As per the title. This claim was made in the book "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling" by John Taylor Gatto. He makes numerous dubious claims, however this one interested me most (p. 67):

A Massachusetts Senator said a while ago that his state had a higher literacy rate before it adopted com- pulsory schooling than after. It’s certainly an idea worth considering: schools reached their maximum efficiency long ago, meaning that “more” for schools will make things worse, instead of better.

He repeats a similar claim several times; i.e. that literacy before compulsory schooling was actually almost as high (at least, among those who weren't slaves/servants) as after compulsory schooling - to further his thesis about the negatives of schooling.

Simply; is the claim in the title/quote true? Is it true/false in other instances?

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    The phrase "among those who weren't slaves/servants" is rather telling... Why isn't the literacy rate prior to full education inclusive of that demographic?
    – GordonM
    Jan 24, 2019 at 14:46
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    I shouldn't take the bait, but the efficiency argument is specious. If I keep pushing the accelerator on my car past the point of maximum efficiency, it doesn't slow down, as this argument would suggest.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 24, 2019 at 20:34
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    So, how is that literacy rate tested. Did kids who were not in school have to take literacy tests in their homes? Seems to me that those tests are usually assessments given in school, so while the literacy tests results may have looked better, potentially, if that's an in-school assessment, the original figures would not have been a true measure of society-wide literacy. In other words, is that a literacy measurement of school students? Then you'd expect it to go down if you're requiring everyone to be there instead of a self-selected higher achievement group. Jan 25, 2019 at 15:34
  • Yep, I seriously doubt that there was any sort of reliable measure of literacy until perhaps 1935, and even that no doubt undercounted minority populations. Jan 25, 2019 at 17:45

2 Answers 2


Massachusetts passed its compulsory education law in 1852 (the first in the country). (reference, reference, reference, text of the act)

In 1840, the literacy rate in Massachusetts was 99%. (Table 14.1, Page 301, Civil War America, 1850 To 1875)

State / Percentage of Literate Residents

  • N.C / 72
  • Tenn. / 76
  • Ark. / 78
  • [...]
  • Maine / 99
  • Mass. / 99
  • N.H. / 99.4
  • Conn. / 99.7

Note: The Census Bureau counted both slave and free, male and female, in this statistic, making no distinctions. The effect of this statistical methodology was to lower the literacy rate significantly in southern states with large slave populations and to lower it across the board in every state since females were typically less educated than males at this time.

The total number of illiterate in Massachusetts in 1850 was 28,345. (Id, Table 14.2, Page 302).

The total number of illiterate in Massachusetts in 1860 was 46,921. (Id, Table 14.3, Page 303).

The total number of illiterate in Massachusetts in 1870 was 97,742. (Id, Table 14.4, Page 304).

The population in Massachusetts in 1850 was 994,514. (US Census data 1790-1990, Table 16)

The population in Massachusetts in 1860 was 1,231,066. (Id.)

The population in Massachusetts in 1870 was 1,457,351. (Id.)

Dividing the illiterate count with the population numbers gives literacy rates of 97.1% in 1850, 96.1% in 1860, and 93.2% in 1870.

Yes, Massachusetts had a higher literacy rate before 1852 than after 1852.

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    Interesting, on the face of it, the book's claim is true, but considering the time frame and immigration, I'm thinking this might be a case where correlation does not imply causation. If more illiterate people moved to Massachusetts after the act was passed (as implied by the increase in population) then stands to reason that the illiteracy rate would be higher even though it was lower before.
    – rjzii
    May 30, 2013 at 21:59
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    Also, compulsory schooling doesn't apply to adults. So it's absolutely certain that the literacy rate wasn't the result of compulsory schooling first the first few years of its effect. May 31, 2013 at 13:19
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    @DJClayworth: The current literacy rate in Massachusetts is around 90% - a bit lower than in 1870. So the idea that we just hadn't had compulsory schooling long enough at the start doesn't work. You can look up recent rates here (the 90% rate was from 2003): nces.ed.gov/naal/estimates
    – glenra
    Jun 2, 2013 at 16:20
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    Do we use the exact same test for "literacy" that Massachusetts did in 1840? Just curious what historical literacy testing entailed.
    – Kyle Hale
    Oct 30, 2015 at 14:37
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    While the testing almost certainty has changed, so has the world. You did not need much more than the ability to sign your name in the 1800s. Now, to function in society, and understand people, you need to learn MSN messenger abbreviations and emoticons in addition to normal English. Their is a huge diffidence between what was functionally literate then, vs now, so you would expect the testing to be wildly different.If we compare teh tests, we also need to compare the environments of the time, and what exactly made one functionality literate.
    – Jonathon
    Oct 30, 2015 at 16:17

From Literacy in the United States: Readers and Reading Since 1880 by Carl F. Kaestle:

Very little evidence is available about the extent of literacy before 1850 except that provided by people's ability to sign such documents as marriage registers, army rolls, and wills. Because the relationship of signing ability to reading ability remains uncertain, the validity of the measure is one of the most frequently discussed methodological problems in the history of rudimentary literacy rates. Roger Schofield, a leading expert, has argued for the equivalency of signature rates with the proportion of people who could read. He based his judgment on surveys that compared the self-reported reading and writing abilities of English working-class groups in the 1930s and 1840s, Schofield concluded that signing ability overestimates the number who could actually write but underestimates the number who could read at the most rudimentary level; thus he decided that signing ability conveniently approximated the proportion of people who could read "fluently. "

Theodore Hamerow, however, was more skeptical. Citing German data on reading and writing ability, he concluded that "the usual definition of literacy as the ability to sign one's name includes a large number, of half or more ... whose mastery of the 3 Rs was so inadequate that they should properly be classified as functional illiterate.

So literacy testing before 1850 is basically worthless compared to modern literacy testing.


By 1850, overall literacy in Europe had not risen much above 50 percent, though there was much variation. In general, literacy rates were biased in favor of the upper classes, males, and urban dwellers .... Literacy expanded rapidly .. in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, for both men and women. National consolidation, state intervention, and wider male suffrage combined with expanding capitalism to establish school systems and encourage literacy. England moved from about 69 percent male literacy in 1850 to 97 percent in 1900 .. and women from one-third in 1850 to equal the male rate.

And finally:

In 1840 the U.S. Bureau of the Census added a question on literacy to its survey form. ... Unfortunately, however, the census marshals never administered any literacy test, so the data represent only the self-reported literacy and illiteracy of household residents. Furthermore, the questions differed from decade to decade; over time the census changed the age group questioned, the wording of questions ... and finally, added a question on foreign-language literacy.

Soltow and Stevens ... investigated the correlation of literacy [in the census data] with other factors. Literacy rates correlated most strongly with school enrollment rates. ..

The big story in nineteenth-century American literacy is the development of common-school systems and the near elimination of self-reported illiteracy among native-born whites.

So all the scholarship indicates that common-school systems significantly increased literacy in both Europe and America.

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