There have been times as literacy was not obligatory. So, many people were not able to read/write in their mother tongue, but it was just normal.

Today, most people are literate, and this is a result of mandatory state policies as far as I know in most countries on planet Earth.

The state alone has not created literacy, but today it's a state policy.

What are the milestones in the creation of state literacy policies?

From what I can read on Wikipedia, it addresses the history of literacy itself but I do not see there references to state policies.

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    Compulsory public education may be useful or Wikipedia for China
    – MCW
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:10
  • @MarkC.Wallace a short review but helpful! Thank you. What about China?
    – J. Doe
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:14

1 Answer 1


It sounds like you are referring to compulsory education.

By and large, compulsory education appears to be a trailing indicator of heavy literacy, not a leading one. In other words, once a critical mass of people in a society become literate, it becomes seen as a necessity to function in society (either for the child, for society, or a combination of the two, I think is up for debate).

There's a really nice interactive graph of world literacy rates at Our World In Data that I've screenshotted at 1870 below.

enter image description here

Why 1870? This is not only the first year we have data for the US, but also one of the last datapoints before a lot of the nations on this graph began compulsory education. Specifically, for the 5 countries that gave data that year graph, the compulsory education enactment timeline was:

  • The USA enacted it by state. The only states that had CE in 1870(PDF) were Massachusetts, DC, and Vermont.
  • Scotland made education compulsory in 1872. England and Wales didn't have it until 1880.
  • France made it compulsory in 1882.
  • Sweden made it compulsory 1842.
  • Italy got it in 1869

So of the 5 countries listed on that graph popup, only Italy had yet to achieve at least 2/3rds of their citizens literate before compulsory education was enacted. Sweden was the first of the 5 to enact it, but it was also already the most literate of the 5 at the date it did so.

  • awesome! what about China?
    – J. Doe
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:16
  • @J.Doe - From the link I gave, it looks like China didn't have CE until the early 1980's (yes, that's no typo. That's meant to be a '9'). The assorted graphs I'm finding online (I don't know how trustworthy they are) seem to indicate their adult literacy was right at 2/3rds at that time, and is somewhere north of 95% now.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:21
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    So (theorizing here) perhaps around 2/3rds is the point where a society has reached a critical mass of literacy to the point where its deemed necessary?
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:29
  • 2/3 even if that could be some kind of "nature law for literacy", it's interesting to learn what were the triggers that some powerful people have realized that and decided that it's could be of use (instead of thinking the opposite for example)
    – J. Doe
    Apr 2, 2020 at 14:41
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    Italy is kind of a special case: as a country it started existing only in 1861, and before that Piedmont-Sardinia already had compulsory education. Essentially they tried to extend the system to the whole peninsula without modifications, which worked ok-ish in the North (which was after all rather similar to Piedmont) but horribly in the South (especially leaving the funding to the local municipalities just straight up didn't work in the much poorer South). Apr 2, 2020 at 14:57

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