Literacy In American Culture Essay

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The uses of literacy and the spread of books and schools are a reflection of a society’s values and attitudes. Each society must determine the answers to value-laden questions such as, Who should learn to read? What should be the content of available reading material? Who has the responsibility for creating and maintaining places of

learning? American culture has come up with different answers to these questions at different moments in time. As American culture has changed and evolved, as different concerns have developed, the uses of literacy have been transformed as well. What has remained constant, though, is that Americans employ a variety of methods in interacting with the written word. This entry offers a definition of literacy.

Literacy is a mosaic of socially constructed written language practices that vary according to use. People participate in literacy events in an assortment of ways depending on their knowledge of reading and writing, their previous experiences with texts, their interpretive practices, and their cultural resources and representations. Power relations among individuals and groups determine who and what people can read. Investigating the answers to these concerns in the past has been the goal of historians of literacy and those working in the field known as the history of the book. Understanding these concerns in the contemporary world has been the goal of policy makers and literacy scholars, as well as parents, news reporters, and business leaders. This entry explores both.

Literacy In Colonial British North America

The voluntary emigrants from England and the coerced emigrants from Africa who came to British North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought values and traditions from their former homes, including ideas about literacy and schooling. Although most of the European colonists were from the British Isles, they still brought different conceptions about the purpose of their life in the New World, just as they differed in Britain about the accessibility and availability of literacy.

The starkest contrast was between the settlers of Massachusetts and the settlers of Virginia. The difference in attitudes was exemplified by the declarations and actions of the leaders of the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies, respectively.

Virginia’s governor, William Berkeley, coming from the conservative English tradition that viewed scholarly skills among the poor to be a threat to social stability, famously noted in a report to the colony’s overseers in Britain his supreme joy that schools for the poor and a printing press were nonexistent in Virginia.

In contrast, New England colonial leaders valued literacy for all because of the great importance placed on direct access to the word of God. For the leaders of New England and their followers, the Bible, literally, was the embodiment of truth and God. In support, the civil government in Massachusetts in 1642 required parents and masters to take responsibility for instructing children and servants to read. Five years later, the General Court passed a law requiring every town of fifty families to create a basic school where reading and writing were taught. Towns of one hundred families were compelled to set up a more advanced grammar school. The “Old Deluder Satan Act,” as this legislation came to be known, focused on the need for widespread literacy to support religion and to foster a godly kingdom here on earth.

The introduction of slavery to Virginia, and the enduring prevalence of a stratified, patriarchal society that favored cash wealth over spiritual wealth, ensured that the influence of the written word remained relatively weak in that colony. Three out of every four people in Virginia at the beginning of the eighteenth century were either nonliterate or largely confined to the oral medium. Over the next seventy years, in both northern and southern colonies, inroads in commercial capitalism and fissures in political relations between the colonies and Britain led to an important shift in the use of literacy.

On the eve of the American Revolution, rudimentary literacy among Whites in the colonial South had increased dramatically. For New Englanders, the relationship between literacy and religion grew weaker. In the new era of the late eighteenth century, people wrote and read for commercial and political reasons. At the conclusion of the Revolution, the new country found yet another use for literacy—the promotion of republican discourse.

Literacy In The Early Republic

After the United States won its independence from Britain, maintaining a republican spirit in the fledgling country became a primary concern for many Americans. Political rhetoric increasingly suggested that literate culture could facilitate the maintenance of a republic. In Pennsylvania, Benjamin Rush called on schools to develop people into “republican machines” who would operate for the betterment of the state. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson argued that liberty would be safe only in the hands of an educated people. And in Georgia, the president of the University of Georgia, Josiah Meigs, argued that liberty and peace required education to be diffused widely through the general population.

Accordingly, in the decades immediately following the Revolution, literacy was used to support nationalism in the newly formed United States, a dramatic departure from the religious and traditional orientation of the seventeenth century. “Friends of Education” generated proposals to develop state-supported systems of education. Noah Webster and like-minded authors developed dictionaries, spellers, and schoolbooks celebrating the new republic and its distinctiveness. Schools opened their doors to girls, the future mothers of the republic responsible for nurturing the next generation of citizens.

Over time, the republican emphasis in public discourse dissipated. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the purposes of literacy increased in number. Americans in both the North and South continued to rely on traditional texts and political monographs, of course. Literate culture, however, expanded to include popular fiction, journals, farm magazines, and highbrow literature.

Personal writing in the early republic served a practical function and focused on the commonplace. Three types of everyday writing predominated in this world: straightforward accounts of events and expositions of opinion; practical, do-it-yourself advice on nearly every conceivable aspect of daily life (from exorcising spirits to killing worms); and letters written for personal or professional reasons. Most citizens were utilitarian in their use of writing and saw no need to link writing to literature or literary appreciation.

Nevertheless, citizens believed they were fulfilling their civic responsibility when they authored simple reports or penned do-it-yourself advice. Literate individuals were expected to be aware of the larger world. Writing was to benefit and instruct others. Articles in periodicals of the era frequently reminded their readers that common men reflecting insights and truth had produced the great inventions and ideas of their generation. All classes were expected to participate in literate civic culture. Working-class people in the United States produced sophisticated political and economic treatises of their own and commented on those of others in newspapers and periodicals.

Literacy Before And After The Civil War

As the North became more industrialized, and as the South increasingly produced staple crops for world markets, literacy became more useful in commercial enterprises. In the United States, as in most of the rest of the transatlantic world, population density and commercial and manufacturing activity were variables associated with the promotion of an ideology of literacy. Areas with greater density obtained a social concentration that led to the development of institutions promoting literacy—schools, churches, and libraries. Commercial and manufacturing activities usually, but not always, were associated with increases in population density. These economic developments in turn advanced publishing, book printing, and newspapers, and subsequently advanced a particular type of literacy.

