If you want to sell someone something, you first have to convince them that they need it. This rationalization is the likely source of a fundamental myth of the American public school system: that before the proliferation of compulsory, tax-payer funded schooling, Americans were ignorant and mostly illiterate.
At the time of the American founding, at least 80% of men and 50% of women could write fluently, and nearly all could read. Scholars believe this was among the highest rates of general literacy anywhere in the world at the time. More to the point, those percentages are pretty similar to what we see today. After thirteen years of forced schooling, 21% of adults are functionally illiterate, including 19% of high school graduates.
Before the rise of the military-industrial model of schooling a century ago, parents did not look to the government to educate their children. Each family fully expected either to teach their own at home, or to make private, voluntary arrangements with teachers or local schools. Compulsory education, and tax-payer funded schools, didn’t take hold in most states until after the Civil War, and then only over the strong objections of many parents.
So what was the literacy rate in the 1800s?
Historians use documents like wills and housing deeds to assess the literacy standard of the common people, but many proxy measures can give us an idea of literacy. In 1776, Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense, outlining the need for American independence. It sold half a million copies, in a population of 2.5 million. That text, which modern high schoolers struggle to decipher, was considered accessible to working class Americans. Dozens of newspapers were in circulation, and printing presses and publishing houses thrived. Poor Richard’s Almanac sold 10,000 copies annually, a viral sales success rivaling Harry Potter and The DiVinci Code in their prime.
The largest study of the era, conducted in 1800 by DuPont de Nemours, found only four in a thousand (.4%) Americans were unable to read and write legibly.
What education in the 1800s looked like
The community-supported, one-room school house is a familiar fixture of education in this period, but it wasn’t the only model. Towns and parishes set up their own small schools. Dame schools, which we might equate to a modern microschool, were common in cities and rural areas throughout the colonial period. Fees were paid directly to teachers, who were usually young women or older widows who welcomed mixed-aged groups of kids into their homes. In the more rural south, private schools and private tutors were common.
Children were taught to read and write, to do enough arithmetic to manage household budgets, and sometimes useful handcrafts, like sewing and mending. There was no network or central administration; each school ran independently. Fees were exceedingly reasonable, about the cost of a loaf of bread each week. School fees were often paid in trade, with bread, alcohol, candles, soap, or whatever harvest was in season at the students’ family farms.
Books and paper were very expensive. Children learned letters their mothers traced into dirt by the front steps, or ashes in the fireplace, and later practiced with chalk and slate or in trays of sand. Nearly every household owned a Bible, which was a primary source of reading material, but booksellers also offered a wide variety of primers, spelling books, and other means of instruction and self-education. Noah Webster’s thoroughly secular blue-backed speller sold tens of millions of copies. These were often well-worn and passed from sibling to sibling within a family. Public libraries, open to all who wished to read, were operating long before they received taxpayer backing.
Who Could Access Education?
It isn’t easy to calculate the exact literacy rate in the 19th century, partially because who counted as a “person” was evolving quickly. Many statistics on “citizens” did not include recent immigrants, women, or people who had been enslaved — which didn’t mean they couldn’t read.
School fees generally weren’t a barrier to affording education for every child; leisure time was. In an era when most waking hours were focused on subsistence, it was generally boys from middle-class families who were sent to grammar schools, where they learned advanced math, Latin, and Greek. These days, few American families rely on their childrens’ labor, and these questions of opportunity cost (whether to learn or to earn) have shifted to the college years.
As early as 1740, and universally by 1832, “slave codes” made it a crime to teach enslaved people to read and write. Literate people are hard to control, and literate slaves posed a threat to the system. An article in Harper’s Weekly at the time confirmed, “the alphabet is an abolitionist. If you would keep a people enslaved, refuse to teach them to read.”
About 20% of the Southern Black population learned to read and write anyway, at risk of significant punishment, including whipping, imprisonment, and having their fingers cut off.
Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery, learned the alphabet in secret, at age 12, by eavesdropping on the lessons his master’s wife, Sophia Auld, was giving her own son. Mrs. Auld was herself risking prison by helping him. Later, little Frederick traded his daily portion of bread to poor white boys, who had less access to food but more access to school, in exchange for lessons. He stole scraps of newspaper to practice.
After emancipation, an organic network of “Freedmen’s Schools” emerged, funded by private donations and community support. Within 10 years of emancipation, and despite many actively working to exclude them, the literate Black population had doubled, and would soon double again.
Less than 200 years later, amid an absolute explosion of written information, many people believe kids have to be forced to learn to read.
Yet millions of people who spent much of their childhood forced into desks never learn to read well at all. Half of Americans read at a sixth-grade level or lower. 20% of twelfth graders, and a similar number of adults, are “functionally illiterate,” despite record-high spending on schools, and vastly increased understanding and support for non-native speakers and conditions like dyslexia. “Functionally illiterate” Americans can’t read well enough to manage daily living, employment, and citizenship tasks. While some allowances must be made for the variability of testing (what qualifies as basic proficiency shifts over time) the percentage of competent readers nationwide is declining.
Authority will always try to convince you how helpless and bereft you would be without the authority. Americans were neither illiterate nor ignorant before forced schooling. Compulsory, tax-payer funded education has not been an overall improvement for the population, despite the billions of dollars and wasted hours spent on it. To claim Americans need government schools to learn is a grab for power and control, and ignores centuries’ worth of data and lived experience.