September 10, 2011

"Were Colonial Americans More Literate than Americans Today?"

"Can you imagine a book with such a complex style today selling 60 million copies in one year?"


Bob said...

"Well, duh!" which itself answers the question. It's unlikely that Alexander Hamilton ever sank to "Well, duh!"

ndspinelli said...

They were certainly less distracted.

traditionalguy said...

Why act surprised?

The adult literacy rates in Scotland 120 years after the reformed Kirk of John Knox decided to teach all people how to read scriptures for themselves had reached 95%.

That new tradition came across the Atlantic with the settlers coming to America.

Printed books were the status symbols of the 1700s.
Hume and Locke were read by everyone.

Tom Jefferson' s library founded the Library of Congress.

TV and Movies were hard to find and even NPR Radio was hard to get a signal.

Jason (the commenter) said...

First off, it's not a book, it's a pamphlet, about 30 pages long in conventional page sizes. Secondly, it was so controversial that the author published it anonymously; it was illegal and people were buying it to piss off the government. Thirdly, it was full of religious arguments which would have been easily absorbed by most of its readers, who often spent all Sunday listening to complex sermons.

Focussing on "literacy" seems a little silly.

Paddy O said...

Yes... and no.

Ndspinelli hits one reason.

Have you read the Bible? In King James English? It's not exactly light reading for the most part. And that was often the primer for learning how to read. It also means that what seems strained and awkward and difficult for us, actually fit more of a common style to their ears.

I can imagine a lot of political or other nonfiction selling a lot of copies today in language that fits the common style.

There was also distinct class differences in education. So, extrapolating sales then to sales now is misleading, in which we have significantly broader education so that nearly everyone is literate, though not highly educated or interested in complex thought. Being literate and interested in complex thought were much more correlated in those days.

And, I think this is one failure of the modern money driven corporate culture. Publishers then were a lot like academic publishers now. They would publish a lot of stuff that didn't sell well, and occasionally something actually would. The business model now insists on publishing or producing to the lowest common denominator.

Even forty years ago, Newsweek and Time would publish book reviews for some very groundbreaking but complex theology. For the last 15 years, though, they've gone increasingly pop, with Jon Meacham's tenure, and his expulsion of Kenneth Woodward, exemplifying the dumbing down of those once very engaging magazines.

But mostly what ndspinelli said.

Paddy O said...

For instance, I'm avoiding reading complex theology books and a few journal articles right now, because I'm hanging out on a blog making comments.

Triangle Man said...

Sophisticated? Let's see those colonials watch a couple of episodes of Twin Peaks.

ndspinelli said...

Paddy O, You are an interesting, philosophical, dude. Were you educated by the Jesuits? They taught me how to think..not what to think. The Holy Cross Brothers to a lesser degree.

ndspinelli said...

Of course, the good Sisters of Saint Joseph taught me the fundamentals..w/ a stern, but loving hand.

And Paddy O, when I bust the Irish balls, understand my mother was Irish. I was the product of a taboo marriage back in the early 50's. By the late 60's, it was a fairly common combo. Believe me, I bust dago balls too. I understand the strengths and flaws of both cultures.

Bob Ellison said...

What Jason said. Furthermore, there weren't a lotta books back then. Just having a publisher with a good press was a good route to pamphlet-sales.

False comparison on so many levels.

Mary said...

"Focussing on "literacy" seems a little silly."

As does the more traditional "focusing", eh Jason?

Paddy O said...


Educated by Fundamentalists, oddly enough, well not Fundamentalists anymore, they're Evangelicals now. Public school through high school.

Scots Irish background on one side, with some sprinkling of Irish on both sides, with a mix of other Northern Europeans along the way. So, a fair mix of the quite pale skinned variety.

Family background is mostly educated pioneer farmers, until my parents generation, when all the farm land got sold, but still more educated working class.

Which, I guess, is a bit like the Jesuits.

Doug the Doberman Lover said...

