Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The question of literacy

Literacy is difficult to define with any degree of accuracy and, in the first sixty years of the nineteenth century difficult to quantify[1]. Teaching and learning are complex communicative activities in which literacy plays a central role. It is the medium through which cultural storage can occur. The human memory has become less of a storehouse of raw experience and more of a repository of instruments that can unlock experiences stored elsewhere [for example, in books, letters, etc.].

The meaning of literacy

The concept of literacy can be defined very broadly as a person’s ability to read and sometimes write down the cultural symbols of a society or social group. Literacy has always been a two-edged sword: it provides the means to expand experience but also results in the need to control what people read. It supplies power to its possessors and, like other tools, provides them with a means of escaping from their immediate environment. It is not surprising that the dominant culture wants to control literacy while subordinate groups call for access to the ‘really useful knowledge’ of the dominant culture.

  1. The economic innovations of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to important changes in the working life of many people who were increasingly drawn to work in factories. This disrupted earlier patterns of domestic and community life. The employment of adults outside the home left many children unattended. Child employment meant that many children were denied the disciplines of schooling.
  2. New types of schools were established to compensate for these factory-related developments. Factory schools, Sunday schools, evening schools and infant schools were all designed to accommodate the consequences of industrialisation.
  3. These new schools adopted a new social agenda. They sought not only to inculcate virtue but also aimed to remold their pupils to fit in with the needs of an industrial society. Schools began to place much greater emphasis on continuous and regular attendance with teachers developing elaborate pedagogies to ensure that all children remained busy at their allotted tasks. Two developments flowed from this.
  4. Much greater attention was given to the education, training and competence of elementary school teachers. Rote methods were given much less attention and, instead, teachers were expected to be accomplished in more intellectual methods of instruction. They were expected not merely to inspect the contents of their pupils’ minds by hearing memorised lessons but also to exercise the minds of their charges by questioning them on their lessons.
  5. There was a major expansion of the school curriculum promoted alongside the spread of elementary education. Children began to be taught through secular as well as religious topics. It was assumed that if children knew how the world worked, they would be more ready to accept their allotted, if unnatural, place in the scheme of things.
  6. Another educational consequence of economic change was that writing began to enter the core curriculum of schooling. This did not meet with unqualified approval. Some argued that writing, a business skill, should not be taught in Sunday schools, while others claimed that it would promote crime [’if you teach them to write, you teach them to forge’]. Many assumed that writing skills would elevate people above their proper station in life. Nevertheless, there was a powerful lobby that recognised the importance of writing skills to the prosperity and administration of the economy. The army of clerks expanded with industrialisation.

The spread of reading skills was assisted by the technology of printing in the 1830s and 1840s with the steam-driven printing press. The spread of writing in commercial institutions also received a technological stimulus with the invention of the mass-produced and low-cost steel-nibbed pen in the 1830s to replace the expensive quills, penknives and paper and the introduction of cheaper esparto grass paper in the 1860s. The stamp duty on newspapers and the tax on paper were both reduced in 1836 and finally abolished in 1855 and 1861 respectively. The average price of books halved between 1828 and 1853. Books and newspapers became more readily available with the Public Libraries Act of 1850 and communications were improved by the introduction of the Penny Post in 1840.

‘Read or was read to’: it is only in the course of the nineteenth century that reading gradually became a private rather than a public act for the mass of the population. Until the 1830s, if you could read, you were expected to read aloud and share your reading with family, friends and workmates. A population with a significant proportion of ‘illiterates’ may not be an ill-informed or stupid one; it may be at least as well informed as a population where the formal reading skill is widely diffused but seldom used.

Was literacy rising or falling in 1830?

There is some debate over whether levels of literacy were rising or falling in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century. The problem that historians face is that there is no agreed standard for measuring literacy in this period. Attempts have taken two main forms: a counting of institutions and a counting of signatures on marriage registers. Both are fraught with problems. Counting the number of schools tells historians little about the education that went on in them, the average attendance, length of the school year or average length of school life, all of which have a direct relevance to levels of literacy. Counting signatures likewise poses problems. Is this all a person could write? What level of literacy does it assume? Yet signatures are the better figures, far more soundly based than attempts to count schools or scholars.

W.P.Baker’s survey of seventeen country parishes in the East Riding of Yorkshire found that male literacy was 64 per cent in both 1754-60 and 1801-10 and rose steadily afterwards. Lawrence Stone argues that literacy was rising between the 1770s and 1830 based upon more widespread analysis seeing this as a result of the process of industrialisation and its demands for a more literate workforce.  This optimistic view has, however, been called into question as far as England as a whole was concerned. There are various reasons for questioning whether literacy did rise:

  1. Declining investment. The sharp rise in population after the 1760s began to swamp the existing provision of schools, especially charity schools funded by local patrons. Private, charitable investment in education slackened after 1780 as people diverted their investment into more expensive and pressing outlets—enclosure, canal and turnpike investment. The dynamic areas of growth in the education system were no longer the charity schools for the working population but private fee-paying schools for the upper classes and grammar schools for the middle classes.
  2. Child labour. Children were drawn into the new processes of industrialisation and there were increased opportunities to employ them from an early age. This too militated against working class children receiving an education that would make and keep them literate, especially in industrial areas. Under these circumstances it would not be surprising if literacy rates did sag.
  3. It was the Sunday school movement that from the 1780s countered these factors. In 1801 there were some 2,290 schools rising to 23,135 in 1851 with over 2 million enrolled children. By then three-quarters of working class children aged 5-15 were attending such institutions. However there are some limitations to making a strong case that Sunday schools sustained the literacy rate. First, many schools ceased the teaching of writing after the 1790s. Secondly, they have been seen as either the creation of a working class culture of respectability and self-reliance or as middle class conservative institutions for the reform of their working class pupils from above. A positive force in a worsening situation, they probably prevented literacy falling more than it did in areas vulnerable to decline.

There is some statistical evidence for a fall in literacy in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth. Studies of Lancashire, Devon and Yorkshire suggest that there was a sharp fall in literacy in the 1810s and 1820s from around 67 to fewer than 50 per cent. Stephen Nicholas has examined 80,000 convicts transported to Australia between 1788 and 1840 and he found that urban literacy continued to rise until 1808 and rural literacy to 1817 but then both fell consistently for the rest of the period.

These divergent views illustrate the difficulty of extrapolating from specific examples to a general picture. We clearly need to avoid thinking of ‘England’, especially urban England, as a homogenous unit experiencing ‘optimistic’ or ‘pessimistic’ literacy trends before 1830.


[1] On  literacy see C.M. Cipolla Literacy and the Development in the West, Penguin, 1969 contains an excellent chapter on literacy and the industrial revolution.  R.D. Altick The English Common Reader, Phoenix Books, 1963, R.K.Webb The British Working Class Reader 1790-1848: Literacy and Social Tension, London, 1955 and M. Sanderson Education, Economic Change and Society in England 1780-1870, Macmillan, 2nd ed., 1991 contain important material.  D. Vincent Literacy and  popular culture: England 1750-1914, CUP, 1989 is an important study based on computerised research.

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