We should remember that the early English settlers in the New World left England accompanied by fears that they would pursue their “errand into the wilderness” and become barbarians in the process. Loved ones at home wondered how a people could cross an ocean and live in the wild without losing the literacy, the learning, and the faith that defined them. The early colonists came determined to defy these fears. They brought books, printing presses, and teachers with them and made the founding of schools a priority.
Parents the world over are dealing with massive adjustments in their children’s education that they could not have anticipated just three months ago. To one degree or another, pandemic-induced school closures are creating the “mass homeschooling” that FEE’s senior education fellow Kerry McDonald predicted two months ago. Who knows, with millions of youngsters absent from government school classrooms, maybe education will become as good as it was before the government ever got involved.
“What?” you exclaim! “Wasn’t education lousy or non-existent before government mandated it, provided it, and subsidized it? That’s what my government schoolteachers assured me so it must be true,” you say!
The fact is, at least in early America, education was better and more widespread than most people today realize or were ever told. Sometimes it wasn’t “book learning” but it was functional and built for the world most young people confronted at the time. Even without laptops and swimming pools, and on a fraction of what government schools spend today, Americans were a surprisingly learned people in our first hundred years.
I was reminded a few days ago of the amazing achievements of early American education while reading the enthralling book by bestselling author Stephen Mansfield, Lincoln’s Battle With God: A President’s Struggle With Faith and What It Meant for America. It traces the spiritual journey of America’s 16th president—from fiery atheist to one whose last words to his wife on that tragic evening at Ford’s Theater were a promise to “visit the Holy Land and see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Savior.”
In a moment, I’ll cite a revealing, extended passage from Mansfield’s book but first, I’d like to offer some excellent, related works that come mostly from FEE’s own archives.
In 1983, Robert A. Peterson’s “Education in Colonial America” revealed some stunning facts and figures. “The Federalist Papers, which are seldom read or understood today even in our universities,” explains Peterson, “were written for and read by the common man. Literacy rates were as high or higher than they are today.” Incredibly, “A study conducted in 1800 by DuPont de Nemours revealed that only four in a thousand Americans were unable to read and write legibly” [emphasis mine].
Well into the 19th Century, writes Susan Alder in “Education in America,” “parents did not even consider that the civil government in any way had the responsibility or should assume the responsibility of providing for the education of children.” Only one state (Massachusetts) even had compulsory schooling laws before the Civil War, yet literacy rates were among the highest in our history.
Great Britain experienced similar trends. In 1996, Edwin West wrote in “The Spread of Education Before Compulsion in Britain and America in the Nineteenth Century” that “when national compulsion was enacted ([in 1880], over 95 percent of fifteen-year-olds were literate.” More than a century later, “40 percent of 21-year-olds in the United Kingdom admit[ted] to difficulties with writing and spelling.”
Laws against the education of black slaves date back to as early as 1740, but the desire to read proved too strong to prevent its steady growth even under bondage. For purposes of religious instruction, it was not uncommon for slaves to be taught reading but not writing. Many taught themselves to write, or learned to do so with the help of others willing to flout the law. Government efforts to outlaw the education of blacks in the Old South may not have been much more effective than today’s drug laws. If you wanted it, you could find it.
Estimates of the literacy rate among slaves on the eve of the Civil War range from 10 to 20 percent. By 1880, nearly 40 percent of southern blacks were literate. In 1910, half a century before the federal government involved itself in K-12 funding, black literacy exceeded 70 percent and was comparable to that of whites.