‘The Modern History of Literacy'

Vincent, David (2019). ‘The Modern History of Literacy'. In: Rury, John L. and Tamura, Eileen eds. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Education. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 507–522.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199340033.013.30


The chapter examines the invention of literacy as a category and the spread of reading and writing in Europe and North America in the modern era. It reviews the growth of signature literacy and the need to view the skill as a social as well as an individual possession. It examines the role of the church and the state in the provision of schooling and stresses the importance of informal, demand-led education throughout much of the period. The spread of popular literature provided both the materials for learning to read and an incentive to practice the skills. The analysis challenges the arguments that the industrial revolution significantly damaged the spread of literacy and that literacy was a key generator of economic growth. Rather the interaction between occupations and reading and writing was patchy, with only a minority of working-class jobs requiring formal communication skills by 1900.

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