Many years ago, I read a comment about the Founding Fathers that has stuck in my mind: The period from the revolution through the adoption of the constitution was not the dawn of our republic, it was the high-noon. Looking at our present situation does not give reason to doubt this.

J said...

Hume and Locke were read by everyone.

by those who had been to college town--. Not by puritans--or the pioneers. Or likely by natives

Tom Jefferson' s library founded the Library of Congress

Paddy O--this "spinelli" character is a lying sack of shit-- no jesuit,no irish, and definitely not italian.
Think Hoss Cartwright on acid (and an Obama voter)

They left TP's favorite busts of klassic writers at Monticello--including Voltaire

Big Mike said...

... for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries By a Government, which we might expect in a country Without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

Still true today, isn't it?

EDH said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's a function of all the good book titles being taken already.

I mean, Common Sense!

Who the hell wouldn't buy that?

Plus the fact there was no toilet paper per say.

edutcher said...

People in those days had little time for trivialities.

When you consider one of the arithmetic problems in an American school book had to do with 2 brothers walking home when a tree fell on 1, life was tough, so a book like that, regardless of size, would be something they would consider worthwhile.

ndspinelli said...

And Paddy O, when I bust the Irish balls, understand my mother was Irish. I was the product of a taboo marriage back in the early 50's.

Depends on where you were.

Canuck said...

Literate? In terms of could they read? No.

Outside of New England they were much less literate then today.

But as Jason said they were much more used to hearing oral speeches and sermons. Think of how people memorized Homer, but couldn't read.

J said...

when I busta balls

Hossanetti trying his Pesci imitation,and failing

Phil 3:14 said...

Why write when you can text; why read when you can watch?

ndspinelli said...

You all may not be aware of this but J teaches anger management classes. This is just his way of venting.

Fred4Pres said...

Yes. Yes they were.

Common Sense was also short, relatively inexpensive, and not competing with other media.

gerry said...

I don't read J's posts anymore.

He tries to be e e cummings but who can read that crap without punctuation eh

traditionalguy said...

The Scots-Irish settlers came through on the way to free land beyond the landlord's reach,

As a result they out ran teachers who were the educated clergy teaching at a church school.

Thus as the Presbyterians went deeper into the Indian territory they morphed in far off settlements into Baptists who had no rules requiring an educated clergy. They just preached to one another what the KJV said.

But their guns and their religios faith conquered the West, and served when called to help save the East in wars.

But Andy Jackson never got any respect from the East coast guys.

J said...

You can't read at all, "Gerry"--it's all normal punctuation and spelling. We're about Reason--and referred to Voltaire, for one (one of Jefferson's favorite writers) not not e e cummings,"Gerry" aka Hoss aka Byro. That's you. Actually mo' like yr one time palsie Ginsburg, with whom you once shared some of your... poetry.

Saint Croix said...

Americans today are far more literate than in the past. Our literarcy rates are sky high. Just about everybody in our society can read. And with the advent of the internet, people are reading more, not less. More Americans are sharing ideas, thoughts, and opinions with more people than at any time in our history. It's not even close.

It's unlikely that Alexander Hamilton ever sank to "Well, duh!"

That's because Hamilton lived in a very class-conscious society, where you were judged by the way you communicated. You showed off your vocabulary all the time. Doing so marked you as high class. If you used slang, you were low class.

Imagine a couple of gang-bangers shooting each other in the street. Now imagine Alexander Hamilton dying in a duel. It's the exact same moronic idea, yes? But Hamilton's expression of that idea was more formalized.

So if by "literary" we are asking which society is more formal, more controlled, more class-conscious, that would obviously be their society. But if you're asking which society has the greatest amount of intellectual freedom and diversity, with a huge percentage of Americans reading, writing, and communicating, obviously it's our society.

Synova said...

