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Right? Wrong.

In E.G. West’s Education and the State, we learn that (HT to David Henderson in his excellent Joy of Freedom):

  • Thomas Malthus, one of Earth’s original doomsdayers worried about population growth, was miffed at how widespread the sales of Thomas Paine’s the Rights of Man were. In England, with a population of 10 million, the book is thought to have sold 1.5 million copies. Let’s put that in perspective, a book this popular in America today would have to sell the equivalent of 46.2 million copies. Have any books sold this much? And remember that literacy in modern America is very near universal.
  • Between 1837 and 1839 in England, almost half of those tried for crimes were able to read. This obviously understates how widespread literacy must have been.
  • The paupers in England lived in “workhouses.” For children living in Norfolk and Suffolk in 1838, 87 percent of children between the ages of 9 and 16 could read while 53 percent could write.
  • In 1840, 53 percent of coal miners in Northumberland and Durham could read and write, while 79 percent could read.
  • In England in 1833, 1.3 million children managed to attend school out of a total British population (including adults) of 14.5 million. Not bad for a country 15 times as poor as modern America and virtually no public subsidy.

It couldn’t possibly be the case that people managed to pay for their children to learn to read or write. Nah. It couldn’t possibly be the case that numerous private organizations taught children to read.  It couldn’t possibly be the case that a single man in the early 19th century could manage to teach 1000 people to read each year … all by himself. Nah – maybe I’ll make up a post about a mythical British creature that was able to do exactly that using 10th century technologies.

That was in England. West’s book has tons more data. What about here in the US?

  • Noah Webster’s Spelling Book is thought to have sold 5 million copies in the US at a time when its population was 20 million. This would mean that today, he would be able to sell 76 million copies? Is that possible? How many copies of Capitalism and Freedom sold in its entire history? Less than a million. How many copies of The Road to Serfdom? Less than a million (I believe).
  • “The situation in America roughly parallels that in England. In 1650, male literacy in America was 60%. Between 1800 and 1840, literacy in the Northern States increased from 75% to 90%, and in Southern States from 60% to 81%. These increases transpired before the famous Common School Movement led by Horace Mann caught steam. Massachusetts had reached a level of 98% literacy in 1850. This occurred before the state’s compulsory education law of 1852. Senator Edward Kennedy’s office released a paper in the 1980s stating that literacy in Massachusetts was only 91%.”

Impressive, no? Especially since you can make the claim that 1 in 7 Americans in a country making $45,000 per year per person have trouble reading anything more than a children’s picture book. Of course, if we only had “universal” public schooling that problem would be solved.


One Response to “Without Government Union Schooling, No One Would Read or Write”

  1. Harry says:

    From my practical experience, there are more people than you think who read at the same level as my second-grade class in our one room schoolhouse. This is appalling to me.

    I’d settle for much less from government than everybody being exposed to Hayek in high school, but it is worth noting that my history teacher took us to Temple one evening to a discussion of the Road to Serfdom. We were seventeen-year olds — imagine that? We also went to Temple to hear Toynbee. Both evenings I remember vividly. Which makes your point, Wintercow.

    This was private school. Not Andover, but Pennsey Prep. My history teacher got his degree from the Naval Academy; my English teacher, who got blown up in a tank in WWII got his degree from Dartmouth; my math teacher, perhaps the world’s greatest, got his degrees from Lehigh, and may have been the only teacher in the school qualified to teach in the government schools.

    This is not to say all government schools are bad. Rather, couldn’t they all benefit from competition?

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