The purpose of literacy in the South in the antebellum and postbellum years remained distinct from that of the North. Republicanism and economic development were present in the South, of course. Southerners saw the need for republican values and for literacy to maintain the values required to continue their form of democracy. Some Southerners encouraged efforts to increase manufacturing and envisioned a commercial purpose for literacy. In the handful of urban areas in the South, schools and libraries were supported as wholeheartedly, and for similar reasons, as in the urban centers of the North.

Yet these two concerns, republicanism and commercial activity, played a secondary role. Literacy in the South was controlled by, and most prevalent among, a White elite that sought to maintain its status above all else. This single fact was the driving force behind the uses and purpose of literacy in the South. The consequences for literate culture of the South’s hierarchical society manifested themselves in three ways.

First, elites either directly or indirectly limited schooling and literacy for others. The most blatant limitation on literacy occurred prior to the Civil War. Slave-owners believed that the written word threatened their society from within. Antiliteracy laws aimed at slaves were passed by southern legislatures in the 1820s and 1830s. Prohibitions against Whites or Blacks owning and/or distributing abolitionist literature developed in the 1850s. All of these laws were enforced more carefully as the sectional conflict between North and South worsened.

A second, related point is that in a world where literacy is limited, oral culture and tradition necessarily predominate. Some Southerners claimed that the South’s oral tradition revealed Southern superiority in intellectual concerns. Others, although not going that far, recognized the value in the spoken word in the patriarchal and hierarchical world of the South. In a world where orality predominates, reading is a social activity. Writing and reading are reliant on shared interpretations arrived at through talk.

The third and final point to keep in mind is that immediately after the Civil War, freed Blacks fought the literacy limitations placed on them by Whites. Blacks shared an intense desire for education and literacy and saw schooling as a cure to their troubles. In the first years of the Reconstruction era, it seemed to the former slave and renowned educator Booker T. Washington that an entire race was attempting to go to school. For newly emancipated slaves to be able to read and write was to obtain power.

School systems created by and for Black Americans after the Civil War signified the ex-slaves’ intent to regain jurisdiction over their own lives. Whites seeking political, economic, and social subordination of Blacks eventually undermined initial Black triumphs in this enterprise, and Whites won control of Black educational institutions. By the end of the nineteenth century, Black schooling and literacy in the South was controlled and limited by Whites.

Literacy In The United States Since 1880

There are three key trends in literacy since 1880. The first is the striking, albeit uneven, expansion of literacy among people living in the United States. The latter half of the twentieth century, in particular, witnessed a substantial increase in access to schooling for previously restricted groups. The second trend is the continuing divergence of the uses and purposes of literacy, with a concurrent development of a wide array of reading publics. The third trend is the increasing entanglement of literacy ability, corporate profitability, and national productivity.

The Expansion Of Literacy

In an era that witnessed an acceleration of technological, economic, and social change, literacy became increasingly important in people’s lives. In response, schools enrolled greater percentages of students for longer periods of time. Early in the twentieth century, very few Americans graduated from high school or even reached the eighth grade. By the end of the century, virtually all adults had at least an eighth-grade education, and the median level of education was more than twelve years of schooling.

As a consequence, the median level of education for Americans rose dramatically throughout the twentieth century. With the increase in schooling, individuals became less likely to self-report illiteracy to census officials and other authorities.

The Uses Of Literacy

Along with an increase in both the number and percentage of literate Americans, the United States saw an increase in the book-buying public. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Americans participated in the growth of a leisure society in which increasing amounts of household income were consigned to recreational activities. Reading—both a work-related and recreational activity—joined in that growth.

Book buying spread to a majority of the American population in these years, making strong inroads in lower-income groups. It was at the higher income levels, though, in a reading elite of well-educated, active readers, where reading became more diverse and intense. Yet, at the same time, the percentage of the American public purchasing newspapers and magazines declined in that period, likely because of inroads made by radio, television, and eventually, digital technology.

The Entanglement Of Literacy In Modern American Life

To an unprecedented extent, literacy has become integral to economic competition in the modern Western world. American workers have come to be viewed as the raw materials, the human capital, of national and corporate wealth. The modern workplace puts a premium on the ability of individuals to manipulate and understand abstract symbols. Because of the enhanced role of literacy, a number of contradictions have developed.

First, even as literacy and educational attainment have increased in the population, American political and business leaders have become more vocal in their complaints of a lack of advanced literacy skills among Americans. The value of literacy, it seems, has increased even more than the diffusion of advanced literacy in the American public.

Second, because of the enhanced value of advanced literacy skills, the potential cost of not attaining those skills is even higher. Advanced literacy serves a gatekeeping function to opportunity and reward. The ability to read and write allows individuals access to higher levels of income and to social privilege. Those who do not attain the advanced levels required in modern American life, however, may find themselves on the periphery of both.

Finally, the rewards from literacy are so great, for individuals and large institutions, that American governments and businesses have created elaborate bureaucracies to test and sort individuals. As a consequence, although the potential rewards are great, the potential for injustice and exploitation is equally present.


  1. Brandt, D. (2001). Literacy in American lives. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Casper, S. E., Groves, J. D., Nissenbaum, S. W., & Winship, M. (Eds.). (2007). A history of the book in America: Volume 3: The industrial book, 1840–1880. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  3. Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Kaestle, C. F., Damon-Moore, H., Stedman, L. C., Tinsley, K., & Trollinger, W. V., Jr. (1991). Literacy in the United States: Readers and reading since 1880. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  5. Monoghan, E. J. (2005). Learning to read and write in colonial America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  6. Warner, M. (1990). The letters of the republic: Publication and the public sphere in eighteenth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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