The “hallmark of the free”: Reasons for Literacy

The “hallmark of the free”: Reasons for Literacy

Map of the 13 Colonies copied from an early 20th Century map book found, for some reason, in my desk drawer.
Map of the 13 Colonies copied from an early 20th Century map book found, for some reason, in my desk drawer.

From the earliest stages of American colonization through the Revolution and into the new republic, one thing was accepted almost universally: literacy was the foundation of a good life. So-called “traditional literacy,” which E. Monaghan roots in the British and Protestant inheritance of the American colonies, was an established, almost prescriptive formula for childhood education before 1750—reading (memorization) followed by writing (penmanship). It was not until the mid-eighteenth century when childhood became distinctive from adulthood and educators introduced the spellers, two developments which paralleled changes occurring in Europe and Russia at the same time, caused the colonists to reevaluate this system. She takes to task scholars of literacy who establish literacy and illiteracy as binaries, as something achieved or not. Instead her work shows that in the colonies there was an established, educative program which some students completed, some students started, and some students never even began.

Monaghan argues that the goal of this program was two-fold. First of all, children were expected to be literate enough to read their Bible. The act of reading the scriptures was the same as saving one’s soul, a common theme in both the Anglican and Congregationalist strands of Protestantism popular in the colonies. Second, literacy was the “bulwark against barbarism.”[1] Especially when coming into contact with new peoples, the Wampanoags being an excellent example, literacy preserved the colonists’ civilized identity against the threat of the uncivilized. In addition it was a main vehicle for conversion—culturally and religiously. However, these explanations seem to take at face value justifications which the people themselves purport. They are ideological; they are justifiable. What about more pragmatically? What political or economic reasons could the colonists, not to mention Britain and Protestantism, have for supporting literacy?

In Ben Eklof’s (excellent) study of peasant schools in post-emancipation Russia, he argues that the state, on one hand, wanted peasant children to learn how to be better citizens of the motherland, both morally and ethically. The children’s parents, on the other, only wanted their children to achieve a level of practical literacy and ignored the rest of the school’s instruction. In a population where education was new, let alone literacy, parents considered the act of reading aloud from the prayer book and keeping one’s own accounts enough education for a peasant farmer—it was their own “peasant pedagogy.” Here, like in Monaghan’s work, the family was central to literacy; however, Eklof adds the state as well. In fact the familial and the political were combatants, fighting over the minds of these children. Though there was not a state at this point in America, there was a government and a certain social structure that may have benefited from this focus on literacy, an avenue which Monaghan does not explore. Perhaps pragmatic rationale are outside of her scope, although she does occasionally touch upon the political impact of literacy. For example, teaching the Wampanoags how to read served a religious purpose, missionary work, and a civilizing purpose, the introduction of Western modes of thought. However, concluding similarly to Eklof, Wampanoags did learned to read—most rejecting the religious and civilizing message, but some did not. There are profound political implications here which Monaghan does not explore: why, for example, target this particular group? Was it purely the desire to Christianize? Or could the educators have a more pragmatic reason?

Enslaved, literate people offer an interesting reversal of this message. Monaghan takes what is usually seen as a political reason for not educating slaves—educated slaves, it goes, run the risk of using their literacy to contemplate their own freedom—and makes it familial. Some families educated their slaves and some did not; some families educated some of their slaves and some slaves educated themselves. Meanwhile the Quakers in Pennsylvania connected slavery and literacy in a different way. The abolition of slavery was a reason for white school children to learn how to read, so that they could speak out against the practice. Connecting the family in this way to literacy while also acknowledging the role of the state is when Monaghan’s argument is at its strongest. Like E. P. Thompson’s clock, literacy was a regulator of modern life, a “hallmark of the free”[2] which, as Monaghan argues, was the basis for self-identity in colonial America and, I would add, the nation.



[1] E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Worcester, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 367.

[2] Monaghan, 8.

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