Part of it is what you're used to reading. Someone mentioned the King James. Being bi-lingual in English and King James increases literacy, but if one read a lot of Shakespeare it would do the same. Or poetry. The sentence constructions are different, but they are mostly hard simply due to unfamiliarity.

From 100 years ago:

"This picture, or rather materialized nightmare, which I have described at length, made but one terrible and swift impression on me as I turned to meet it. Unarmed and naked as I was, the first law of nature manifested itself in the only possible solution of my immediate problem, and that was to get out of the vicinity of the point of the charging spear."

I suppose that an illiterate person is unlikely to recognize the "first law of nature" as "fight or flight", but notions of valuing a less verbose style aren't related to literacy at all.

It's fashion. Nothing more.

Synova said...

Instead of saying "I decided to crawl like a baby" the author says "...,and so I hit upon the unique plan of reverting to first principles in locomotion, creeping."

Which made me laugh.

Synova said...

And yes, I am deliberately comparing Thomas Paine to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Because a person can talk all fancy about important, substantive issues as well as talking all fancy about trying to walk in low gravity, repeatedly falling on his face and backside, crawling, and then meeting giant green men with six limbs.

(Also, both authors are still in print.)

Lem said...

No wonder.

The shame of it is that they were not even embarrassed by their blunder.

David said...

They were a lot less distracted by all the electronic crap.

Imagine if Abe Lincoln had video games.

Carol_Herman said...

Every generation has its stars!

Was writing more complex? Think of all the words we've added since then! Telephone! Telegraph! Railway Station! Morse Code. TV! Laptops.

As a matter of fact I'd probably list Mark Twain as my favorite author in the English language. And, one of the things he noticed about Morse Code, and the Telegraph was how it "BROUGHT LITERATURE TO NEW ORLEANS." How the access of information TO speed ... generally made newspapers BETTER!

As to "back in Colonial times, what is worthy of note is the King James Bible! IT became the book where kids were taught the language. Because when the school day ended, and they went home and had to do homework, they learned to read out loud. And, the parents knew when the kids got the words right. And, when they did not.

Shakespeare was also a big hit!

And, then? When Lincoln debated Douglas ... people came out and STOOD to listen! (These words were captured by journalists who could do shorthand. And, were transmitted BY MORSE CODE ... around to EVERY NEWSPAPER that got connected!

That's how you got news, that didn't just come over to you via the backyard fence.

At some point, ahead, kids will still be reading Hamlet. (Even though fewer people believe in ghosts. Or that men react to their fathers telling them to "honor their name," as they're sent out to go after their mom.)

We also don't dress like they did back in Colonial times. But up ahead? Jeans will define wardrobes!

J said...

Synova-- verbosity and eloquence may not always imply higher intelligence but they do usually suggest it. Jefferson spoke French and Italian, and read latin and greek classics and wrote eloquent Anglo--same for say Hawthorne. The average southern male these days generally sounds more like Larry the Cable Guy than Voltaire (orJefferson) . Res Ipsa Loquitur...

Those who were educated in 1780 or so studied Latin along with the other subjects--ie,they're reading Caesar and Cicero not...Steven King,etc. They may not have been Steven Hawkings (or King) but were generally more literate--and their writing superior (also may be noted by comparing the orignal KJV language to the new, fundie Bibles).

Canuck said...

"verbosity and eloquence may not always imply higher intelligence but they do usually suggest it."

something to consider: people don't have to be literate to be highly eloquent and intelligence.

While a very high proportion of people were illiterate (couldn't read and write), they listened and understood people who read out loud the Bible, TP's Common Sense, and the Declaration of Independence. Political orations were much more important in that era.

Canuck said...

"something to consider: people don't have to be literate to be highly eloquent and intelligence."


And Alexander Hamilton would never say whoops.

J said...

something to consider: people don't have to be literate to be highly eloquent and intelligence.

Intelligent,you mean. Debatable. Most educational research does show correlations between intelligence and verbal ability. Whether one likes Obama or not, he outspoke McCaint--and that tends to impress people (tho' maybe not Larry the Cable Guys,or Alt-tards).

