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Wiki-Synopsis: Literacy

11/10/2010

In 12th and 13th century England, the ability to read a particular passage from the Bible entitled a common law defendant to the benefit of clergy provision, which entitled a person to be tried before an ecclesiastical court, where sentences were more lenient, in lieu of a secular one, where hanging was a likely sentence. This opened the door to literate lay defendants also claiming the right to the benefit of clergy provision, and – because the Biblical passage used for the literacy test was invariably Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus… – “O God, have mercy upon me…”) – an illiterate person who had memorized the appropriate verse could also claim the benefit of clergy provision.[23]

By the mid-18th century, the ability to read and comprehend translated scripture led to Wales having one of the highest literacy rates. This was the result of a Griffith Jones‘s system of circulating schools, which aimed to enable everyone to read the Bible in Welsh. Similarly, at least half the population of 18th century New England was literate, perhaps as a consequence of the Puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading. By the time of the American Revolution, literacy in New England is suggested to have been around 90 percent.

Although the present-day concepts of literacy have much to do with the 15th century invention of the movable type printing press, it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century that paper and books became financially affordable to all classes of industrialized society. Until then, only a small percentage of the population were literate as only wealthy individuals and institutions could afford the prohibitively expensive materials.

In the years following the Civil War, the ability to read and write was used to determine whether one had the right to vote. The historian Harvey Graff has argued that the introduction of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of literacy that the working class had access to. According to Graff, literacy learning was increasing outside of formal settings (such as schools) and this uncontrolled, potentially critical reading could lead to increased radicalization of the populace. In his view, mass schooling was meant to temper and control literacy, not spread it.[25] Graff also points out, using the example of Sweden, that mass literacy can be achieved without formal schooling or instruction in writing.[26]

 

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