I've heard that people in the United States were mostly literate before Government took over education and literacy rates have been on the decline since. I haven't been able to find any proof of this idea. Likely I don't know where to look.

I don't doubt the second part, with literacy rates so low today, but I still wonder, if not to educate people better than the free market was, why federalize the education of children?

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    Public schools were not established in america all at once. That doesn't mean some interesting trends can't be gleaned, but there wasn't an "instant" at which public schools were made a reality, as the question seems to imply.
    – Flimzy
    Commented Nov 12, 2011 at 10:30
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    Considering the stratification of the society up to the point where Public Education started the literacy rate was pretty low. Education was only for those who could afford it at that time. Potentially why they established public education in the first place, and even then it wasn't very comprehensive overall. The Federalization was more to generate standards, but I don't have sources available to go over that.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Nov 12, 2011 at 12:06
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    This looks like a political thesis looking for historical support; you might want to change it to be more neutral. Also, check for varying definitions of literacy over time, and the population it's measured over. Commented Nov 12, 2011 at 19:22
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    @Noldorin since he is mentioning American literacy he has to mean the American public educational system, which we just consider as public schools. State Schools generally means State Colleges in the US
    – MichaelF
    Commented Nov 13, 2011 at 14:39
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    Ok...after some time with this question I am downvoting until you can edit the question to note where you came up with this. "I've heard" what? From whom? I'd like a basis for this.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Nov 14, 2011 at 12:50

1 Answer 1


According to this government site, illiteracy has been shrinking almost steadily from 1870 on (with one little hiccup between 1947 and 1950). According to Wikipedia, the US had a very high literacy rate in 1870, and this was during the creation of a national public school system. With increasing school availability and legal requirements to attend, it appears that illiteracy has gone down.

Therefore, the question has factual inaccuracies. The current illiteracy rate is very low, and has declined during a period of expansion of public education.

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    depends on how you define literacy. Just because someone graduated school, doesn't mean they are functionally literate, at least in proper English. If you ever look at Facebook comments, you'll see that there's literate and there's... "was allowed to get out of school".
    – DVK
    Commented Nov 19, 2011 at 18:29
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    @DVK: Sure, but has the definition of "literacy" changed? As far as I can tell, there have always been the barely literate, but just writing is easier now. It's conceivable that the actual literacy rate, measured by some unvarying standard, has actually gone down, but I'd think that's something for the OP to demonstrate. Commented Nov 21, 2011 at 15:10
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    The naal site David referenced actually shows the definition of literacy used in 2003. As you can see, the lowest category (Below Basic) actually includes people who would likely have been considered literate a couple hundred years ago, ie they have "no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills."
    – Rose Ames
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 20:25

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