Oratory-- as like Cicero's speeches. The Founders would have known of those (as did say RE Lee & Co), as European politicians did for years. Thomas Paine? Not among puritans,or most yankees. Like Jefferson he was considered a friend of the jacobins.

Carol_Herman said...

Hey! As soon as the telephones became operative, Sears & Roebuck decided to open a business!

They produced this catalog of merchandise. Where you'd call in an order to Chicago. They used America's postal service to deliver these packages anywhere ... no matter what the distance the package had to travel. As long as the other end was in America.

And, if you didn't like what you got ... you could return it.

Business boomed.

But you should have seen those catalogues! Full of pen & ink drawings. And, THE WRITTEN WORD. You knew ahead of time what you were paying for. And, what to expect when the package arrived.

It meant people really knew how to read!

Oh. And, people kept these catalogues in their out-houses. Very sturdy stuff. In other words? They weren't thrown out!

And, then, too, as the telephone services grew in number ... we got thicker and thicker white pages. And, yellow pages. It depended on a lot of people knowing how to read.

Now? Doesn't texting keep this skill alive? There doesn't seem to be a drop off in readership ... so much as a drop off in what people once read ... And, what they're reading today.

The Internet plays a large part in American skepticism, too. It keeps more opinions circulating than you'd get if all you had was a boob tube.

jamboree said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Synova said...

I agree, J, that the people who were educated were educated in languages and classics. The uneducated were accustomed to listening to the language of the King James.

But part of the reason that we look at older writing and think that people were smarter is that we can't understand it, and so we figure they must have been smarter than we are.

But Shakespeare was understood by the illiterate. His word plays and innuendos weren't something to puzzle over. Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn't an academic writing for other academics. (Though what people take exception to most about him today is that he was highly scientifically literate and put the conclusions of the scientific community about what things were genetically inheritable in his work. ie., Tarzan was a gentleman in his behavior to Jane because of his genes.) His word play about "first principles" or that the natives chased Tarzan with (I think it was) invective, because invective was the only thing that could keep up with him, were jokes that the normally literate could get because the vocabulary was not unusual.

That we have exchanged some words for others in common usage doesn't mean that we're less literate. I simply means that language changes over time.

Synova said...

A correlation does not prove cause.

We are a highly literate culture. A more intelligent person is absolutely going to score higher on vocabulary and language use. They are likely to be familiar with a wider range of writing.

Try using "conceit" casually to mean "the central idea". I can do that here on this blog. I can't do it on, oh, Big Hollywood because it will be misunderstood. (Not by all, but at least several, leading to unnecessary diversion into argument.)

Synova said...

I think that eloquence tends not to overly impress some people (specifically those who hang on Althouse) because it's too easy to see what someone is doing behind the words.

Having great skill with language is only impressive to those who primarily see the pretty words. If you see past the words but like the ideas, then you have both pretty words and ideas. If you see past the words and don't like the ideas, what is there to be impressed about the words?

Canuck said...

"Thomas Paine? Not among puritans,or most yankees. Like Jefferson he was considered a friend of the jacobins."

I see your point but not in 1776.

You have to wait until the French Revolution for that.

btw - Puritians are long gone by this time. They split into Unitarians, Congregationalists and the various "New Light" First Great Awakening religions.)

Knowning how to read and write promotes a particular type of thinking, but I'd need more data to conclude it equates with greater intelligence.

For those who are interested in the subject, some interesting reads on literacy and oratory during the revolutionary era.

Crimso said...

I have read a great deal on the ACW, and have seen countless direct quotes of people's speech, as well as writing. I have also read quite a few books written by the players involved, as well as a lot of official correspondence ranging from simple written orders directing the movement of a body of troops all the way up to after-action reports (some written months after) of battles and whatnot. At least one modern author (can't recall who it was) noted that the language of that era was flowery and naive.

