best, still more difficult.” The same complaints were made later about the words-to-reading or look-and-say method, and in the 1870’s the state administered a statewide spelling test to compare the spelling abilities of Francis Parker’s Quincy students with those of other Massachusetts students. The results were not very encouraging to the proponents of either method: “In their written work, pupils in the primary grades spelled whose in 108 different ways; which in 58; depot in 52, and scholar in a grand total of 221.” Parker’s Quincy students performed better, on the average, than those in the rest of the state, but evidently few students anywhere performed very well.

It has yet to be conclusively demonstrated that look-and-say is a real improvement on the old ABC method, for spelling or for anything else. By about the 1940’s look-and-say had become the standard method of teaching children to read in American schools, but many critics claim that it is precisely look-and-say that is responsible for the current literacy problem. The criticisms are much the same as those voiced in the nineteenth century: look-and-say makes English an ideographic language, like Chinese; children emerge from it not knowing how to spell or to “sound out” new words; their vocabulary grows much more slowly than that of children taught from the beginning by the phonics method, which is essentially an updating of the ABC method. One critic, Selma Fraiberg, notes that by the fourth grade an American child is expected to have built a vocabulary of between eighteen and twenty-five hundred words, while a Soviet child of the same age, taught by the phonics method, will have a vocabulary of ten thousand words and already will have been reading complete, uncut stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky, and poems by Nekrasov and Pushkin. The American child will still be reading about Dick and Jane. Fraiberg thinks that the American reliance on look-and-say is a major cause of this large “reading gap.”

The battle of methods has gone on for well over one hundred years now, and it may go on for another hundred. It is a real question, however, whether pedagogical methods are the most serious aspect of the problem. One hundred years ago the literacy rate was considerably higher than the percentage of children attending school; now everyone attends school, and levels of literacy are dropping steadily. A cynic might say that this only proves the incompetence of the schools, but it may be that schools and their teaching methods are not the whole story, that declining literacy is, in fact, a much larger problem which is not simply the result of incompetent schools, but includes them.

The larger problem, tHE historian Carlo Cipolla suggests, is the problem of values. What the history of literacy in America seems to demonstrate is that a highly literate society evolves out of deeply held values, not out of teaching methods, and where such values are missing, literacy will decline no matter what the teaching methods. Puritan New England became highly literate because the Puritans believed so strongly in the value of access to the Word, not thanks to any teaching method; a Puritan had to learn to read in order to save his unregenerate soul from the vividly imagined fires of Hell. Later, literacy became a way up and out of one’s economic or social circumstances; Devereux Jarratt had to learn to read if he wanted to escape the farm. If one wanted to rise, or become involved in the country’s political life, or master the complexities of an increasingly industrialized environment, literacy was a necessity. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then, America was full of self-made readers, men who had had to struggle to become literate, ambitious men like Abraham Lincoln who were unwilling to spend the rest of their lives splitting rails. Books were scarce, teachers were few and often incompetent, but the desire was there; consequently literacy did not depend simply and solely on the schools.

Now the desire seems to be on the point of disappearing. For whatever reason—television, widespread anomie, the anti-intellectualism that is also part of our history—we no longer value literacy as we once did. The public worries about the high rates of functional illiteracy and talks nostalgically about a return to the three Rs, but that same public would just as soon watch television as read a book. The problem is not just a technical problem of teaching methods, of “language skills”; it is based on a profound public indifference to the blessings which only the printed word can bestow.

“We shall some day accept the thought that it is just as illogical to assume that every boy must be able to read as it is that each one must be able to perform on a violin, that it is no more reasonable to require that each girl shall spell well than it is that each one shall bake a cherry pie.” The speaker was a junior high school principal, but he can be taken to represent more than an obtuse educational establishment; educators do not exist entirely isolated from the public, or opposed to it, but must be understood as in some degree reflecting public attitudes. And a public that would tolerate such a remark from an educator is a public that has lost, or forsaken, its belief in the value of literacy.

Yet we must remember that this is a value that, from the long perspective of history, we have acquired very recently. “It is only during the present century that the goal of reading for the purpose of gaining information has been applied in ordinary elementary schools to the entire population of students,” write Laura and Daniel Resnick. As these writers also point out, the standard of skill required to make one functionally literate is rising; literacy skills which were sufficient one hundred or even fifty years ago will no longer suffice. This is especially true in technology. The U.S. Navy’s most advanced weapons system in 1939 came with a technical manual of five hundred pages. Its most advanced system in 1978 came with three hundred thousand pages of documentation. Many other technical systems require more reading, at a higher level, than those of the past; computers are especially prolific, printing out enormous quantities of information and analysis, which someone has to read. Literacy is declining, then, even as the demand for higher and higher levels of literacy grows.

What the outcome of these trends will be is anybody’s guess. Perhaps we will return once more to conditions similar to the “craft literacy” that prevailed in the Middle Ages, when the clergy monopolized the instruments and organization of knowledge. Or perhaps public attitudes will shift and people will again demand access to the word. Literate persons can only hope that a hundred years from now we will have a public in which, fulfilling John Adams’ claim, someone who cannot read and write will indeed be as rare as a comet or an earthquake.

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