This question continues from Literacy in the classical world

It seems that literacy rates for populations prior to mass education becoming prevalent were estimated to be 20% or lower. However, it can clearly be observed (when learning new languages) that literacy (as defined as being able to read and write in a given language's script) is often far easier than fluency.

For example, the Hangeul script was derided by Chinese-educated Korean scholars as being trivially easy to learn, being designed for ease of study. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hangul#Other_names It was given names such as "script you can learn in a day" . Despite this, censuses taken during and after the Japanese colonialisation era showed that prior to aggressive governmental efforts to push literacy by implementing mass education, literacy rates were extremely low. http://fightforjustice.info/?page_id=3174&lang=en

The percentage of South Koreans unable to read decreased sharply from 77.8% in 1945 to 41.3% in 1948, down to and 13.9% in 1954.

Similar arguments can probably be made for European alphabet-based scripts such as Latin, Greek and Cyrillic, which were not significantly harder to read and write than Hangeul (which was only easy to achieve literacy compared to Chinese)

Since we can assume that people living in communities would need to be fluent in a common spoken language to communicate with each other, the fluency rate would then be very high. Why then, was literacy so low prior to the advent of mass education, when literacy was clearly highly beneficial? Were there any artificial barriers to entry that caused this low literacy rate?

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    What is the history question here? And what is not obvious about literacy increasing with greater amount of available education?
    – Rajib
    Dec 13, 2014 at 14:56
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    What is "so low"? What would be an acceptable figure? And why should unavailability of written text as compulsory study be not a sufficient reason for low literacy?
    – Rajib
    Dec 13, 2014 at 15:04
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    "The percentage of South Koreans unable to read decreased sharply from 77.8% in 1945 to 41.3% in 1948, down to and 13.9% in 1954." -- in what sense is this a "slow progress"?
    – Semaphore
    Dec 13, 2014 at 15:58
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    "Why is literacy difficult" strikes me as a question for a psychologist or neuroscientist. I'm also unclear what an "artificial barrier to entry" is, since I've only seen that language used in terms of market entry. Aren't you really asking, "Why didn't such-and-such a state put more resources into education?"
    – two sheds
    Dec 13, 2014 at 16:02
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    There is no reason to think that it "should be significantly faster". 36.5% in 3 years is astonishingly fast. How long did it take you to learn to read?
    – Semaphore
    Dec 13, 2014 at 16:11

2 Answers 2


Subsistence farmers don’t need to read a calendar to go about their business. The knowledge they need can be passed down very effectively in oral form. If they practice shifting cultivation, as is still done in many parts of the world, they don’t actually own the land they farm, so inheritance in our terms isn’t an issue.

What’s more, usually the “common spoken language” of such communities differs significantly from that which is represented in writing. In effect, learning to write means learning a new dialect/language, which requires people who speak that language to come to the community/village and set up a school. For widespread literacy, a whole infrastructure of schools manned by people who speak the central language is needed. Such projects must be carried out by states. Historians who have studied this (cf. “Peasants into Frenchmen” by Eugen Weber) argue that in bringing about widespread literacy, states in effect create “nations.” Actually, states can interact well enough with their subjects in the villages without widespread literacy. It helps to have someone literate who can read decrees to the peasants, demand their produce or labor etc. But that role can be filled by some intermediate class, effectively a tiny percentage of the population. Having too many literate people actually makes the system more difficult to manage.

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    My argument is that there has to be some form of suppression, otherwise the ability to read almanacs, something that is easier to learn than an entire language, would clearly be highly beneficial to subsistence farmers. The case study at hand is post-WW2 South Korea, where slavery has long been outlawed, and therefore inheritance would also be a valid concern.
    – March Ho
    Dec 13, 2014 at 18:33
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    You're proposing hegemony in knowledge. Ask this as a separate question.
    – Rajib
    Dec 13, 2014 at 18:49
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    @MarchHo There's a difference between "literacy" and being completely unable to recognise even a few words. Many people probably could read the calendar, for example; but they wouldn't make heads or tails of a government legislation, hence "illiterate".
    – Semaphore
    Dec 13, 2014 at 19:34
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    You appear to be confusing learning a script with functional literacy. You may recognise the letters b, l, u, but you are a long way from combining those letters into a word meaning the family bull, let alone constructing a simple sentence such as "Beware of the bull!"
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 13, 2014 at 19:35
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    @MarchHo: Think of dyslexia. From the point of view of the brain, fluency and literacy are distinct (though related) skills. That is, you still need to be taught to read, even if you speak a language and recognize 26-some written symbols.
    – two sheds
    Dec 13, 2014 at 19:51

You have to balance the difficulty of learning the writing system against the benefits to an individual for them to do so.

On the difficulty side, one easy thing to look at is the number of glyphs that have to be memorized. The first writing systems were pictographic and logographic. In essence, nearly every word had its own glyph. To give you an idea of what that entails, the OED estimates that there are about 180,000 words in common use in their dictionary, and perhaps a quarter of a million more they don't cover. Memorizing the meaning of that many glyphs is a huge challenge. Much of East Asia (iow: a large percentage of humanity) still uses a writing system like this today. For these people, literacy is tougher.

Alphabets on the other extreme only try to use one glyph per phoneme in the language. That restricts them to their language, but it lessens the number of glyphs to memorize down to a more manageable 20-30.

The other side of the equation is benefit. Simply, what does a person gain by being literate to offset the effort it takes? In a world where all written works have to be hand-copied by a human being, books were a luxury available only to the wealthy. If you didn't have a lot of money, or couldn't find employment as a professional scribe for those same wealthy people, there would be no real use for being able to read (and your access to written materials to practice with would be limited as well).

What changed the equation was the printing press. This dropped the price of copying enough that the common man could have access to written materials. The first practical working one started operating in Europe in the mid-1400's. The Renaissance quickly followed.

  • +1 for covering a number of great points. However, the case study involved Hangeul (with a simple, non-logographic alphabet), in 1945, after the invention and popularisation of the printing press.
    – March Ho
    Dec 13, 2014 at 23:19
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    @MarchHo - Hangul has a very interesting history (It was created around 1440 to be a system the common folk would be capable of using, and was so effective that it ended up getting banned fifty years later for being subversive). However, you have to admit that Korea's literacy numbers in the 20th century were probably heavily affected by the various imperialist wars and occupations being carried out in their territory. Being in a war zone isn't very inductive to a good education.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 14, 2014 at 2:18

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