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


Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
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
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
Upland, Sweden
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