In this question, one of the answers stated that

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.

Was there ever a literate ruling class which used the illiteracy of lower classed people as a means of control?

  • Perhaps the Chinese Mandarin? There task was administration, so they report written commands and control if everybody follows the commands. – knut Dec 14 '14 at 11:05
  • 1
    @knut their "main task" was administration, though. But "had literacy as its main task" is just not a very clear or objectively defined criteria. And there's quite a leap to go from "main task" to the title of "oppress the population". – Semaphore Dec 14 '14 at 11:27
  • Does this work better? – March Ho Dec 14 '14 at 11:28
  • Aren't you really asking whether a ruling class had ever used illiteracy of the masses as a means of control? – Semaphore Dec 14 '14 at 11:30
  • 2
    The question is obviously being interpreted variously and in different ways. So it needs to defined more clearly. – Rajib Dec 15 '14 at 1:57

The slaveholding colonies and states of the American South are one such example, where the slaveholding class used illiteracy as a way to make it easier to control the enslaved population.

An act from South Carolina of 1740 made it a fineable offense to teach slaves to read or write:

Whereas, the having slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it enacted, that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe, in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write, every such person or persons shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds, current money.

Similarly, the Virginia Revised Act of 1819 threatened with up to twenty lashes any slave who tried to learn to read or write:

That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY; and any justice of a county, &c., wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge or the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage, &c., may issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblages, &c., may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.


Nat Turner's revolt of 1831 -- and the spread of abolitionist literature -- led to a rash of new or strengthened anti-literacy laws in the South, in states including Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi. Related to this fear of abolitionist literature, in 1835 several states also made it illegal for the postal service to deliver this literature.

Keep in mind that on the eve of the Civil War, the enslaved percentage of the population was as high as 57%. This makes southern anti-literacy laws a clear example of a ruling class using illiteracy to make it harder for a more numerous, enslaved class to coordinate resistance or even question the status quo.

Former slaves and northern Republicans recognized that literacy and public education would be needed if former slaves were to defend their rights in the post-war South. This is why establishing public education in the South was a major goal for Republicans during Reconstruction. Southern legislatures resisted funding those schools that served black Southerners when possible.


I interpret the question as, "where and when in world history, was the lack of literacy of a population held against it, despite other qualities?

One example was in 14th century England, where religious dissenters known as "lollards" were attacked, not for their religious beliefs (per se), but for the ignorance (of Latin) and the Latin catechism.

Another example was the Chinese examination system. Basically, no one could rise to a rank of any authority unless they passed certain scholastic tests. This discriminated against "street smart" people who were ignorant of the "classics."

In the American South, after the Civil War, literacy tests were used to disqualify African-Americans, and sometimes poor whites from voting.


If you replace "literacy" with "access to information" you find that many governments were and are doing that to varying extent. The prime example today is North Korea that controls its people in part by controlling information. Another modern example is Russia that recently assumed government control over media that let it disseminate enough disinformation about the current events to gain 85% support for an array of heinous acts that only a couple years ago would be unthinkable. Something similar happened in many countries in 20th century: Orwellian control over information in lieu of control over literacy.


You have two contradicting questions. Literacy makes a people more aware and restless. The British tried to impose English language with the aim of making a class of Indians who were Indian in look but English in character.

However, it backfired and only served to hasten the demise of the British Raj and more importantly it has helped ease linguistic tensions within India after independence when it was adopted as an official language of the Federal government.

This was so because English was Indianised to serve Indian needs. Indian literature was developed, we had our own dialect and our scientific achievements only served to deepen the Indian love affair with the English language. This is despite the sufferings of Indians under the British Raj. Visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macaulayism

  • 3
    Can you explain what you mean by "two contradicting questions"? Also, your answer seems to discuss how the British made the Indians literate in English by introducing English education, which led to them becoming aware, restless, and finally independent. This doesn't seem to be an answer to the question, which asked for ruling classes withholding literacy. – March Ho Dec 14 '14 at 20:19
  • 1
    The first the time question is as follows: Where in the world was literacy used as a tool to oppress the population by higher social classes? The second time: Was there ever a literate ruling class which used the illiteracy of lower classed people as a means of control? The first question is ambiguous. The second question is clear. I didn't read the second question later. You should have written your first question better to match the second question. So I wrote an answer in which I used Macaulay's example to show how enforcing literacy was used as state policy to control the public. – user8718 Dec 14 '14 at 22:33
  • @DhirajEadara the question is clearly about withholding and NOT enforcing. In any case Macaulay's intention was not controlling- even by post-colonial perspectives. – Rajib Dec 15 '14 at 0:55
  • @DhirajEadara Thanks for pointing it out, that was the initial question which was corrected after discussion. I have now modified the original question. – March Ho Dec 15 '14 at 8:21
  • @Rajib. The first question should have been "Was illiteracy ever used as a tool to oppress the population by higher social classes? " In any case, just to be sure, I provided two answers. Also I disagree with your views. Macaulay was a believer in white man's burden and believed that Englishness was civilising force just like Romanisation was in the Roman Empire. I am not aware of any post-colonial perspectives outside the UK of such sort. For more info, you can check out the following interview "youtube.com/…" – user8718 Dec 15 '14 at 9:39

Many countries, if not most, try to oppress minority populations through various means. Lack of access to education is one of them. Colombia and other South American states are guilty of this. Similary, Indonesia has refused to allow education to Papua and some parts of Sulawesi. The local tribes are iliterate at best and don't know what is going around the world. They normally don't protest except when their habitat is threatened.

Countries like North Korea have most likely a highly literate population. But they don't allow access to modern education or even facilities for gaining information. they are not illiterate per se. They are just not up-to-date.

Again in India, certain high-caste members refuse to let the low-caste children to school. They fear their literacy will make them more aware and more conscious of their constitutional rights. But this is not deliberate state policy or even legal.

  • 2
    Your answer is loaded with political views and don't seem to deal with history. – Rajib Dec 15 '14 at 1:16
  • Could you elaborate? – user8718 Dec 15 '14 at 9:44
  • When you discuss contemporary situations it does not deal with history. When you express views such as "they are not illiterate per se. They are just not up-to-date" it is meaningless and opinionated. Back up your claim that they are not up to date. What does that even mean? When you talk of high caste attitude in India at present, you are expressing a political view- not a historical view. If you wish to say that historically the high caste has oppressed- say it in context and with backing data. – Rajib Dec 15 '14 at 13:04
  • OK. How about this? Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar opened up Sanskrit education for women and low-caste persons. Before the Brahmins refused to admit non-Brahmins to Sanskrit education so that they couldn't contribute to eradicating caste barriers. I only used the present tense to highlight a continuing problem. And FYI, if the UN has reported on this problem then I don't think it can be "meaningless and opinionated". – user8718 Dec 15 '14 at 13:11
  • Your answer did not deal with history. "Continuing problems" ARE politics. If you wish, we can continue on chat. Do not use comments for extended discussions. – Rajib Dec 15 '14 at 13:17

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.