I think it is less an issue of literacy (Bedford Forrest was described by Foote as "semi-literate") than of style. If you read enough of that kind of writing (and some of it was spoken word), you get used to it and sometimes really don't notice the oddity of some of it. Still, it seems to me to have been a style both thought-out and distinct.

I suspect it was effortless for people of that era to write in that style, or at least required scarcely more effort than today's writers. The difference is that back then they were undoubtedly educated to write in such a style. I doubt that such convoluted but beautiful language is generally tolerated in today's educational system. People today can write in such a way as to mimic what was written 150 yrs ago, but it takes some concious effort that everyday usage of language doesn't. In any case, I remain your most humble and obedient servant,

P.S.: all-time favorite ACW quote was spoken to his commanding officer by the semi-literate Forrest "...and if you were any part of a man I would slap your jaws and force you to resent it!"

Lucius said...

@Synova: But 'words' *are* ideas.

I commend you for trying out 'conceit' in a more demotic venue (tho I think the sense of (elaborate) metaphor trumps a 'central idea', but I think you're favoring moderation fallaciously here.

Just how do our techno-toys compensate for the death of Johnsonian literacy?

And let me be elitist: the diffusion of 'general literacy' hardly can compensate for a world where the supposed learned and political elite have a 'literacy' on the level of Barack Obama, a monolinguist whose only attempts at 'heavy' reading appear to be two stints with Shakespeare and a ludicrous foray into Nietzsche and Post-Structuralists during his lost years (having not the slightest philosophical training, or even any evident exposure to heavy canonical writers on the level of Dante or Goethe, he patently could not have *understood* what a Habermas has to say).

And let's put the axe to the Shakespeare, Bard of the People schtick. For chrissakes Ben Jonson was the classicist, Shakespeare the Mannerist. What generation could ever make easy sense of such caviar as Hamlet, Cymbeline, or Troilus and Cressida. The Globe was not some Bill and Ted's Excellent Theatre, as demotic douches everywhere fancy; and anyway, he may well have preferred Blackfriars or Whitehall.

Synova said...

"But 'words' *are* ideas."

I don't think so.

In some absolute sense that is probably true, but it's not a useful truth. Words are tools. They can reveal or obfuscate, clarify or bamboozle. And if words limited what we can think about, if they limit the ideas we can actually have, then we wouldn't spend so much time struggling to find the right one. That we do have those struggles to find words to adequately explain our ideas suggests that our ideas are bigger than our words. And when we can't find the right word, we make up a new one.

JAL said...

@ ncspinelli -- re Paddy O

He's being modest. Go look at some of his blogs.

Canuck said...

"That we do have those struggles to find words to adequately explain our ideas suggests that our ideas are bigger than our words."

That's the key question: if we can't say it, can we think it? If we are not able to articulate the thought, have we truly articulated the thought clearly?

dunno, but I suppose we see through a glass, darkly,

Idiosophist said...

The reference in the link to John Taylor Gatto is the key: there was no public school system to dumb them down.

Canuck said...

"The reference in the link to John Taylor Gatto is the key: there was no public school system to dumb them down."

It's important not to assume things about history.

"All the New England colonies required towns to set up schools, and many did so. In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony made "proper" education compulsory; other New England colonies followed. Similar statutes were adopted in other colonies in the 1640s and 1650s. The schools were all male, with few facilities for girls.[4] In the 18th century, "common schools," appeared; students of all ages were under the control of one teacher in one room. Although they were publicly supplied at the local (town) level, they were not free, and instead were supported by tuition or "rate bills."

Idiosophist said...

That's really a false equivalency. Parents were obligated to make sure their children had basic literacy and numeracy, and in accord with religious orthodoxy, but schools were for the larger towns and attendance followed morning labor (and I don't think it was mandatory). That was only one part of the country as well. There is little similarity to the later systems brought about by centralized curricula, pedagogical innovations, compulsory attendance increasing in hours per day and years required.