Crone, Rosalind (2016). Literacy. In: John, Juliet ed. Oxford Bibliographies: Victorian Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Critical to an understanding of Victorian literature is an awareness of the participants in literate culture. Hence the importance of the study of literacy. Moreover, the 19th century marked the period when many Western states, including the United Kingdom, achieved mass literacy. This process was far from homogeneous or straightforward. Yet its consequence produced the transformation and unprecedented expansion of literate culture and a revolution in communication. Literacy comprises two skills: the ability to read and the ability to write. An awareness of these two components is important because even well into the 19th century, the skills were taught separately and sequentially. The existence of large numbers of readers has complicated definitions of literacy and attempts by historians to measure its presence in society. Moreover, closely related to literacy is numeracy, or the ability to count and do basic arithmetic. As the 19th century progressed numeracy gained increasing prominence in drives to educate the masses as arithmetic was joined with reading and writing to form the triumvirate of the 3Rs. However, the study of numeracy is not included in this article, in part because, at the present time (2015), numeracy has received scant attention from scholars and also because the skills of reading and writing dominated the attention of 19th-century commentators and policymakers and were used to establish a dividing line between the ignorant and the civilized. The study of literacy in the 19th century has occupied scholars from a range of disciplines (including the social sciences, education, literature, and history) as well as subdisciplines (including social and cultural history, book history, the history of reading, and the history of writing). Because of this multidisciplinary interest, a diverse range of methods has been employed to uncover the scale and assess the impact of the expansion of literacy between c. 1750 and c. 1950. The broad interest is also reflective of the importance of literacy as a field of study in its own right. Scholars have shown how the study of literacy helps us to understand the growth of the state, the nature of the state’s relationship with its citizens, the operation of agency by individuals, and the nature of the emergence of modernity. Furthermore, David Vincent in “The Invention of Counting: The Statistical Measurement of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England’ (Vincent 2014, cited under Alternative Perspectives on Counting) and Harvey Graff in Labyrinths of Literacy: Reflections on Literacy Past and Present (1995) demonstrate the usefulness of studies of 19th-century literacy to debates about literacy today: The 19th century not only provides a laboratory for learning about literacy (Graff), but also creates a legacy of counting and language of assessment that continues to shape public policies (Vincent).

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