Literacy Proficiency and a Free Press Equals Healthy, Successful Societies – A Comparison, Then and Now

Tis to ye Press & Pen we Morals owe
All we believe & almost all we know.

The short poem above is attributed to George Fisher’s 1748 book, The Instructor; or, American Young Man’s Best Companion.

Perhaps high literacy levels, or the press and the pen, contributed to a successful American Revolution as well. For, as Kenneth Lockridge wrote in Literacy in Colonial New England, literacy levels rose from 60 to 90% between 1758 and 1787.  This rate was high by European standards, for as scholar F.W.. Grubb notes:  “Of all European countries perhaps only Scotland surpassed America in literacy by 1800. Not only had the European literacy revolution been transplanted to the American periphery during the colonial period, but colonial literacy had somehow leaped past that of northwestern Europe.”  Founding Father Thomas Jefferson wisely noted in the 1770s:

Those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that

the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate,as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.

Jefferson also wrote: “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

Can we say that all is safe in America in the 21st Century?

Thomas Jefferson helped our country grow an education garden, of sorts!  Illustration by S.D. Schindler,
Thomas Jefferson helped our country grow an education garden, of sorts! Illustration by S.D. Schindler,

While UNESCO relates that 99% of US citizens are literate, just the remaining 1% leaves nearly 3,330,000 who cannot read!  And, of those who can read in that 99%, how many are proficient enough to be successful in our complex society?  The 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress results revealed that only one-third of eighth grade students are in fact at or above proficient in reading.  Obviously, “the above-average performance of U.S. students on international comparisons does not necessarily mean that their literacy skills are adequate or satisfactory for the demands of the modern economy and modern democracy.” ( Reardon, Valentino & Shores, 2013)

Certainly, not all is safe, when 36 million adults read below the third grade level while major newspapers (thankfully, still free to express opinions as they wish) are written at 7th grade (USA Today) to 13th grade (college freshman) levels (New York Times).

Perhaps the USA should be placing 686 billion dollars (the proposed 2018 military budget) into literacy efforts in order to keep us safe as well. !!