When did mass literacy (or universal literacy) become possible?

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,501
Florania
#1
Mass education is a prerequisite to end the rule of the elite or the privileged class;
then, until the Industrial Revolution, literacy was limited to the small class of elite.
In China, the rule of the scholarly class was assumed, especially before the
introduction of Civil Exams. Note that Civil Exams were introduced during the Sui Dynasty.
This door of opportunity was limited; the number of educated people remained very limited,
and in China, almost all educated people devoted their time and energy for Civil Exams, and
some consider this as the hindrance for Chinese technological development.
In Europe, Gutenberg printing press was considered the first step towards mass production
of books; initially, it was the mass publication of classical texts and the Anthology of Yahweh
(the Bible).
The availability of texts increased the possibility of education; then, universal literacy is
relatively recent even in the West.
Why is mass education relatively recent?
When was basic education considered a right?
Did industrialization help to increase literacy? If so, how?
 
Likes: Futurist
Mar 2018
737
UK
#2
Firstly, the printing press is all but an absolute necessity. Without it, there simply isn't enough to read for there to be any substantial use for mass literacy IMO.

But that is not enough. You need society to be rich enough that children can go to school rather than work, until they are roughly 10 years old or so. Basic literacy can be done at age 6 but if you want it to stick long term you need a few more years. You also need enough surplus wealth to train and hire a lot of teachers. This wealth could be collected and spent on a local level (i.e. parish church schools) or on a national level (i.e. public state schools). In both cases you need the political will (on a local or national level respectively) to decide that this is worth spending money on and redistribute wealth this way. As I see it, both the need for money and willingness to spend it on education is an industrial revolution thing as it (obviously) creates far more wealth than before, and increases the complexity of work such that reading becomes more important.

As an aside, having a simple writing system also helps a lot. There's a reason Korea reached mass literacy with their new alphabet very quickly, while China struggled with Mandarin for a very long time.
 
Likes: Futurist
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
#3
Apart from Korea, which is an interesting example I don't know much about but which might well have also had something close to universal literacy, the first examples of universal literacy are more or less from the wake of the Reformation in Europe. The protestant settlers who came to the northern US were basically all literate, from what I've understood. Sweden reached mass literacy in the late 17th century/ early 18th century after a series of government reforms. Some German states are probably similar. Reading and writing are not necessarily the same though...

There was an interesting thread about a similar question a couple of months ago....
 
Likes: Futurist

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,501
Florania
#4
Firstly, the printing press is all but an absolute necessity. Without it, there simply isn't enough to read for there to be any substantial use for mass literacy IMO.

But that is not enough. You need society to be rich enough that children can go to school rather than work, until they are roughly 10 years old or so. Basic literacy can be done at age 6 but if you want it to stick long term you need a few more years. You also need enough surplus wealth to train and hire a lot of teachers. This wealth could be collected and spent on a local level (i.e. parish church schools) or on a national level (i.e. public state schools). In both cases you need the political will (on a local or national level respectively) to decide that this is worth spending money on and redistribute wealth this way. As I see it, both the need for money and willingness to spend it on education is an industrial revolution thing as it (obviously) creates far more wealth than before, and increases the complexity of work such that reading becomes more important.

As an aside, having a simple writing system also helps a lot. There's a reason Korea reached mass literacy with their new alphabet very quickly, while China struggled with Mandarin for a very long time.
Why is Japanese fictional literature much better known than Korean fictional literature?
Today, Chinese web literature is mushrooming (I still have quite a long queue; than, library ebooks first because they have a limited loan.)
 

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,847
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
#6
Mass education is a prerequisite to end the rule of the elite or the privileged class;
then, until the Industrial Revolution, literacy was limited to the small class of elite...
Your statement that until the Industrial Revolution literacy was limited to the small class of elite" is not exactly correct, depending on differences.

For example, graffiti in many ancient and medieval sites around the world is evidence of more or less widespread education. in particular graffiti in the Roman Empire indicate that education and literacy was common in the cities and towns.

As I remember, the biography of St. William of Norwich (2 February 1132-c. 22 March 1144) claims that his parents taught him to read and write. That biography, The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, was written in several volumes by Thomas of Monmouth starting in 1149/50 and up to 7 volumes by 1173. So it was considered routine for city and townspeople to teach boys to read and write in England in the 12th centuries.

Of course the population of cities and towns was a small percentage of the total population of England in the 12th century. But during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period cities and towns got larger and contained a larger percentage of the population.

Furthermore, all Christian priests in western Europe were, or were supposed to be, fluent in Latin during late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and into the Modern Era. And there were numerous monks and nuns in those eras, and some of them were highly educated scholars.

Therefore, literacy might have been much less than universal, while also much more widespread than merely restricted to "the small class of elite" during various periods before the Industrial Revolution.
 

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,501
Florania
#7
Your statement that until the Industrial Revolution literacy was limited to the small class of elite" is not exactly correct, depending on differences.

For example, graffiti in many ancient and medieval sites around the world is evidence of more or less widespread education. in particular graffiti in the Roman Empire indicate that education and literacy was common in the cities and towns.

As I remember, the biography of St. William of Norwich (2 February 1132-c. 22 March 1144) claims that his parents taught him to read and write. That biography, The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, was written in several volumes by Thomas of Monmouth starting in 1149/50 and up to 7 volumes by 1173. So it was considered routine for city and townspeople to teach boys to read and write in England in the 12th centuries.

Of course the population of cities and towns was a small percentage of the total population of England in the 12th century. But during the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period cities and towns got larger and contained a larger percentage of the population.

Furthermore, all Christian priests in western Europe were, or were supposed to be, fluent in Latin during late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and into the Modern Era. And there were numerous monks and nuns in those eras, and some of them were highly educated scholars.

Therefore, literacy might have been much less than universal, while also much more widespread than merely restricted to "the small class of elite" during various periods before the Industrial Revolution.
Thank you for the input!
Graffiti might constitute a form of literature here; some of such were/are found on walls of public washrooms, and the term "washroom literature"
is formed.
How common is "graffiti literature" in the past and today?