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Defining Literacy: A Historical Examination

Updated on May 8, 2014
Ballads like this would have been affordable and available to a broader reading audience than leather bound books.
Ballads like this would have been affordable and available to a broader reading audience than leather bound books. | Source

The word literacy is most commonly used in one of two different ways: a narrow sense and a broad sense. In its narrowest definition, literacy refers specifically to the ability to read and write. More broadly, literacy can also be used to denote familiarity and competence with regards to a wide range of subjects. In this case, the term is frequently preceded by an adjective, as seen in terms like “financial literacy,” “cultural literacy,” “computer literacy,” etc. However, beyond these two fairly obvious, common uses of the term, a closer examination of the idea of literacy reveals hidden complications. Although a truly comprehensive exploration of such complications is likely beyond the scope of any short essay, one can begin to understand them—and perhaps come to grips with the limitations of such a vague term as literacy—by considering the subject through the lens of a historian.

If asked to examine literacy from a historical perspective, most people could venture at least one statement with near-certainty: that it is increasing. We are frequently told that people who lived in earlier times were illiterate. We are quite lucky, says the conventional wisdom, because in medieval times (or Roman times, or the Renaissance, or Ancient Egypt), the vast majority of people were illiterate. Only a privileged class—be it the wealthy, the educated, the clergy, or scribes—could engage with written language in the way most modern people do on a daily basis. Instead, they relied on oral tradition. So the broad generalization goes, and for the most part, it is accurate.

However, a closer examination of what this illiteracy might mean poses some problems for historians. For example, how are we to gauge the educational attainment of people who lived hundreds of years ago? Often, this is done through examining written records, particularly legal documents like marriage contracts, to see whether the parties involved signed their names or merely marked an “x” instead. While the simple, conventional definition of the word literacy might allow us to regard those employing a signature as “literate” and those preferring an “x” as “illiterate,” some deeper thought would acknowledge serious flaws in this approach. First, it assumes that the only possible reason a person might sign with an “x” is the lack of ability to write one’s name, when the hastiness that leads many modern people to sign with illegible loops and squiggles might be an equally plausible explanation in some cases. Second, and far more significantly, it assumes that literacy is an all-or-nothing, black-and-white term—that the signor was either literate or illiterate, with no shades of gray in between.

This second assumption can be highly misleading. Although modern ideas of literacy tend to assume that one who can read is also able to write, this has not always been the case. Before a number of historical changes like the widespread adoption of democracy, the rise of public schooling, and the advancement of print technology, reading was a more common skill than writing, especially for marginalized people. It was therefore historical phenomena that produced our current, comprehensive definition of literacy, as the need for an educated electorate and workforce necessitated widespread reading and writing. Furthermore, this process was helped along by technological innovations such as the printing press, which allowed for the cheap and easy production and dissemination of books, newspapers, and other written texts. With this boom in publishing, both recreational reading and ambitions of authorship spread to the masses.

Prior to these innovations, only certain portions of the population were taught to write. For example, in ancient Mesopotamia, the earliest writers were elite scribes trained in cuneiform. Their primary occupation was the highly specialized and technical task of transcribing information onto clay tablets, a feat reserved exclusively for professionals. While such a system may seem quite alien in modern times, it lasted for millennia. Although writing did become somewhat more common over the years, it was still regarded as a specialized, professional craft even in early modern Europe. There, while not limited solely to scribes, it was usually reserved for those connected to powerful institutions in some way, such as the clergy, the aristocracy, and certain middle class professionals such as lawyers. Wider access to writing—and even more so, to publishing—was considered unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

However, throughout history, it has sometimes been thought beneficial for the less powerful, including the peasantry, women, and other disenfranchised groups, to be able to read at least a little. This would give them access to texts for self-improvement, including the Bible and other content approved by the powers able to produce and publish written material. Such people did likely benefit from an oral tradition and visuals like the stained glass windows so frequently cited as religious teaching aids for illiterate people. However, the existence of mass produced ballads, self-improvement literature, cookbooks for the common housewife, and other such early texts indicate a larger common readership than is often supposed. Additionally, this readership appears to have been female in disproportionate degree to the number of “literate” women discoverable through the signature test.

A further examination might consider other questions about the signature test, such as whether those able to write their own names were actually able to write anything else. Were they able to fully understand the function of the alphabet they were employing, or did they simply know the shape of their name and draw it like they might any other symbol? However, the questions and challenges above are sufficient by themselves to indicate the need for critical thought regarding precisely what is meant by the term literacy in different contexts. While we tend to assume that it entails an ability to read and write, this ignores a consideration of degree. Although most literate people today can both produce and interpret text, it is quite possible to possess ability in one area and not the other. Readers and writers may also experience different degrees of skill and comfort in reading and writing, making literacy at best a general blanket category that requires specification. It is especially important not to let a lazy, static, and uncritical definition of the word—or any other—lead to hasty assumptions, as it could if applied to the signature test.


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