Schooling Up, Literacy Down

At the time of the American Revolution (1775-83), literacy levels in the thirteen colonies were about 90%. This was in an era before mass schooling. It has now been almost 100 years since mass schooling was introduced in North America, but our literacy levels seem to have decreased significantly, according to this CBC news article:

Literacy groups estimate that up to nine million Canadians face some difficulties with reading and writing.

I am sure that there are many factors influencing these statistics, but it seems obvious that our school systems have not done a great job. Less obvious is how literacy is defined, as the same news article states that only 1% of Canadians are actually illiterate. Literacy groups have their own self-preservation agenda as does the industrial school system, so statistics can be thrown about by various parties for their own purposes.

Anyone who wants to think about literacy and schooling today should ask if our enormous public education system is really meeting the needs of our children and our society. As Churchill said, “First we shape our structures, then our structures shape us” [thanks Jon]

9 Responses to “Schooling Up, Literacy Down”

  1. Rob Paterson

    What a great question. I also found the letters in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War illuminating. Letters from ranking soldiers are not only literate but eloquent.

    What would they be like today?

  2. hilesr

    Rob, here’s one possibility:

    4 scor & 7 yr.z ago our fathRz brawt forth on DIS contiNt, a nu n8tN, conceived n Liberty, & dedicated 2 d propositN dat aL men R creatD =.

    nw we R engaged n a gr8 civL wR, tstn wethR dat n8tN, o NE n8tN so conceived & so dedicated, cn lng endure. We R met on a gr8 battle-field of dat wR. We hav cum 2 dedicate a portion of dat feLd, az a fInL rStN plAc 4 thOs hu hEr gave thR lives dat dat n8tN mite live. It iz al2gethr fitting & propR dat we shud do DIS…

  3. Ryan Deschamps

    Funny that we are troubled by truncated speech now, but didn’t see it as a problem when people were writing telegrams.

    If telegram writers had the kind of skill these 1337 speakers had, they woulda saved millions I tell ya!

  4. Ashley

    I wonder what the base population was for the historical literacy statistics. Were women included? I also wonder what effect the institution of slavery had on literacy rates over the following 100 years.

  5. Harold

    Excellent questions, Ashley. I’ll dig around and see if we can answer these. I’ve seen the 18th C literacy stats cited a few times (Gatto, et al) but no primary sources that I know of.

  6. Don Bemont

    Literacy rates were high at the time of the American Revolution for the same reason that most young people are so dextrous at text messaging today: At the time, ordinary people actually conducted their most important communications in writing, so, to be illiterate was to be cut off from society. To picture what it meant to be illiterate at that time, you might imagine a modern high school student not learning to use a cell phone.

    The past century has brought the rise of all sorts of alternatives to text, and so literacy fell as the number of people growing up perceiving text as essential fell. Literacy became something many people enjoyed and most others thought they SHOULD learn — yet, many did not feel the need for it on a visceral level.

    Schools did not cause this situation, but schools can, I suppose, be blamed for not acknowledging the impossibility of an institution altering history in this sense.

    Ironically, it may turn out that computerization and text messaging raises literacy once again, although I can bet that those who most bemoaned falling literacy will still be displeased because these developments will also hasten changes in written language, which they will insist are “wrong” and “ungrammatical.”


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