kitchen table math, the sequel: What people used to be able to read

Saturday, March 20, 2010

What people used to be able to read

palisadesk left this passage from John Gatto Taylor:
Looking back, abundant data exist from states like Connecticut and Massachusetts to show that by 1840 the incidence of complex literacy in the United States was between 93 and 100 percent wherever such a thing mattered. According to the Connecticut census of 1840, only one citizen out of every 579 was illiterate and you probably don’t want to know, not really, what people in those days considered literate; it’s too embarrassing. Popular novels of the period give a clue: Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826, sold so well that a contemporary equivalent would have to move 10 million copies to match it. If you pick up an uncut version you find yourself in a dense thicket of philosophy, history, culture, manners, politics, geography, analysis of human motives and actions, all conveyed in data-rich periodic sentences so formidable only a determined and well-educated reader can handle it nowadays. Yet in 1818 we were a small-farm nation without colleges or universities to speak of. Could those simple folk have had more complex minds than our own?

By 1940, the literacy figure for all states stood at 96 percent for whites, 80 percent for blacks. Notice that for all the disadvantages blacks labored under, four of five were nevertheless literate. Six decades later, at the end of the twentieth century, the National Adult Literacy Survey and the National Assessment of Educational Progress say 40 percent of blacks and 17 percent of whites can’t read at all. Put another way, black illiteracy doubled, white illiteracy quadrupled. Before you think of anything else in regard to these numbers, think of this: we spend three to four times as much real money on schooling as we did sixty years ago, but sixty years ago virtually everyone, black or white, could read.


farmwifetwo said...

I have my Mother's Gr 4 and 5 readers here at home.

Read the words in it... look at the equivalent books in the library.

We can't read today.

I attempted "Around the world in 80 days" with my eldest for home reading. Mom "what's this word", "what's that word"... Sigh...

We're going to do it again this summer, and it'll take us forever, but we're going to learn the words.

Anonymous said...

I will try to post something tomorrow (Monday), but Gatto is wrong. I've got a long e-mail I composed to someone else on this subject, and I'll dig it up and post it (maybe in parts).

But ... as an example, the 96% literacy figure he quotes for 1940 was using a 1940 definition of literacy. That definition was, "Has completed 4th grade." More details to come, but I'll note that the US Army was turning down more than 4% of the draftees because of insufficient literacy.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

I found my e-mail. So ... in pieces:

1) We need to keep in mind that literacy" probably isn't defined the same way today that it was 200 years ago. In some locales back then, the ability to sign ones name made one literate.

We are a bit stricter today.

2) The claims for literacy omit the population that was slaves. We don't omit blacks when scoring literacy today.

3) In 1777, George Washington instructed army chaplains to teach the soldiers at Valley Forge basic literacy skills.

page 7:
"One of the more significant events in adult literacy education during the later eighteenth century was the first commitment of government resources for teaching literacy skills to troops of the Continental Army. In 1777, General George Washington asked the Continental Congress to provide funds for a small traveling press that could be used to write about the war (Houle, Burr, Hamilton, & Yale, 1947). While this request was tabled and eventually forgotten (p. 13), General Washington's desire to communicate with his troops in witing led him to direct chaplains to teach the soldiers at Valley Forge basic literacy skills (Weinert, 1979)."

This should not have been necessary in a population with 95%+ literacy. Even with 75% literacy, the troops that could read could have read Washington's letters to the 25% that could not read.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

Continuing ...

4) Illiteracy rates among native born Army enlistees appear to be this:

1799-1829 40%
1830-49 30%
1850-69 25%
1870-94 12%

page 20

Page 14 of the same document has some interesting other rates, but note that the definition is fluid (see the jump to 99% in Chester County in the 1840 census).

5) WWI enlistees weren't super literate, it seems:

"With America's entry into World War I in 1917, the first accurate national literacy tests were conducted for recruits by the U.S. Army.

Twenty-five percent of all draftees were found to be illiterate...

By the 1940 U.S. Census, completion of the fourth grade was considered evidence of literacy...

by the end of World War II in 1945, the military had rejected nearly 750,000 potential draftees because of educational deficiencies."

From "Closing the Literacy Gap in American Business: A Guide for Trainers and Human Resource Specialists", p22

Note that the 1940 definition of literacy was "had completed 4th grade," so John's claim that "By 1940, the literacy figure for all states stood at 96 percent for whites" isn't quite as impressive as it seems. We probably meet that today!

More to come ...

-Mark Roulo

Jean said...

Yeah, I have to think that claims of high literacy levels in the past are over-exaggerated, though it's also quite true that really literate people also seem to have read at a higher level than we're mostly used to. After all, reading was entertainment; if you didn't have an iPod or youtube or TV, you'd read more too.

However, modern illiteracy is far too high and a real, serious problem. I'm not sure it's one that schools can solve alone. Certainly better reading instruction for young kids would help a lot, though...

Liz Ditz said...

I am really ambivalent about Taylor's article, especially the claims of literacy decline between WWII and the Korean War.

One source of my ambivalence is my father's tales of his Naval service during WWII. He was an engineering officer and reported that the "Black Gang" -- the fellows who ran the ship's diesel engines -- were "barely literate".

{update} I've been dithering over this since Friday 3/19. Many Real Life events have prevented me from developing my thoughts.

Therefore, a comment in the sense of jotting:

At the end, I'm not sure that debating the "it used to be better" thread is useful in the long run, especially in light of the evolving neuroscience evidence re learning to read (a discrete area of enquiry) & developing comprehension, both in oral / aural language and in reading (two or three discrete areas of enquiry)

Final thought: I do not think there was a Golden Age of Universal Literacy as presented here.

On the other hand -- Whole Language and its dregs are still the dominant method of reading instruction taught in teacher-preparation programs.