Did Public Education Really Introduce Mass Literacy?

Most Americans were illiterate before the creation of our public education system in the 1830s.

That seems to be a popular assumption, but is it true?

If you’re looking for statistics, they’re notoriously hard to get when it comes to literacy rates in past centuries. Most historians of early American history have gravitated toward signatures on documents – such as wills and deeds – as indicators of literacy. (Those who could not read simply used a mark.) Signatures are by no means fool-proof evidence of literacy, but it’s the best we have.

…about 80% of men and 50% of women were literate in New England around the time of America’s founding. Scholars have noted that the percentages were probably lower in the South at the time.

We also have the testimonies of widespread American literacy in the early nineteenth century. In 1800, The Columbian Phoenix and Boston Review magazine reported that “no country on the face of the earth can boast of a larger proportion of inhabitants, versed in the rudiments of science, or fewer, who are not able to read and write their names, than the United States of America.”

…According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 32 million of American adults are illiterate, 21 percent read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates are functionally illiterate, which means they can’t read well enough to manage daily living and perform tasks required by many jobs. Read more»

Daniel Lattier, “Did Public Schools Really Improve American Literacy?” (September 13, 2016)


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  1. I haven’t read Kaestle et al to see how they estimated literacy based on wills – whether it was the percentage of wills signed or the percentage of adults with wills which were always signed. If the latter, literacy could’ve been much higher because so many indentured servants (slaves) were shanghaid from Europe, brought to the Continent and died with nothing. About 4 million European slaves were brought here and had 2 million descendants. African slavery was also very high (about 2 million with 4 million descendants) and would’ve had a similar effect in the South. I have a paper on this somewhere.

    You can also estimate US literacy from the NAEP scores. California is about 66% literate, which is to say two-thirds of eight graders can read at an adequate level and about the same percentage of twelfth graders.

    You could reasonably argue that public school decreases literacy.

    • I believe I can reasonably argue that public school in many instances impairs and injures education, and facilitates educational malpractice.

    • I definitely feel like most of my time in public school was wasted. The math instruction was not competitive with the rest of the world. Most of my vocabulary and English skills came from my own reading. I was never taught logic. I’m seeking to remedy all this with my kids who are no longer in public school. The Dewey/Greely changes to public education to make us all employable corporate wage slaves turned out to be useless as all the jobs were outsourced or taken over by foreign labor (H1Bs, illegal immigrants). The future belongs to those who can think for themselves and make their own jobs.

      I am working through Kreeft’s book on logic. It is excellent.

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